Reflections On Ken Burns’ Baseball
Part 1: How the Documentary Ignited A Life-Long Affair With The National Pastime and What It Does So Well
It has been a great year for baseball even if you haven’t been paying attention. This past May Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest hitters of all time, took his official place among the immortals when he obtained his 3000th hit. (I personally witnessed numbers 2997–2999.) Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, has been enjoyed a well-earned career revival with his old team the St. Louis Cardinals; a week ago became only the fourth player in history to reach 700 home runs and we will see him in the postseason. Of course, the story that has captivated the world beyond baseball has been Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League (and in the minds of the many, the genuine) home run record held by Roger Maris for 61 years. It was a frustrating week for millions before he tied it Wednesday night against the Blue Jays with his 61st home run. It seems inevitable he’ll break it — but he was stuck on 60 for more than a week. Will he do it? Will the Yankees manage to win the World Series? Will Judge win the Triple Crown? And most of all, will Judge stay with the Yankees this year?
I have been a more or less devoted baseball fan for my entire life. But the reason I’m writing this article is that my path from casual observer to full-on fanatic took a route that I’m pretty sure most fans don’t follow.
Growing up, I was a casual baseball observer. I followed the Mets and Yankees on PIX 11 and Channel 9. I would occasionally watch Nolan Ryan pitch with my father. And I did watch every World Series. But back then, it was just something I did because the TV was always tuned to those games in our house. I did the same thing when we watched the Giants and the Jets and football in general. It was something to do. My transformation did not begin until September 1994 (which is ironic for reasons that I will soon explain)
One Sunday night, while channel chasing, I tuned to PBS which was in the middle of showing a documentary series called Baseball. I knew vaguely who Ken Burns was, but it would have meant nothing. I spent the next hour and a half riveting as the tones of John Chancellor took me through the summer of 1941, while Joe DiMaggio was engaged in a fifty-six-game hitting streak and Ted Williams was batting .406. There were several interviews with Williams. I then watched the story of baseball during the second World War and eventually learned the saga of Jackie Robinson, which Burns made the center of the second half of the episode. I was riveted.
I watched the next three ‘innings utterly fascinated. When the documentary was rerun two weeks later, I more or less watched the entire thing. Less than three weeks later, I persuaded my father to spend over $150 for the entire series on VHS. I’m still not sure how I managed to win him over.
I would watch and rewatch the entire documentary at least half a dozen times until I graduated high school. The VHS had a prominent place in our house to this day, even in the age of DVDs. And that was the beginning of my devotion to baseball, though even then it took a circuitous path.
I still followed the Yankees, the Mets and the postseason (the former two overlapped with the latter quite a bit in the late 1990s) but my devotion to the sport followed what could be best described as a literary path. I began reading every single book I could find in both my school and local libraries about baseball. The history of the sport, of the players and many of the teams. Much of this ended up focusing on the Yankees (it’s nearly impossible to separate from the sport) but much of it also focused on many of the individuals who were highlighted within that same documentary, many of whom had devoted their lives to the sport. I tracked down the collections that Roger Angell had written over a quarter of a century in The New Yorker (I may even have gotten a subscription under the possibility of reading his articles which came quarterly well into his eighties). I did the same for Thomas Boswell, a sportswriter for The Washington Post who for most of his life didn’t have a home team to root for. (He focused many of his articles on the Orioles, which was a decent substitute — for a while.) I found the definitive biographies by Robert Creamer of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. The first book of Doris Kearns Goodwin I ever read was not a historical biography but a personal one of growing up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
By the time, I graduated college I was a full-fledged fan. Oddly enough, much of my fandom has rarely been for the home teams or even out of state teams but more often for individual players. I spent much of teenage years following Tony Gwynn of the Padres, perhaps the last true high-average singles hitter baseball has ever seen. I marveled at the accomplishments of what may be the greatest three-man rotation in history — Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves. And I was not immune to the home run chases that happened in the late 1990s by McGwire, Sosa and Bonds (though I was pulling for Ken Griffey Jr, who as far as we know was never used steroids.) In that sense, while I think the records are tainted, I don’t blame any of the hitters of that era for doing what they did. The sport, the press and the fans all deserved to be unindicted co-conspirators in what happened.
More to the point, as a fan of baseball I spent much of the last twenty years rooting for — and appreciating perhaps more than any New Yorker can — the obliteration of so many 20th Century curses. I agonized during the 2003 postseason, watching the collapse of the Cubs in Game 6 of the NLCS and Pedro Martinez kept in far too long in the ALCS. I think I agonized over the 2004 ALCS even more than that year’s election and considering how the World Series ended that year, I probably made the right call. I may have had more sympathy for the White Sox the next year — who hadn’t won a World Series since 1917 or a pennant since 1959 — when they managed to go all the way that year. And the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and Cleveland was one that any true baseball fan in the world must have agonized over. It was great for the Cubs to win; the fact that Cleveland still has the longest drought without a championship in baseball history is one that is agonizing. (Maybe this year.) And I appreciated it when the Washington Nationals won the first World Series for their city for the first time since 1924. I will confess that I spent many years rooting for them and other second tier teams like the Pirates and the Reds to finally prevail. I hope it happens someday.
I truly believe my utter devotion to baseball would not have begun had I not seen Burns’ documentary. I’ve seen several of them in the more than thirty years since, and I don’t deny that most of them are extraordinary. His documentaries on the Vietnam War and World War II were master classes. I found something in his work on Country Music that I didn’t think possible. And I have a personal admiration to his work on The Roosevelts. But at my core, I still consider Baseball his crowning achievement, perhaps because it was the first one, I saw but perhaps mainly because it’s the one I’ve seen the most. This is due to the fact that the MLB Network every time the postseason ends spend the fall and winter months mostly airing movies about baseball, fictional and non-fiction in prime time. The documentary airs, on average, at least three to four times in its entirety over those four to five months, two or three times over a two-week period; two or three times in marathons. And almost inevitably every time it is rerun, no matter what else is airing on other channels, I will stop what I am watching and spend half an hour at least, watching several of my favorite segments if not the whole part.
I admit the documentary is far too laudatory to the sport it admires, talking about it in rapturous and often poetic terms in stretches. But that doesn’t change the fact that its an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. If you knew nothing about the history of baseball, this is as good a primer as anything. It’s not a perfect overview of the history of baseball, but no single documentary not even one that clocks in at nineteen hours plus over nine parts, could.
What Burns, Geoffrey Ward and his team of filmmakers do is what they have done so many times afterwards. They collect information, have a single narrator (Chancellor in this case) tell the overriding story and through pictures, commentary and voiceovers tell the overarching and individual stories of their subject. The ‘main characters’ of Baseball are essentially two teams: the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox. I have no doubt this was a deliberate choice: Burns could have focused on the Yankees (they are a presence in almost every chapter), but Burns chose to focus on two of the most intimate, historic and perennially frustrated fandoms. The Dodgers spent their history the joke of New York (and indeed much of the country) until finally achieving greatness, spent years being frustrated by flukes that only seemed to happen in Brooklyn (a missed called third strike, The Shot Hurt Round the World and the only perfect game in a World Series) finally manage to win a world championship only to be pulled out of Brooklyn two years later in a move that the borough is still recovering from. The Red Sox (at the time of the documentary) were one of the storied franchises of the American League, winners of the first world series and four more after that before…well, much as the documentary argues, it really had nothing to do with Babe Ruth. They spent the next seventy-five years suffering some of the most ignoble fates in the history of baseball — and the documentary doesn’t touch on some of the worst.
One might argue that for a documentary about baseball, there are few actual players interviewed. But what players. We get to hear Bob Feller talk about coming up as a pitcher; Ted Williams as he discusses hitting .400 and his last day in Boston; Mickey Mantle, coming up as a Yankee and his own disappointments, and Henry Aaron discussing just what it meant to break Ruth’s record. We also spend a lot of time with Curt Flood, who might be the most important ballplayer you’ve heard of, and Bill Lee, who within two minutes you understand why he was nicknamed ‘Spaceman’.
As always, many of the ‘characters’ in Burns’ documentary are voiced by legendary actors, and it’s a perfect mesh. Gregory Peck takes on the voice of Connie Mack, the greatest owner and manager you’ve never heard of. Jason Robards is Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball and the one man who ran the game with the owners’ dancing to his whims. Eli Wallach and Ossie Davis are constants as sportswriters, talking through the history of the game. And relative unknowns such as Philip Bosco are perfect as saying everything.
You almost regret as the sport passes into the era of motion pictures and television because you genuinely want to hear more of the legends voiced by these acting legends. But it’s hard not to argue that they don’t have their own merit as you get to hear and see so many of the greatest moments in baseball history related by the men and women who witnessed them: Angell talking about baseball in New York in the 1950s; Doris Kearns Goodwin about following Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers; Billy Crystal about his memories of Yankee Stadium and his encounter with Ted Williams, and all of the encounters we get with Buck O’Neill, a Negro League manager and player who was by far the breakout ‘star’ of this documentary. And we get to hear two of the greatest legends in broadcasting — Vin Scully and Red Barber relate their experiences with the Dodgers, and Barber in particular telling the saga of Ebbets Field, Branch Rickey and his immediate reaction to Robinson’s being recruiting. (He contemplated resigning, but his experiences with Robinson changed his mind.)
And there is footage of legendary moments: the Shot Heard Round the World, told from every perspective. Willie Mays’ legendary catch in the 1954 World Series, seen half a dozen times in the most primitive of angles. Bill Mazeroski’s home run to win the 1960 World Series. Bob Gibson striking out 17 Detroit Tigers. And Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, which ended in joy for the Red Sox… and Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which ended in despair. Bob Costas, a constant throughout the series, tells us what it was liking watching the 10th Inning in the Red Sox locker room. It’s one of the most shocking play-by-plays in the history of broadcasting.
The series also spends much of its time giving us the sagas of the legends: we spend the first four parts following John McGraw and Ty Cobb, learn the saga of Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, and end up following the story of Babe Ruth. Overriding much of the documentary is the bigotry that poisoned the game — we learn that one of the greatest stars in 19th Century baseball may have caused the exile of black players, who were making an inroad into the sport in the 1880s, from being exiled from it for sixty years. We hear attempts to integrate that failed, the efforts of Rube Foster to build a Negro League and in the most daring episode of the series ‘Shadow Ball’, Burns and his writers spend the majority of the running time following the Negro Leagues of that era. It climaxes with O’Neill relating a confrontation between Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige in the Negro League World Series. It doesn’t matter if historians say it never happened: when O’Neill relates it, you see it. And all the other archives of pop culture in the world series: the history of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and Casey and the Bat, and novelty songs about ballplayers I’m certain no one knew existed before this documentary. (The end credits of Season 7 feature Natalie Cole singing her heart out of one on Jackie Robinson.)
Baseball is one of the great triumphs in documentary filmmaking in my opinion. But with all that in mind, I must admit that having rewatched it several times in the past few years, I can’t help but notice some of the blinders and gaps that Burns either chose to ignore or deliberately omitted. I will go into them in the ‘bottom’ of this article.