1) Homer at the Bat
Either the best Simpsons sporting episode or simply the best Simpsons episode. Ironically, while relying on a slew of stilted celebrity cameos has marked this great comedy’s decline, 1992’s Homer at the Bat – which juggles nine Major League Baseball stars – is a masterpiece. Mr Burns buys in MLB champs to replace his nuclear power plant chumps so he can win a $1m bet on a company softball game. So far, so football oligarch. The genius is in the way each ringer is taken out, from Roger Clemens being hypnotised into believing he’s a chicken to Don Mattingly falling out with his new employer over a hairstyle misunderstanding (“Mr Burns, I don’t know what you think sideburns are”).
José Canseco was reportedly the most difficult player to deal with, nixing his original plot of waking up in bed with Mrs Krabappel and demanding a more heroic absence excuse. Spoilsport. Yet the real miracle of this episode isn’t Homer eventually scoring the game-winning run after being hit by a pitch. It’s that an episode packed with baseball in-jokes – and featuring guest stars largely unknown outside the US – is so beloved worldwide.
2) Dead Putting Society
In which Homer’s rivalry with neighbour Ned Flanders causes them to pit their 10-year-old sons against one another in a contest on the hallowed greens of Sir Putt-A-Lot’s – the Augusta National of mini-golf courses. Bart gets some old-school coaching from his dad, who encourages him to build hatred towards his Bible-loving opponent and to name his putter. Superbly, he plumps for “Mr Putter”.
As Homer warps Bart’s mind, Lisa fills it with eastern philosophy and precision tactics. The image of Bart posing at sundown, Karate Kid crane-kick style, with Mr Putter in hand is one of this series’ great film nods. The miniature golf tournament arrives and brings with it a plummy, Peter Alliss-esque English commentator. He sheds a tear when Bart and Todd Flanders, having negotiated windmills, dancing gorillas and a giant Abraham Lincoln, find themselves level on the 18th and declare a draw rather than make the other hole out. Tear-inducing sportsmanship. Still, our favourite moment is definitely Ned “praying that no one gets hurt” before the boys’ big matchup.
3) Lisa on Ice
Sibling rivalries are explored via ice hockey in this 1994 classic. Bart is the star player of Springfield’s Mighty Pigs and the apple of his dad’s eye, until it turns out bookish Lisa is blessed with the reflexes of a prime Dominik Hasek. The competition between the pair, fuelled by Homer’s preferential treatment for whoever is on top, turns Lisa bloodthirsty (her cry of “Hack the bone!” was inspired by a quote from real-life hockey goaltender Billy Smith). Meanwhile, Bart proves so poor at mind games that he cuts the head off his own beloved childhood toy. When he finally faces Lisa’s Kwik-E-Mart Gougers on the ice, sibling love wins out. Bart declines taking a game-winning penalty against his sister and the two skate arm in arm around the rink, much to Marge’s joy and Homer’s chagrin.
4) The Homer They Fall
No episode nails as many sporting tropes as this 1996 classic does about boxing. There is Luscious Sweet, the conniving promoter introduced with the hilariously lawsuit-baiting line: “He is exactly as rich and as famous as Don King – and he looks just like him, too!” The writers also couldn’t decide which old-timey nickname was funnier for Homer’s journeyman boxer, giving him two. “He’s been called the Brick Hithouse and is also known as the Southern Dandy,” intones guest star Michael Buffer.
The plot is standard Rocky fare. Homer and trainer Moe are boxing hobos in dingy bars until Sweet offers them the chance of a lifetime: a Las Vegas fight against Mike Tyson pastiche Drederick Tatum, fresh out of jail. The Springfield Shopper announced this with the winning headline: “Champ To Whale On Local Man”. Tatum is a pitch-perfect mix of Tyson’s snarling ultraviolence and lisping grandiloquence. One minute he’s promising to make orphans of Homer’s children (when reminded they have a mother, he responds: “I imagine she would die of grief”), the next he’s recommending sauteed sea bass to a ringside Charlie Sheen mid-fight. The end comes early with a nod to Riddick Bowe v Evander Holyfield II, as Moe swoops into the ring in Fan Man gear to spare Homer from a savage beating.
5) Lisa the Greek
Episodes based around the mismatched Homer-Lisa dynamic, as the boneheaded everyman tries to bond with his child prodigy, are among the best. This one opens with the intro credits to an NFL broadcast, in which a CGI defensive player decapitates an onrushing ball-carrier. That sets the tone for an episode which lovingly pokes fun at the NFL’s mix of cartoonish glitz and physical violence, but the plot involves betting as much as it does pro football. Frustrated gambler Homer loses wads of cash to illegal bookie Moe until he realises Lisa, when she turns her brain power to it, is a spread-betting genius. Heartbreak follows when she realises this is the sole reason her dad is spending Sundays with her. The climax arrives with Lisa’s tip that if she still loves her father, Washington will win the Super Bowl; if she doesn’t, the Bills will prevail.
Intriguingly, this episode first aired three days before 1992’s Super Bowl XXVI and correctly predicted the outcome as Washington triumphed. It’s the first instance of the Simpsons’ supposed ability to predict the future, particularly as the episode was redubbed before the next year’s Super Bowl, with Lisa this time tipping the Dallas Cowboys – who also prevailed. This was in a more innocent time, before the show infamously predicted President Trump, 16 years ahead of his election. Frankly, the way things are going now, we expect one-eyed aliens Kodos and Kang to invade at any moment.
6) The Cartridge Family
A cheeky pick, as this is a season-nine episode – the year the show’s golden era unofficially ended – and it’s mainly about Homer buying a gun, rather than sport. But in the first five minutes, it sublimely skewers enough US soccer perceptions for a lifetime. The TV advert for a Portugal v Mexico friendly in Springfield is so wonderful, we’re surprised Sky haven’t stolen it wholesale. “It’s all here! Fast-kicking, low scoring and ties? You bet!” enthuses the voiceover.
The family Simpson arrives at the game and Pelé (not a guest star) is there to wearily endorse Crestfield Wax Paper to the crowd, before walking off the pitch with a sack of money. Some parodies just hit too close to home. The same could be said of the on-field action, which solely consists of Mexican players tediously stroking the ball to one another around the centre circle. The boredom and a mass dash for the exits causes what anchorman Kent Brockman labels a “traditional soccer riot” to erupt, then spread across the city. After this, it’s pretty much downhill for the episode – and indeed the show as a whole in the following years. But damn it all, if this cartoon didn’t offer us some excellent sport during its prime years.