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War on the Diamond (2022) - Does it hold up?

It’s not old, but it is about baseball.

A plaque honoring the memory of Ray Chapman Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

War on the Diamond is a 2022 baseball documentary ostensibly about the rivalry between the baseball team from Cleveland and the New York Yankees. Clever readers will have noticed that word ostensibly, meaning that’s what it’s supposed to be about. In practice, it’s actually a documentary about former Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman with some other Cleveland vs New York stuff thrown in to pad it out a bit.

Chapman’s story is a sad one, but not a particularly complex one. In 1912 he joined Cleveland’s team, then known as the Naps after Nap LaJoie. He was a well-regarded player, though he didn’t reach superstar levels. FanGraphs estimates his career fWAR at 28.9 - a little less than four WAR per season, just short of what would be considered an annual All-Star, though certainly more valuable than the average starter.

By 1920, at age 29, he had gotten married and had an offer to become an executive at his father-in-law’s company if he’d just retire from baseball. There were conflicting reports as to whether he planned to retire at the end of the season and take the offer, but he never got the chance as he was beaned in the head during a game and died of his injuries early the next morning, leaving behind his pregnant wife. He remains the only baseball player to die from on-field injuries so far.

Cleveland dedicated the remainder of their season to him and ended up winning the World Series that year. The incident also caused MLB to ban the spitball and require that balls regularly be replaced so they would be easier for batters to see late in games.

However, the documentary obviously can’t stand on so simple a story so they interrupt it at frequent intervals with other bits of Cleveland baseball lore. The first half of the documentary dedicates time in between Chapman’s story to telling about how proud Clevelander George Steinbrenner came to own the New York Yankees (it’s an interesting, though again uncomplicated, story.) The second half makes brief mention of the rivalry between the two teams and makes comparisons between Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. One interviewed subject notes that the rivalry between the two teams doesn’t appear to exist as far as the Yankees and Yankees fans are concerned which only makes him feel the rivalry all the more.

Ultimately, what little of interest and confirmed authenticity is contained within the documentary can be read on the Wikipedia pages of Ray Chapman and George Steinbrenner without having to dig any deeper. In a final gasp for relevance, the documentary claims a pair of potentially apocryphal stories as factual without any warning or shame. First, they claim that Steinbrenner was not allowed to buy Cleveland’s baseball team because he had stolen from the owner’s son once. But it could just as easily have been because he was outbid or several other rumored reasons. It also claims that Chapman’s widow, after showing signs of depression following his death and even after she remarried, “accidentally” drank a bottle of poison instead of her medicine. Finally, it makes remark that their daughter, who died of measles a year later, told her step-father that her mother had come to visit her in the night and told her they’d be together soon.

On top of the likely fictitious stories and lack of anything particularly new to tell, the documentary frequently interrupts itself to tell these unrelated stories. It starts with Ray Chapman then abruptly switches to Steinbrenner and back and forth like that between those and its other topics with no rhyme or reason in a way that leaves the viewer wholly discombobulated.

This documentary may be less than a week old as I write this review, but it assuredly does not hold up. It’s available for rent and purchase on several reputable streaming websites but honestly, save your money and just go read Ray Chapman’s page on Wikipedia. Everything worth knowing is there, cheaper and easier than if you try to watch War on the Diamond.