It was tough to narrow the field to only 10 documentaries depicting life in the Minor Leagues because the scope of films that mark time down on the farm runs the gamut from brief mentions to in-depth profiles. So here are 10 more.When you think of baseball documentaries, Ken Burns
It was tough to narrow the field to only 10 documentaries depicting life in the Minor Leagues because the scope of films that mark time down on the farm runs the gamut from brief mentions to in-depth profiles. So here are 10 more.
When you think of baseball documentaries, Ken Burns probably springs to mind immediately. One of the most formidable series ever done on the game was simply called “Baseball.” Over the course of the original nine episodes in 1994 and two subsequent ones in 2010, Burns followed the national pastime’s foray from 1840s’ diversion to The Show. The first nine garnered him an Emmy for “Outstanding Informational Series.”
There are references strewn throughout the mini-series. Since the Minors were unclassified until 1911, the Western League — chronicled in Episode 2 (“Something Like a War”) — served as a de facto farm league as scouts traversed the country looking for the Majors’ next big thing. The wild ride taken by owner Ban Johnson as he turns the Minors circuit into the American League highlights the segment about baseball in the 1900s. Episode 3 (“The Faith of Fifty Million People”) makes note of the decade’s introduction to Hall of Famer Branch Rickey, who invented the farm system as well as such groundbreaking concepts as batting cages and calisthenics.
The “Road to the Big Leagues” is no less impressive, and not just because of appearances by famed big leaguers Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Jesus Alou. The 2008 film showcased the fervor over baseball in the Dominican Republic, explaining that success at the game helped a player and his family rise above truly terrible economic conditions.
There’s a distinct symmetry between that movie and “Ballplayer: Pelotero” from 2011. Narrated by John Leguizamo, the latter detailed the challenges facing two prospects from the Dominican Republic — Minnesota Twins third baseman Miguel Sanó, a can’t-miss talent, and former Astros prospect Jean Batista, a longshot. At the beginning of their respective journeys, the 16-year-olds prepared to sign with Major League clubs back home, and tense moments arose between the power brokers and the players’ families.
Sano’s story was one of rising to the top, but “Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story” from 2018, detailed a career heading in a different direction. The World Series champion was injured in 2008, just two years after leading the American League in wins. The first Taiwanese player to play for the New York Yankees wasn’t ready to exit the game, though, and he went through extensive rehab in the Minors to work his way back to the biggest stage.
Players from Cuba got their due in “Stealing Home: The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball” in 2001. Among the Minor League journeys covered in the film were the stories of Adrian “El Duquecito” Hernandez, who had zipped through the Minors en route to the Bronx the previous year and Jorge Diaz, who played in the Florida State and Gulf Coast leagues in 2000.
“Viva Baseball!” expanded on these ideas in 2005. There was the hostility felt by Tony Taylor and Vic Power while trying to acclimate to a new culture and new language during their trips through the Minors. But the Cuban players’ love of the game was best expressed by Omar Minaya, who played for a short time in the Minors before becoming a scout who helped sign the likes of Sammy Sosa and Pudge Rodriguez and ultimately moved into the Mets’ front office. In the documentary, Minaya says the game “is an opera, it is just a way of life, a way of being. … It’s almost like, it’s like breathing.”
No matter where the players who wind up in the Minors hail from, they all wind up on similar roller-coaster rides. That was laid out plainly in the 2010 short film “The Golden Game: The Minor Leagues.” The players share apartments or stay with host families and take long bus rides to play the game. They note the incongruity of sleeping on floors shortly after signing baseballs. And they deal with life’s little surprises. In this movie, it was diabetes for the River Cats’ Michael Taylor and injuries for journeyman Dallas McPherson and the Ports’ Andrew Carignan. And for Kyle Middleton, it was simply the fact that he spent a decade pitching in the Minors without reaching the biggest stage.
In 2019, “The Other Boys of Summer” took a hard look at the obstacles faced by Negro League players. Narrated by Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson, it included interviews with those who played alongside trailblazer Jackie Robinson, including Minnie Minoso, Monte Irvin and Mamie Johnson. In a news release, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick explained it best. “The film brings to light the challenges of playing baseball in a segregated America but also the joy that allowed these courageous athletes to overcome those challenges,” he said.
And the Buffalo Bisons play a cameo role in 2012’s “Knuckleball!” via archival footage of R.A. Dickey, who then barnstormed through the Majors with his trademark pitch and won the NL Cy Young Award the year the movie was released.
For something more offbeat, check out “Baseball Punx.” The 2018 film picks up on connections between the game and punk rock music. There’s even a band named the Isotopes. [Albuquerque looms very large over the pop-culture landscape, as we discovered last week in our look at the Minors on television.] Members of under-the-radar punk bands play in front of smaller crowds and have an inherent understanding of what it’s like for Triple-A players who are just a telephone call away from the big leagues. Former Minor Leaguer/Angels pitching coach Scott Radinsky, vocalist for punk band Pulley, provided a more specific connection to the game.
So while in quarantine, spend some time with these documentaries and stories that often seem stranger than the fictional ones depicted in movies and on television.
Paige Schector is an editor for MiLB.com.