It took weeks of real time to consume, but getting through Ken Burns’ historic PBS documentary series Baseball, all 20+ hours of it, was worth it. It immediately got me thinking about the endless list of baseball related documentaries that have made their rounds and just which one could possibly be picked out as the finest. It is perhaps an answerless question, “which baseball documentary is the best of all time?” but one whose labor is very much the reward itself.
Some of the few I’ve consumed lately spark much debate, thought and introspection into America’s game. Through its vast history and interconnectivity with much of the country’s history, baseball has, and always will be part of its fabric.
The best place to start is of course, the Burns documentary. Originally airing in 1994, it powers through 9 original volumes (with a 10th added in 2010) dating back to baseball’s earliest roots in the 1800s. It is a meticulously planned, beautifully done trek through history that progresses through the many eras of baseball’s past. From the birth of the sport on the Elysian Fields to Babe Ruth’s discovery by a priest, from Jackie Robinson to the steroid era, it is perhaps the quintessential modern documentation of a sport. But is it the greatest? For one thing, it does take a herculean effort to get through, and anyone not so engrained in the historical resonance of Ty Cobb may find the first few hours nothing more than thumbing through a history book.
Conversely, on the opposite scale, the few others I’ve consumed narrow its scope and focus. Part of the original ESPN 30 for 30 run, The House Of Steinbrenner is a brief but complex look at one of baseball’s most definitely characters of the past 50 years. Part ode to the Yankees, part ode to the man himself, yet both forever intrinsically linked. Fascinating because it is not all adulation, but confronts the egomaniacal autocracy he ruled with, it is another strong entrant into the debate. For Red Sox fans, it all begins and ends with Four Days In October, marking the most memorable turn of events for any Boston baseball fan. Remarkable because in itself, documents what can be argued as the closing chapter to one of baseball’s most storied legends- “The Curse of the Bambino”.
The Ghosts of Flatbush hits home for any elderly Brooklynite, counting down the last days of the Brooklyn Dodgers before they went Hollywood, while The Lost Son Of Havana follows the heart breaking story of Cuban exile and ex-major leaguer Luis Tiant returning to his country after 46 years. Then there’s The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg, the tale of baseball’s first Jewish superstar, while lovers of the Brewers will undoubtedly find home in Harvey’s Wallbangers, about the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers who made it all the way to the World Series only to come up short.
For those who do their sports betting, you can place your hard earned cash on the Pete Rose film 4192; but don’t be surprised if you come up short when you find out it’s about his chase for Ty Cobb’s hit record and not his quest for the Hall Of Fame. For whatever your baseball inclination, there is something to satiate your tastes.
It’s endless. And as I power through documentary after documentary, it becomes clear to me that while baseball goes through the ebbs and flows of scandals, strikes and competition, there is a timeless art to the sport that will never fade. Major League Baseball will have its stories told in film and television about its characters big and small; all the strike outs, balls, walks and homeruns, but the greatest baseball documentary will always be baseball itself.
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