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.
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.