Retrospective on Ken Burns’ Baseball, Part 2

What Burns’ Deliberately Left Out (And I’m Not Just Talking About Warren Spahn)

He didn’t ‘sign’ with Baltimore, but Ken Burns would have you believe otherwise. npr.com

As I said I believe Ken Burns’ Baseball is a great triumph of documentary filmmaking that holds up even after more than a quarter of a century. But after several rewatches in recent years, it has become clear that are certain things that Burns and his writers deliberately left out.

And no, I’m not just talking about how so many of the greatest ballplayers of the twentieth century are basically ignored. I imagine true fans of the game are still irked that in nearly twenty hours, Baseball didn’t think to mention Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson’s accomplishments in stolen bases; the high average hitting of Rod Carew or the massive home runs struck by Harmon Killebrew; that George Brett and Wade Boggs are only mentioned when it comes to being born, and that several of the greatest pitchers of all time such as Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Nolan Ryan and yes, Steve Carlton are either ignored or mentioned in the television equivalent of footnotes. No documentary of baseball could ever adequately pay tribute to every single player who made it to Cooperstown even thirty years ago: frankly, it’s impressive the job that the filmmakers managed to pull off.

No, what Burns leaves out of the documentary is far subtler and something that even the most loyal fans of the game and all but the most devoted historians would have noticed. It’s something that I didn’t pick up on even after years of reading about so many of the players that are featured. But it is something that once you know how the sport has worked since it became a professional sport, seems very hard to understand why it was done. Let me give you the most obvious examples.

In telling the saga of Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the greatest and most tragic characters in the history of the sport in The Fourth Inning, this is how the narration says he ended up with the Cardinals:

“In the middle of the 1926 season, the Chicago Cubs let Alexander go…But Branch Rickey had seen something in the old man…and hired him for St. Louis.”

The Cardinals win the pennant that year and…well, if you don’t know the story, by all means see the documentary: it is one of the greatest stories in the history of sports and it is spellbinding even if you only get an oral description of it. But look at the way it’s phrased: Alexander is let go and Branch Rickey hires him. This leads to you believe the Cubs had no faith in Alexander, and Rickey (who I’ll get back to later) was a genius to see his skill. The thing is that’s not what happened. Alexander wasn’t released. He was traded from Chicago to St. Louis. It’s a small detail, but a telling one. It makes you think Alexander had control of his fate. If you’ve been watching the documentary to this point, you know perfectly well he doesn’t.

A more telling example of this comes in the eighth inning. Here’s how we hear part of the saga of Frank Robinson:

“Cincinnati let Robinson go, saying he was too old at thirty. He wasn’t. He signed with Baltimore.”

This is something that not only fans of that era know is false but is actually part of pop culture by this point. Anyone who saw the movie Bull Durham will remember how Susan Sarandon in describing bad trades says: “Who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for goodness sakes?” It’s harder to overlook this particular deviation considering how much of the eighth inning is devoted to the labor struggles of baseball: Marvin Miller is interviewed and the episode ends with Curt Flood’s response to being traded to Philadelphia and the groundbreaking lawsuit he filed.

Burns is a brilliant filmmaker and his team does their research. You could blame some of this on this being a relatively early feature in Burns’ work or that so much of the work they have to do is separating from truth from anecdote. I can’t see it that way, for a very good reason.

From the start of the documentary, Burns and his writers are at pains to mention the reserve clause, the controversial part of every ballplayer’s contract that made him property of his club for life. They are very clear at the unfairness of it for the first eight parts of the documentary, how it kept salaries artificially slow, smacked of slavery and essentially made the owners control the player’s destinies. They visit every consequence of this action: the Players’ League revolt of 1890, in which players formed their own league to try and break the monopoly of the owners. The Federal League in 1914 where millionaires formed their own leagues where the players were allowed to become free agents and how many league baseball used it powers to ultimately crush it. There is an implication that the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series in part because Charles Comiskey used the reserve clause to pay his players so poorly. Even in the 1960s when they gloss over Frank Robinson’s trade, they discuss in detail Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale’s joint holdout in order to get bigger salaries. They argue firmly that baseball players are, to quote Flood, little more than well-paid slaves.

And then, in the last inning, there’s a key change. After the Seitz decision which obliterated the reserve clause, there’s a change in tone. We see an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, a devoted Red Sox fan, in which she speaks in a disenchanted tone about ballplayers choosing ‘to search for more money rather than stay with the place that loves you.” The lockout of 1972 is not mentioned. Neither is the strike of 1981 that nearly destroyed the season. The owner’s decision to collude and destroy the free agent market is mentioned, but in a segment far shorter than the one dealing with Pete Rose’s gambling scandal. It is mentioned near the end that in 1976, the average ballplayer made eight times the working man’s wage but in 1992, the average one made over 100 times that amount. This is bracketed by clips of enormous contracts being given to many players and a piece showing autographs and baseball cards being sold for millions, to ‘Money, Money, Money’.

And I find it very telling that of all the ballplayers they could have interviewed to express an opinion on free agency, the one they choose to talk to is Bill Lee, one of the most contrarian players in history who first calls it ‘The Emancipation Proclamation of baseball’, refers to teams as ‘plantations’, and that the only people who lost were ‘the fans, the integrity of baseball… and eventually the planet Earth.”

I’ve been watching Ken Burns for a very long time and the way he makes the radical turns around of ballplayers as employees for eight and a half innings and then turns them into little more than ungrateful millionaires is kind of astounding. (On a side note, I find it fascinating that Goodwin and George Will, who have the opposite political views on everything else, have reversed their politics on this: Goodwin takes the socially conservative position on free agency and Will describes himself as a ‘neo-Marxist’ thinking the players should get ‘the lion’s share of the rewards.) How dare the ballplayers, who spent a century being traded and treated as chattel at the whim of the management of their club, pursue money and freedom?

Burns goes out of his way to make the viewer believe that ballplayers stay with clubs for their entire careers because they love the fans and the team. With very few exceptions he never mentions the trades that even the legendary players had to suffer through when they outlived their usefulness to the team. If you saw this documentary, you would think that Ted Williams stayed with Boston or Bob Feller with Cleveland for their entire careers because they had a choice. They don’t mention how Willie Mays spent the final two years of career after being traded to the Mets or that Ty Cobb, who spent twenty years with the Tigers, spent the last two years with the Philadelphia A’s. Connie Mack is portrayed as a saintly gentleman who owned the Philadelphia Athletics for fifty years. The fact that he sold of two different championship teams, the latter time dooming the franchise to disregard until it was forced to leave Philadelphia is basically considered a quirk. (The irony that this documentary originally aired in a season that a strike cancelled the postseason is not lost on me.)

This level of the basic disregard to human decency even spills into the story that Burns wants us to consider the greatest moment in baseball: Jackie Robinson’s integration with Brooklyn. Branch Rickey is set up, if not the hero of Baseball, then perhaps the main character: he is the only individual mentioned in every episode either in a direct appearance or in passing. Rickey’s history is revealed and his determination to integrate baseball after the Second World War considered a triumph of morality.

But it glosses over one critical detail. In 1945 Jackie Robinson was playing with the Kansas City Monarchs, part of the Negro National League. They were one of the oldest — and best — black baseball teams in the country. When Rickey signed Robinson, not only did he ignore that he had a contract with Kansas City and not compensate them for taking a player off their hands, he dismissed the team — and by extension black baseball as ‘not a real league’.

Now I know Burns’ is trying to put a halo on both Rickey and Robinson but considering that he spent most of the previous part, explaining how remarkable black baseball was — going so far as to say it was ‘separate but athletically equal’, this is pretty hard to overlook. The fact that this decision, which ended up destroying black baseball as a business, was essentially founded on a white man stealing from black men — no matter for how noble a reason — can not just be swept under the rug. Yet that’s what Burns does.

He even goes so far to do so when it comes to the end of Robinson’s career. In the Seventh Inning, he says that Robinson had ‘chosen to retire in 1956’. In point of fact before he could announce, the Dodgers traded him to the Giants. There is no mention of this either. (Perhaps it is followed up on in the documentary Burns did on Robinson more than twenty years later. My focus is on Baseball.)

The follow-up documentary The Tenth Inning, made twenty years after the fact, does a good job of dealing with many of the flaws in the previous one. It acknowledges that, at least in part, the 1994 strike and its aftermath may have led to the owners deciding to ignore the steady and increasingly visible use of steroids in the game in order to protect their box office. It makes it very clear that what players like McGwire and Barry Bonds — the lead who you come across with more sympathy for when you know his life story — were enabled by an ownership gun-shy because of the aftereffects of the strike, a press that didn’t want to hurt the game, and a fan base that was ignoring the obvious and then turned on the players when they learned the truth. The players and owners are forced to bear equal responsibility for the strike and for everything they have done and that does seem to be the overriding message that we should take from it.

So when you watch the documentary — and if you subscribe to the MLB network, you will get several chances starting in November — do what I should I’ve done. Watch the whole thing, take pleasure in the anecdotes, marvel in the quality of the filmmaking. But a word of caution. If you’re nostalgic for the days when ballplayers were ‘loyal’ and weren’t ‘obsessed with money’, Baseball will make you believe in the lie. But keep in mind that’s not how the game ever worked. And for those of you who think the game was better before, there’s a quote in the first hour of the first part that will make you laugh out loud as a veteran from the 1860s tells you: “Somehow or other, they don’t play ball like they used too.” You would do well remember that…and Burns would have too.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.