This month, MiLB.com went to the movies and tuned into the television shows that spotlight the quintessential qualities of Minor League Baseball, with fans chiming in on what else could've made the list. Now up to bat -- documentaries. Books are on deck.
They might not always get the theatrical fanfare of a summer blockbuster or an Oscar-season standout, but documentaries can be just as entertaining and informative as other genres.
In our third installment of a series highlighting Minor League Baseball's presence in pop culture, here are 10 documentary films that bring to light some of the greatest triumphs and harshest realities in MiLB history. There are behind-the-scenes looks at historic ballparks. There's an appearance from the best basketball player ever to play baseball. There are stories so wild they sound more like fiction than fact. And there's a lengthy list of docs that didn't make the cut, so let us know what we should add to our queue.
When It Was a Game 2 (1992)
Color film that approaches a century in age is reason enough to spend an hour with "When It Was a Game 2." It contains footage of Babe Ruth, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field and much more history that looks too good to be true.
One section, though, narrows in on the Minor Leagues of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. The Cardinals organization alone had dozens of affiliates. The Pacific Coast League was "in many ways a West Coast equivalent of the Majors," before the bigs expanded that far. With clips of teams like the San Francisco Seals and Hollywood Stars, testimonials from real players -- i.e., Gus Zernial explaining how he made more money on that Triple-A circuit than he did for his first Major League salary -- offer up the fundamentals, just like the Minor Leagues have always done.
Cobb Field: A Day at the Ballpark (2009)
It's just what the title says it is -- a day at the ballpark -- with the incredible history of Cobb Field interwoven throughout. "Narrated" by Cobb Field itself, the film details the stadium's Hollywood roots and shares some of its fondest memories, like Gary Redus' 1978 season in which he hit .462 -- the best average for a Minor Leaguer ever. It shows why the Rookie Advanced Billings Mustangs' ballpark, last renovated in 1942, closed in favor of the new Dehrer Field just a few months after filming.
The film's strongest suit is its ability to convey the significance of nearly everyone at Cobb Field -- fans, broadcasters, vendors, concessions workers, umpires, coaches and, of course, players. One happened to be making his professional debut that day, July 11, 2007. His name was Todd Frazier
. Maybe you've heard of him.
The Farm Team (2009)
"They're here before I get here and they're here long after I'm gone." That first line of this 15-minute glimpse into the Double-A Mobile BayBears grounds crew shows the work put in by an often-overlooked part of every Minor League team. With an in-depth perspective from groundskeepers Dan Ruggiero, Caleb Adams and Brenton Heffernan, "The Farm Team" provides an enlightening lesson of what it takes to maintain Hank Aaron Stadium's playing surfaces. Filmmaker Scott Balzer uses tons of natural sound to immerse viewers in each process, including the dreaded tarp pull. After all, Mobile, Alabama, is the rainiest city in the United States.
30 for 30: Jordan Rides the Bus (2010)
Michael Jordan documentaries are all the rage right now. "Jordan Rides the Bus" breaks down Jordan's decision to walk away from basketball after three straight NBA titles and chronicles his 1994 season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Some thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Others, likely those who helped Southern League attendance triple that year, couldn't get enough of His Airness on the diamond. Interviews with Phil Jackson, Terry Francona and several teammates and coaches give the film a deep scope.
Some anecdotes aren't surprising, considering Jordan is known for his competitiveness. He played on four pool tables at once at a local bar, maintained a rigorous batting practice routine and put up his best numbers in the Arizona Fall League. But the strike in 1995 opened the door for Jordan to return to the Bulls, ending his one season with the White Sox organization.
Time in the Minors (2010)Tony Schrager
was a sixth-round pick out of Stanford. He climbed to Triple-A. He was traded, once as a player to be named later. He spent some time in the independent Atlantic League.
John Drennen was a supplemental first-round pick out of high school. His signing bonus had seven figures. He homered off a 43-year-old Roger Clemens in the South Atlantic League.
Neither Schrager nor Drennen reached the Majors. Their paths traced in the film, though different, shared many of the same obstacles that come with a journey through the Minor Leagues. The way "Time in the Minors" captures many of these moments with Schrager and Drennen in real time adds a level of authenticity to their reactions. It can be disappointing, but that is the reality of playing in a system in which there are so many players available to take your spot.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
When the Triple-A Portland Beavers left the city for Spokane in 1973, Bing Russell -- yes, the actor whose legacy includes "Bonanza" and "The Magnificent Seven" -- swooped in and started the Mavericks, an independent club operating in the Class A Short Season Northwest League. They formed a roster of rejects through open tryouts. They emphasized fun, and both internal and external expectations pegged the startup team as mostly a joke. Then the season opened with the Mavericks tossing a no-hitter, and a magical story began.
The Mavericks did things differently as the years went on. They hired the first woman general manager in baseball, then the first Asian-American. They signed Jim Bouton, a blackballed pitcher. When they swept, they lit a broom on fire. "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" captures how the Mavericks enthralled a city -- and peeved a sport -- until they couldn't do it any longer.
It doesn't sound right that a breakdown of the hardest throwers the game has ever seen -- Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Aroldis Chapman
and more -- would include a guy who never threw a pitch in the Major Leagues. "Fastball" does anyway.
There's no known footage of Steve Dalkowski pitching, but those around during his nine-year Minor League career in the '50s and '60s say he threw faster than anyone they'd ever seen. He just couldn't get anywhere near the strike zone. In 170 innings for Class A Stockton in 1960, he struck out 262 and walked exactly as many batters. His ratio was worse the next season. Dalkowski eventually found some control, fanning 104 while walking 11 over his final 52 frames for Elmira in 1962, and was poised to make Baltimore's Major League team out of Spring Training in 1963 -- until he got hurt fielding a bunt and never reclaimed his control.
Hope: One in a Billion (2017)
It took Gift Ngoepe
nine Minor League seasons in the Pirates organization to reach the Majors, and his journey to becoming the first African-born player to reach those lofty heights wasn't easy. At times, he considered returning home to South Africa, especially after his mother died. "Hope" goes deep on the stressful moments of Ngoepe's first callup, emotional first at-bat and what making it there from humble beginnings can do for the youth of Africa, where baseball is not prioritized.
50 Summers (2018)
Director Dan Napoli chronicles 50 years of Omaha's PCL team, now the Storm Chasers, in "50 Summers." The idea was to use Omaha as the lens through which a picture of the Minor Leagues canvas can become clearer. It includes scenes from 2018 Opening Day and interviews with characters whose connection to Omaha spans decades. MiLB.com's Ben Hill chatted with director Dan Napoli after a screening at the 2018 Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, where Napoli shared the origins
of the film and what it was like to tackle a new topic.
"I couldn't get over, too, just how much I learned," Napoli said. "... I think people -- and I'm one of those guys, so I'm self-identifying -- are kind of ignorant to how Minor League Baseball actually works. ... I've gone to Storm Chasers and Omaha Royals games. I moved there in 2006, so it was really interesting to learn that, 'Oh wow, Minor League Baseball is its own little universe.'"
A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball's Desegregation (2018)
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but "A Long Way from Home" shows how that didn't immediately solve baseball's segregation problem in the Majors or Minors. Assignments to small Minor League towns were often more dangerous in a post-integration world, even if the idea of integration was inherently good.
Grover Jones, for example, couldn't view a prospective apartment because of the color of his skin. Enos Cabell feared death after a championship win enraged the Ku Klux Klan enough to smash the windows of his team's clubhouse and bus. Spanish-speaking players were discriminated against too. Opposing players asked to see Tony Perez's green card and Orlando Pena missed entire road trips because no one could or would tell him when the team was traveling. And it was all part of the fabric of the game, from the farm to The Show.
Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.