Warm weather has returned, and brought with it our national pastime, baseball. It’s time to follow the advice of little league coaches the nation over and “get your head in the game” with some baseball docs.
Of course, when it comes to baseball and documentary the elephant in the room is Baseball, Ken Burns’s recently expanded 1,338 minute opus of black and white photographs and men gushing for the camera. But do we really need all those writers going on about the smell of hot dogs? Fortunately, there are alternatives with shorter run times.
Donald Brittain and William Canning’s little known classic King of the Hill examines the 1972-73 Chicago Cubs and their right handed phenom, the soft spoken Fergie Jenkins, one of the greatest Canadian baseball players of all time. A True/False film in a very real sense, King combines footage shot over two years into a “false” narrative of a single Cubs season. Through intimate observations in the locker room, stunning photography of the action on the field, and a gently ironic take on a traditional sportscaster, King reveals a baseball season to be a long grind of momentary excitements and looming disappointments (spoiler warning: the Cubs don’t win the World Series). This film is available streaming online as part of the extensive archives of the National Film Board of Canada.
Jenkins went on to a celebrated 19-year Hall of Fame career, featuring a NL Cy Young Award and three All Star appearances. He was alluded, though, by one achievement coveted by every big league pitcher, the no-hitter. The greatest no-hitter of all, if the story can be believed, was recorded by Jenkins’s contemporary Dock Ellis on June 12, 1970. Sure, Don Larson may have thrown a perfect game in the World Series, but did he do it while “high as a Georgia pine”? James Blagden’s short Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No (T/F 2010) uses animation to present Dock’s remarkable claim, that he accidentally found himself starting a big league game for the Pittsburgh Pirates while tripping on acid, and went on to throw a no-hitter despite being uncertain about the size of the ball. Or perhaps even what sport he was playing, as he recalls making an out covering first and thinking “Ew, I just made a touchdown”.
A popular theme of baseball documentaries is the moral pitfalls of fandom. Michael Wranovics’s Up for Grabs (T/F 2005) tells the stranger than fiction story of Barry Bonds’s record setting 73rd home run ball, believed at the time to be worth in excess of one million dollars. The ball was caught, however briefly, by Alex Popov and then recovered moments later by Patrick Hayashi. Beyond that accounts vary, as multiple interviewees offer conflicting testimony and opinions about sucker balls, snow cones, and the alleged biting of a child. Popov eventually emerges as the star of the show. He files an ultimately self-destructive lawsuit against Hayashi, and gradually falls in love with the camera like one of the self-deluded optimists of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. In the end we are left with a spectacle equal parts nauseating and hilarious.
Less amusing is Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell, which presents the harrowing case of Steve Bartman. During the top of the eighth in game six of the 2003 NLCS, Cubs fan Bartman deflected a foul ball and disrupted a potential catch by Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. In short order the Cubs blew both their 3-0 lead in the game and their 3-2 lead in the series, continuing their epic 103 year championship drought. Steve Bartman instantly became responsible in the eyes of the city and was forced into reclusion by media harassment and threats of violence. Gibney uses personal narration and multiple interviews to contextualize the incident within the long history of sports scapegoating and curses. But the film’s most powerful asset is the footage of the game 6 itself. Through a montage shaky fan videos we watch in the present tense as thousands of Cubs fans chant “asshole” in unison and throw beer at Bartman until he is smuggled to safety by stadium security.
The long season stretches out before us, and there is still time for all fans to believe that just maybe “this is our year”. Hopefully these baseball docs will help whet your appetite for a return to the ballpark.
– Dan Steffen