This post and the next post is part of the Big League Blog-a-thon, coordinated by Forgotten Films, home to one of the best film podcasts out there, The Forgotten Filmcast, which is about the movies that time forgot.
I discovered early on, after volunteering to sit down and watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball, that one simply does not sit down and watch Ken Burns’ Baseball. No, it is something that taunts you from the screen of your Netflix queue, daring you to take it on like a pitcher who’s been throwing heat all night and has only just hit his stride. And all you can do, really, is step up to the plate, bear down, and let him know that if he’s going to get you out, you’re going to have to work for it.
In other words, challenge accepted.
Bad metaphors and even worse Barney Stinson jokes aside, Baseball was something I had watched when it was originally on back in 1994 but didn’t remember much about except that Burns spent the segment about the 1986 Mets talking about the agony of the 1986 Red Sox and that he must have exhausted every available version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the course of the documentary. That I remember the former should not be a surprise–my Mets fandom runs deep, even when they lose–and after re-watching all ten innings, the latter still rings true.
Baseball originally aired twenty years ago as a nine-part documentary, each part appropriately titled an “inning,” with a two-part “tenth inning” being added in 2010. What this adds up to is a documentary that if one were to sit down and watch without a break, he would be on the couch for nearly a full twenty-four hours. Burns begins with the origins of baseball, both real and myth (an urban legend involving Abner Doubleday that has been disproven countless times yet still seems to have legs all these years later) and then moves chronologically through the beginnings of the game up until what at that point was the present.
Through the first five innings, Burns seems to have accomplished what he set out to do, which is given us a full history of the game. Instead of blowing through the 19th Century, he spends all of the “First Inning” exploring baseball’s evolution and then only moves ten years ahead into the future with the second inning, bringing us only up to 1940 by the end of inning five.
This slow progression works to flesh out the characters of the first half of baseball’s history, men whose names are known and aren’t necessarily forgotten but are definitely overshadowed by the names revered in my parents’ youth. Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander were long dead by the time I went to my first baseball game in 1985, existing only in trivia books like Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book. Here, there is footage and there are interviews by historians and some of the few people who were, at the time, left alive to talk about playing against or watching those old-timers.
Furthermore, throughout the first half of the documentary, Burns does not shy away from the racism that pervaded the game for decades, telling the story of the Negro League whose history to me when I was a kid growing up on Long Island was a footnote in the Cobbs, Ruths, DiMaggios, and Mantles of books about baseball. With stories from Negro League players such as Buck O’Neil (who is a delight in every interview throughout the series), you learn more about the racial history of the early 20th Century than you do in most high school history classes, even when that history is overshadowed by a mammoth figure such as Babe Ruth, who gets almost an entire episode to himself.
As Burns moves through the 1940s and 1950s, into an era where baseball really exploded and where he should have his strongest stories–after all, many of the players of those eras were still alive at the time when he was filming–the cracks begin to show and while the documentary doesn’t exactly fall apart by the Ninth Inning, it definitely is a lot weaker than at its beginning. He relies too much on the same seven or eight different interviewees and we don’t hear directly from very many players beyond Ted Williams and a few others. I wasn’t expecting every single player or anything, but seeing at least one appearance by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, or Johnny Bench. Heck, 1994 was when Tim McCarver was still mildly tolerable.
Which, in a way, brings me to the second major problem with the documentary. Burns, who is a Red Sox fan, is committing the cardinal sin of sports reporting and being a “homer,” reporting with an incredible Northeast bias. Walk away from Baseball and you will think that the period between 1957 and 1994 was a complete wasteland (as if the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and New York Giants’ leaving for California stripped baseball of its virginity in a way that the Black Sox scandal or the systemic racism that preceded the Jackie Robinson era never could) and that the only baseball worth happening occurred in Boston and New York and mostly in 1975 and 1986. And I’ll readily acknowledge that both of those World Series deserve their reputations, as does the career and legacy of George Steinbrenner. But much like a high school history class where you cover the Vietnam War in a day because the teacher has run out of time, Burns gives short shrift to then-recent history, probably assuming that we were all there and we all remember.
He sort of remedies this in the added “Tenth Inning,” but even then there’s an ESPN-like whitewash, perpetuating the narrative of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saving” baseball in 1998, the Yankees “saving” New York City in the fall of 2001, the Red Sox “saving” the nation’s soul in 2004, and Barry Bonds’ role as some sort of supervillain in the whole thing. All of those storylines have legitimacy, but Burns’ coverage only serves to date the film a little–we’ve had so many highlight reels, specials, and shorter documentaries about those specific moments that one wonders if there was a need for him to come back and tell the stories at all.
That’s not to say that this behemoth isn’t worth watching. Technically, Baseball is carefully made and serves as a perfect “101 Class,” an introduction to a topic that can’t possibly be contained to a single film, no matter how large it is.
In Part Two: Taking Baseball Personally