Great Baseball Documentaries That Aren’t Ken Burns’ Baseball

HBO recently debuted one of their latest sports documentaries- The Curious Case of Curt Flood. Not surprisingly, it was excellent. After watching it, it made me think of the loads and loads of other great baseball documentaries (not including Ken Burns’ mammoth transcendent masterpiece, Baseball). Here are some of my favorites:

PBS American Exerience: Clementé
The American Experience creators are masters at tapping into the viewer’s emotions and this one is certainly no exception. In fact, it might be an ideal example. Even knowing how the “story” ends- with Clemente dying during a humanitarian effort to bring aid to his native Latin America- it still hit me in the gut when this episode reached that point. My only real complaint, and it’s a tiny one, is that they could have spent so much more time detailing Clementé’s life. At just under one hour, an awful lot was left unsaid about an extremely inspirational character (particularly for those in the Latino community). Admittedly, this was something of a perfect storm for me- I’m an avid baseball fan and I love PBS’ American Experience series. If either of these things intrigue you, this one registers as a must-see.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood
HBO takes a look at Curt Flood- the man who challenged baseball’s Reserve Clause, effectively sacrificing his career and (eventually) bringing about free agency. It’d be impossible to tell the tale of Flood without focusing on his legal battle with Major League Baseball. What makes the documentary great is the tale of the rest of Flood’s life. Curt Flood was not your run-of-the-mill athlete. He was also a Civil Rights crusader, an artist (or was he?), and a very tortured soul. I found the entire documentary riveting.

Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey
If you know anything at all about Bill Lee, you know that he’s “The Spaceman”- the boilerplate for space cadet baseball movie characters since the late 70’s. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey catches up with what Lee’s currently doing. Specifically, it follows him on a week-long trip to Cuba as an unofficial ambassador for the game of baseball. Lee’s hilarious anti-establishment attitude and intelligence shine through. All of this is punctuated by interviews with his peers detailing his screwball antics. Warren Zevon even memorialized Lee in song:

Road to the Big Leagues
Despite being a bit short, Road to the Big Leagues was quite thorough. The film takes a look at 10 year olds hoping to make it to the Major Leagues, a 16 or 17 year old who keeps getting tryouts with MLB scouts (and finally breaks through to getting signed at the end), and even touches on the controversy surrounding falsification of birth certificates to make prospects appear more appealing/more signable by MLB teams. Along the way, you meet heavy hitters like David Ortiz, Jesus Alou, some MLB scouts, and even an acquaintance of mine, Gilberto Reyes, who was managing the Mets’ Dominican League affiliate at the time. If you’re looking for a sociological phenomenon revolving around baseball, this isn’t it. If you’re looking to learn a little more in a well-constructed documentary about baseball in the Dominican, you really can’t go wrong.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
What makes The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg stand out is the fact that Greenberg was America’s first Jewish baseball star, especially at a time when America was going to war with Nazi Germany. Also noteworthy is the fact that Greenberg falls under the radar for so many fans. Most fans know about Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Ted Williams, Mays, Mantle, Jackie Robinson… but not many point to Greenberg and his excellence.

Ted Williams
Using Leigh Montville’s brilliant biography Ted Williams: Biography of an American Hero as source material, HBO weaves the fascinating tale of the “Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived”. Williams was an extraordinarily interesting man. He dated supermodels. He was a war hero. He was an athlete. He was “The Kid” at heart, a fact which made him popular with children (but not so much popular with sportswriters).   

Mr. Kansas City: The Life of Buck O’Neill
It’s very clearly a low-budget, d.i.y. documentary with subpar production values. But that’s not the point. The point is that Buck O’Neill was the patron saint of baseball’s past, a saint of sorts to the game and a saint in his personal life. The question is, does this documentary convey that? It does, and it does so well. It’s a passion project for the creators and it shows. Kudos to the filmmaker. As a side note, it was made in 2001, so a lot of what would be pertinent to today’s game is obviously omitted.


13 Comments

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13 responses to “Great Baseball Documentaries That Aren’t Ken Burns’ Baseball

  1. Brilliant article! I collect baseball books, primarily from the 1950s to the 1980s, and so the idea of collecting documentaries appeals greatly. Got any more you’d recommend?

    • There are a few that have looked good but I haven’t seen:
      -Mantle: The Definitive Story of Mickey Mantle
      -A Player to be Named Later, about minor league baseball

      And I’m drawing a total blank right now but there’s one out there about one of the teams in the independent Atlantic League.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. I’ve been on the lookout for A Player To Be Named Later for some time;I’ve read good things about it.

    For baseball-commemorated music, try a band called The Baseball Project. They immortalise some of the names from the past.

  3. I’ve seen most of these and they are indeed, excellent. I only caught the last half hour of the Curt Flood Documentary but it was wonderful and can’t wait to see it in its’ entirety.

    • As a Cardinal fan, it had a bit of a personal flavor to it for me (although I was born in ’76, so I’ve had to learn about Flood secondhand).

  4. Thanks for sharing this list. I haven’t seen any of these — or even Ken Burns’ docs, for that matter — so I will have to check them out.

    I see A Player to be Named Later was mentioned in the comments, and that one is great. Definitely worth seeking out. I caught it on Netflix Instant Watch, so there’s that if you have it as an option.

    Also, it might be worth looking into ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Everything I have seen from that collection is great, although I have yet to watch one pertaining to baseball.

    • The Ken Burns series on baseball is a bit of an endurance test- something like 11 hours. I think the MLB Network airs it every Christmas, so maybe you can DVR it then and save yourself a library rental/Netflix rental/etc…

      I’ve been meaning to check out those 30 for 30 films forever but haven’t had a chance. Lots of them look really good.

  5. there’s an hour long documentary about Fergie Jenkins and the Cubs of the early 1970’s. spectacular film i find.

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