In my last post, I mentioned that watching all of Baseball made me feel like I was in an introductory, or “101” class on the game. As well-researched and well-crafted as Ken Burns’s documentary was, there were times where I felt like I was getting the history textbook version of the baseball story: hit the high points, go selectively in-depth, and completely skip over quite a bit.
While that’s a valid criticism, leaving it at that would be giving the work short shrift, especially since it’s a full day’s worth of a documentary. Furthermore, I spent much of that first part of my look at Baseball on summary and critique and didn’t give much of my personal “story” as it is, or at least my personal reactions while I was watching it. Which is kind of the whole purpose of this blog, right?
So that’s what I’m going to do. Inning by inning.
First Inning (“Our Game” 1850s-1900): This isn’t Baseball, this is seventh grade social studies with Mr. Kerkhof. We’re talking about the Antebellum period and … man, the 1800s are boring. But this? This isn’t so much because it’s an origin story, the kind I’m fixated on whenever we begin looking at an important event. What were the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War and how did it progress from there? Who actually founded the Roman Empire? When did the Middle Ages officially begin? Who played that first game of baseball and what was it like in what seems like the Dark Ages to me–before Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, and every other name I know?
Second Inning (“Something Like a War” 1900-1910): I’m ten years old and my parents have given me a “Baseball’s All-Time Greats” baseball card set, the one I spotted in the Sears catalogue. There’s Ty Cobb, and there’s Honus Wagner, who has the most expensive baseball card in existence, something I learned on a feature I saw on 20/20 the previous year. I begin looking at the all-time stats for the old players and am amazed and even though many of their records have been broken, they still are in the top five for many of their most notable categories. The card set is worth original retail price (and even today it’s not worth much), but what it lacks in monetary value it more than makes up for in facts.
Third Inning (“The Faith of Fifty Million People” 1910-1920): To me, it’s not the Black Sox scandal; it’s Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. It’s “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and the last scene of that softball episode of Married … With Children that parodies the last scene of Eight Men Out. It’s also the idea that even something as pure as a game I play on Saturday mornings in Little League can be corrupted by outside influences (yunno, beyond the opposing team’s coach being friends with the umpire).
Fourth Inning (“A National Heirloom” 1920-1930): I’m in the fifth grade and we’re asked to take a biography out of the library for our latest book report/conference with the teacher. I grab one about Babe Ruth. He competes with Gehrig. He is supposedly “stranger than fiction,” which is what one of the chapter titles says. Despite my being an excellent reader, I have trouble getting through the entire book. I don’t know if it’s because the book’s badly written or because I don’t find the subject matter as interesting as I thought I would. In fact, I can’t remember if I ever finished that book. I do know that when I had my conference with Mr. Schafer about it, I did fine.
Fifth Inning (“Shadow Ball” 1930-1940): I have no personal context for this. In fact, if there is any episode that I found myself glued to, it’s this one. Growing up, my knowledge of the struggle of African-Americans was limited to slavery, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Martin Luther King Jr. I was not exactly a scholar. I knew the Negro Leagues existed but I don’t think that what little I read about them in books clued me in to what extent. If anything, I’m grateful for what I gained from this episode.
Sixth Inning (“The National Pastime” 1940-1950): It’s 2012 and I’m in a used bookstore on the Downtown Mall. I’m looking for a copy of As You Like It but am also perusing the small graphic novel section. On my way to the counter, I pass sports and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. It sits on my shelf until the start of the 2013 season rolls around. While Kahn’s biographical retelling of his time becoming a sportswriter is interesting, it’s his visits with former Dodger greats and the retelling of Jackie Robinson’s history that pulls me in. For years, I knew three things about Robinson: he played for the Dodgers, he broke the color barrier, and he stole home once in the World Series. This tells me so much more.
Seventh Inning (“The Capital of Baseball” 1950-1960): I’m twelve years old and my family is throwing one of those big barbecues where everyone–from my mom’s side and dad’s side–is there. My Uncle Brian, a die-hard Yankees fan, spends a good hour talking to Grandpa Panarese about baseball in the 1950’s. They talk about the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers. I don’t interject; I just listen. It’s one of the best memories I have of these two men and one of the most informative conversations upon which I ever eavesdrop.
Eighth Inning (“A Whole New Ballgame” 1960-1970): To me, this is where baseball begins; specifically, in 1962, when the New York Mets go 40-120 and set an all-time single-season loss record that still stands. I cut my baseball history teeth on An Amazin’ Era in 1986 and to me, “baseball history” has always involved Seaver, Koosman, Swoboda, Clendenon, Agee, Grote, Garrett, and McGraw. Yes, there are more important figures in baseball history and more important events. But it’s the lovable losers’ transformation into the Miracle Mets that I always remember.
Ninth Inning (“Home” 1970-1993): It’s fascinating to see Bob Costas tell the story of being in the Red Sox locker room during the Buckner play and watching the champagne get wheeled out as quickly as possible. It’s also fascinating to see testimony from Red Sox fans who were wounded by the play. After all, I rooted for “the enemy” in 1986. My nine-year-old dreams came true when Jesse Orosco threw the last pitch to Marty Barrett (I have a poster on the wall of my classroom), so it never occurred to me that someone might be upset by that night’s events. Beyond that, there are so many recognizable faces here and I wish he was taking more time on them; I wish he was reminiscing with me the way he was reminiscing with my parents through the seventh inning.
When it ends with a talk about how baseball endures I realize that this isn’t a documentary; it’s a eulogy. The season was cancelled due to a strike the month before the first episode aired and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get the game back. Furthermore, it’s hard to pick a side because everyone seems greedy; everyone seems like a villain. And here, at the funeral, we’re all trying to remember why we came.
Tenth Inning (1994-2010): I was there. I remember that. I watched that.
I will never tire of watching Barry Bonds fail to throw out Sid Bream. I always loved how much fun Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to be having–and always wished I had that swing. I was cheering for McGwire the whole time and have to admit I was disappointed when the PED charges came to light. I never cheered for Bonds unless he struck out looking. I want to buy Steve Bartman a beer and talk baseball with the guy–not that game, just baseball. No, the 2004 ALCS is not overrated and yes, I’ll watch the Yankees choke like that any time, day or night. My heart was in my throat when Endy Chavez made that catch, only to have the Cardinals rip it out and crush it a few innings later. You’re really using that Springsteen song, Ken? Don’t you realize it’s about looking back and realizing how middle-aged you are?
“But then time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”
You know what? That’s exactly what this is, isn’t it? Good job, sir.