ESPN Films has emerged as one of the most celebrated producers of documentaries in recent years, with O.J.: Made in America and The Last Dance both earning critical acclaim and a slew of awards, including an Oscar, a Peabody Award and three Emmys between them. On July 18, the studio will premiere its new seven-part documentary series The Captain, about New York Yankees great Derek Jeter, who was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame last year. Executive produced by Spike Lee, the show features candid interviews with Jeter, his family, and former teammates and coaches, including Roger Clemens (59), Mariano Rivera (52), Darryl Strawberry (60) and Joe Torre (81). After tuning in to The Captain, add these nine other baseball-themed documentaries to your starting streaming lineup. And if you’re looking for some extra innings’ worth of content, we’ve put together a watchlist of episodes about America’s favorite pastime from ESPN’s award-winning docuseries 30 for 30. Play — or, rather, watch — ball!
Baseball: A Ken Burns Documentary (1994)
The premise: Burns, 68, brought his meticulous research and encyclopedic scope to this 1994 docuseries, which charts the rise of baseball over the course of nine “innings,” or episodes. Featuring interviews with the likes of Billy Crystal (74), Doris Kearns Goodwin (79) and Studs Terkel, the show focuses on such topics as the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, the Negro Leagues and the groundbreaking career of Jackie Robinson (who in 2016 got his own Ken Burns documentary). In 2010, Burns introduced a “tenth inning” to the series, a two-part, four-hour special that covered the 1998 home run chase, the steroids scandal and the ways baseball helped America heal after 9/11.
Fun fact: Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first Black player in the major leagues in 1884 — six decades before Jackie Robinson.
The premise: Kevin Costner, 67, narrates this in-depth (and surprisingly geeky!) look at the speediest pitch, which takes only 396 milliseconds to reach the batter. Dozens of former players, including Derek Jeter and Hank Aaron, weigh in on the fastest pitchers they ever encountered, as they break down the art (and science) of throwing and hitting a fastball. While then-Cincinnati Red Aroldis Chapman is on record for the fastest radar-verified pitch — 105.1 mph in 2010 — the documentary asks the question if a past pitcher, such as Nolan Ryan, 75, may have ever bested him, and experts turn to physics for the answer.
Fun fact: According to scientists in the film, we may have reached the limit of how fast a human can throw a ball. As Sports Illustrated’s Ali Fenwick wrote about the film, “Any faster and the force required would literally rip the pitcher’s arm off.”
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Hardball: The Girls of Summer (2019)
The premise: This inspiring documentary follows four of America’s top female baseball — not softball! — players, as they work their way toward the Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea. But it also trains a much wider lens on the role of women in the sport, featuring such towering (if oft-forgotten) figures as Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Babe Ruth, and Maria Pepe, whose family sued Little League Baseball for gender discrimination after girls were barred from playing in the 1950s.
Fun fact: Milkmaids in 15th-century England invented a precursor to baseball called stoolball, in which they set their milking stools in a circle and used them as early bases.
No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
The premise: The list of major league players who have pitched no-hitters is a very small group, but there’s an even more exclusive club: those who did so while on LSD! Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis, who battled addiction issues for much of his life, claimed to be tripping on the psychedelic when he pitched his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970. The game became such a pop cultural touchpoint that it was later referenced in a number of songs, books and short films, and Ellis would go on to devote his life to counseling others with substance abuse issues.
Fun fact: The 1971 Pirates were the first team in major league history with an all-minority starting lineup of Black and Latino players, including Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
The premise: South Florida steroids peddler Tony Bosch is responsible for one of the biggest scandals in major league history: He’s the man who prescribed performance-enhancing drugs to the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez (50) from his strip mall “health clinic” in Coral Gables. In this surprisingly funny true-crime docudrama by Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben, Bosch operates like a character out of an Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen novel, surrounded by mob connections, drugs and corruption. In a surreal twist, the major figures from the scandal are played by child actors, who lip-synch their way through conversations and confessionals.
Fun fact: A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season after his name showed up on the list of athletes using PEDs.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
The premise: In 1973, actor Bing Russell created the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league team that played in the Class A Short Season Northwest League and wasn’t affiliated with any major league team. Though the Mavericks were made up mainly of misfits and has-beens, they had winning seasons all five years of their existence, before they disbanded in 1978. Bing’s son Kurt, 71 — yes, that Kurt Russell! — played for the team in its inaugural season, and the documentary was directed by two of Bing’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way, who also helmed the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country.
Fun fact: Another of Bing Russell’s grandsons is former major league first baseman Matt Franco, 52.
Watch it: The Battered Bastards of Baseball, on Netflix
A Long Way From Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation (2018)
The premise: Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 when he played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that was only the beginning of the long road to pro-sports desegregation. Following his brave lead, a new generation of Black and Latino players toiled away on farm teams in remote towns across the country, including in the Jim Crow South, as they worked their way up to the major leagues. The documentary features interviews with such players as Mudcat Grant, Orlando Cepeda (84) and Deacon Jones (88).
Fun fact: When the Boston Red Sox added Pumpsie Green to their lineup in 1959, they became the last major league team to integrate.
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel (2018)
The premise: This 2018 documentary follows the Cinderella story of Team Israel — which ESPN compared to the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team — on their unlikely journey to the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Ranked 41st in the world, the underdog squad was comprised of players who were either Israeli citizens or Jewish Americans eligible for citizenship under the country’s Law of Return, and the roster included such major league players as Sam Fuld, Ike Davis and Cody Decker, who famously introduced Team Israel’s mascot, the Mensch on a Bench.
Fun fact: In the film, the teammates pose with a mural of Sandy Koufax, 86, the legendary Jewish player who skipped Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur.
Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011)
The premise: Narrated by John Leguizamo, 61, this gripping and gritty documentary offers a stark look at baseball recruitment in the Dominican Republic, a system where corruption runs rampant. “Forget feel-good boys-of-summer tales,” writes New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger. “This film shows a shady business in which scouts and the teams they represent try to manipulate teenage players, and to some extent the players do some manipulating of their own.” Our main entry point into this world are 15-year-old players Miguel Angel Sanó and Jean Carlos Batista.
Fun fact: As of 2021, Dominican-born players made up more than 11 percent of major league rosters.
The essential ‘30 for 30’ episodes about America’s favorite pastime
Since the docuseries premiered in 2009, ESPN’s 30 for 30 has shed light on some of the most interesting stories in baseball history. Here, a list of episodes that will take you out to the ballgame — and teach you something interesting in the process! You can stream episodes on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, ESPN+ and Hulu.
- “Jordan Rides the Bus” (2010), about Michael Jordan’s temporary retirement from basketball and brief foray into minor league baseball.
- “Little Big Men” (2010), about the Kirkland, Washington, Little League team’s historic upset victory at the 1982 Little League World Series.
- “The House of Steinbrenner” (2010), about the legacy of George Steinbrenner’s ownership of the New York Yankees.
- “Four Days in October” (2010), about the Boston Red Sox’s comeback win against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
- “Fernando Nation” (2010), about Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 arrival with the L.A. Dodgers.
- “Catching Hell” (2011), about Steve Bartman, the fan who tried to catch a foul ball during the 2003 NLCS and was scapegoated for the Chicago Cubs’ continued championship drought.
- “Goose” (2012), about Reece “Goose” Tatum, who played Negro League baseball and then became a Harlem Globetrotter.
- “You Don’t Know Bo” (2012), about two-sport wonder Bo Jackson.
- “The Day the Series Stopped” (2014), about the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which started just before Game 3 of the World Series.
- “Brothers in Exile” (2014), about half-brothers Liván and Orlando Hernández, who fled Cuba and became major league pitchers.
- “Doc & Darryl” (2016), about the connection between Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.
- “Long Gone Summer” (2020), about the controversial 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
- “Once Upon a Time in Queens” (2021), about the 1986 Mets, a team that’s often regarded as one of the best in major league history.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.