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Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns Pt. 2

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Review by Jeremy Kleinman | posted February 12, 2001 | E-mail the Author
The Movie (continued)

5th Inning- While the other discs have clearly touched on the exclusion of black players from Major League Baseball, and the creation and development of the Negro Leagues, Disc 5 gives the league its greatest spotlight, coinciding with the time during which the Negro Leagues enjoyed their greatest feats. While the leagues did not maintain as keen an eye towards statistics as its Major League equivalent, it is estimated that approximately a half-century before Mark McGwire stunned the baseball world with his mammoth 70 home run season, Pittsburgh's Negro League Team superstar Josh Gibson did it, hitting 70 home runs in one season and 931 over the course of his Negro League career. Also, although the Major Leagues got a chance to watch Satchell Paige pitch brilliantly toward the end of his career, he was blowing away Negro League batters for much of his career, prompting many to wonder about a showdown between Paige and Gibson and who would prevail. In his examination of the Negro Leagues, Burns uses a good amount of footage from an interview with Buck McHenry, a Negro League player on the Kansas City Monarchs and presently the curator of the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, and also uses a story about Josh Gibson hitting a ball so hard that it disappeared, only to drop from the sky the following night at a road game a hundred miles from where he had hit it. The 5th disc also features the end of Babe Ruth's career and the start of the careers of legends such as Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg, who had to deal with a large amount of anti-semitism on the way to becoming one of the game's greats. Disc 5 shows how baseball dealt with the Great Depression and closes with one of the saddest moments in baseball, as the Iron Horse, Lou Gherig, now greatly debilitated by the disease that would soon bear his name, took himself out of the Yankee's lineup "for the good of the team" ending a consecutive game streak that would last for 60 years.

6th Inning- As America and baseball climbed out of the Great Depression, America witnessed two hitting performances in the early 1940's that are unparalleled today: Joe DiMaggio's 56 game-hitting streak and Ted Williams .400 batting average. Both events are covered generously, and each with colorful anecdotes- Burns recounts the fact that the Heinz Ketchup people were going to give DiMaggio $10,000.00 if he had extend the streak one more game (to match their 57 varieties), while Burns' coverage of Ted Williams great feat is bolstered by interviews with Williams himself, as he tells of his having a .401 average with 3 games to go in the season, when his manager asked him if he wanted to sit out the rest of the season to maintain his average. Williams said no and after the next game was down to .3995- an average that would be rounded up to 400 but might be subjected to a dreaded asterisk like the one which curse Roger Maris' achievement two decades later. Nevertheless, the manager asked him again if he wanted to sit out the double-header on the last day to preserve his achievement. Williams again said no and played so well on the final day that he lifted his average comfortably above .400.

The 6th disc next looks at the effect that World War II had on the Major Leagues, as 340 major leaguers answered the call of service in the military, including Bob Feller, Warren Spahn and others. In the absence of these players, the league devised the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, portrayed, with an apparent great deal of accuracy, in the film "A League of Their Own." Despite impressive popularity during the war, the league ended a decade after its inception, when the commissioner of baseball formally banned women from the game. While the first half of the disc also focuses on early attempts to integrate black players into baseball, the entire second half of the disc is focused on one of the few events that most changed the game of baseball- Dodger Exec Branch Rickey's leap of faith in giving Jackie Robinson a chance to play major league baseball. Burns, who has referred to Robinson as the "hero" of "Baseball," pulls no punches in examining the treatment which Robinson received, from numerous death threats to intentional spikings by opposing players. Burns portrays the courage which Robinson showed in complying with Rickey's request that for 3 years he not fight back, and paints Robinson as strong willed and, above all, a phenomenal baseball player, who played with heart, speed and talent which few others in the game possessed.

7th Inning- While Robinson's integration into the game drastically changed both Major League Baseball and Negro League Baseball, these effects surfaced in the 1950's. In the 1950's, baseball entered into another Golden Age, as players on both sides of the color barrier made a tremendous impact on the game. Players such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, the "Say Hey! Kid" Willie Mays and, in the later parts of their careers, DiMaggio and Williams. This disk looks at one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, the "Shot heard round the World" and a play that would simply be known as "The Catch" which had not been seen in baseball before, but which would undoubtedly be imitated by kids learning the game for generations to come. Although the events of the 1951 season have come into question because of recent revelations that the Giants had been stealing the signs of the Dodgers, the Giants came from 13 ½ games back to tie the Dodgers and force a 3 game playoff between the teams. In the Ninth Inning of the third game of this special playoff, with the Dodgers close to victory, Bobby Thompson sent a home run sailing into the left field bleachers, the so-called "Shot Heard Round the World" which broke the hearts of Dodger fans and elevated the Giants to the world series. The footage of this home run is quite enjoyable, as is the footage of "The Catch," a seemingly impossible backwards basket catch made by Mays against Cleveland in the World Series. Burns complements each with the remarks of a number of his panelists about each and their expressions at the time. Finally, disc 7 gives a nice epilogue on the Negro Leagues as many of its star players came over to the Major Leagues, first in the national league, then in the american league and began to make a tremendous impact on the game- players such as Mays, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, Satchell Paige and others began to show baseball what it had been missing, but at the same time, robbed the Negro Leagues of its star talent. Burns offers a nice epilogue to the league, and focuses on the accomplishments of those who came over to the major leagues. As a nice touch, perhaps for the Seventh Inning Stretch, the Seventh disc offers an absolute gem, enjoyable for baseball fans and those who are not- portions of Abbot & Costello's "Who's on First" routine. It is as funny now as it was then and is not to be missed. Finallly, the disc focuses on what to many New Yorkers was the unthinkable- the departure of the New York Giants for San Francisco and the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. This marked the birth of California baseball and made Major League Baseball truly a national game, stretching from coast to coast.

8th Inning- The eighth disc shows baseball as it begins to more fully transform itself into its modern incarnation. Starting off with Bill Mazeroski's World Series winning home run in 1960, Burns looks at a decade in which baseball is becoming less defined by a single player or two and is becoming a bigger, more modern game. The firs sign of this is the Home Run heroics of Roger Maris, who in 1961 found himself well on his way to doing the unthinkable- shattering Babe Ruth's season home run record. Entrenched in an epic struggle with teammate Mickey Mantle, who himself had a fantastic year in 1961 before being sidelined by an injury late in the season, Maris soon began to receive threats and a horrible backlash from those who did not want to see Ruth's record fall. Even though he did accomplish this feat, hitting 61 home runs in a season, he was not granted the title unequivocally. Rather, an asterisk was placed with the record, delineating that he had done it in 162 games, to Ruth's 154. Just as this tremendous feat took place and the Yankees were riding high, across town, the Mets were born and they were terrible. Burns goes on to look at the tremendous pitching career of Dodger Sandy Koufax, the impact of the acceptance into the major leagues of players of hispanic and latino decent, including the great Roberto Clemente, as racial barriers in the Major League continued to crash down, Finally, Burns looks at the birth of the Astro Dome, the impact of two great competitors, Carl "Yaz" Yastremski, who revitalized the Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Pitcher Bob Gibson, one of the fiercest pitchers ever to play the game and a pitcher who was feared by hitters across the league and who, in 1968, recorded an almost unthinkable 1.12 earned run average. Finally, Burns finishes his examination of such an improbable decade with its most improbable feat- the World Series victory of the 1969 "Miracle" Mets.

9th Inning- While Burns has said that comment on baseball's modern times is the job of commentators and not historians, it is unfortunate that Burns is forced to cram a quarter century- from 1970 to 1994 into one disc. Nevertheless, he does give a fairly complete overview of this time period, though understandably with a number of omissions. In fact, this disc, more so than the others, feels like Burns is making abrupt shifts from topic to topic for the sake of inclusion. Nevertheless, Burns manages to focus on the likes of Nolan Ryan, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Marvin Miller who helped to finally break the reserve clause that bound players to their present teams, and many other figures. Continuing the subplot of race, Burns covers Jackie Robinson's outspoken position that there needed to be black managers in the game and his funeral some years later (presided over by the Reverend Jesse Jackson), Hank Aaron's endurance of death threats and hatred as he took on Ruth's career home run record, in which the text of a few of these letters is read, demonstrating the environment in which Aaron faced down Ruth's record. Arguably also one of most famous home runs in history was Carlton Fisk's in game 6 of the 1975 World Series appearance in which Fisk seemed to will a ball from foul territory into fair territory. While these heroics kept Boston alive and forced a game 7, game 7 would not be kind to the Red Sox, giving rise to the theory of the "Curse of the Bambino" referring to the fact that Boston had not won a World Series since they traded Babe Ruth, a theory which would seem far fetched, had it not been for the 1986 World Series, in which , during game 6, pitcher Calvin Schiraldi failed to shut down the Mets, leading to a freak play on par with the Merkle Boner, as Boston Red Sox first baseman watched what could have been the third out of the inning roll right through his legs, letting Gary Carter score and setting up a game 7, which the Mets handily won. The Curse notwithstanding, though, the 1975 Fisk home run proved to be one of the most exciting moments in baseball in years and brought many fans back to the game.

As Burns looks at the 1980's, he seems to hurry a bit more, taking time to pause and reflect on the '86 world series, Pete Rose's shattering of Ty Cobb's career hit record and his subsequent fall from grace and banning from baseball due to allegations of gambling on the game, and a moment that seemed to be, as Burns states "out of a B-movie" in which a hobbling Kirk Gibson hit an improbable home run in game 1 of the 1988 world series off Dennis Eckersley, the best closer in the game, to shatter this particular fan's dreams of an Oakland A's victory and to turn the momentum in favor of the Dodgers who would handily win the series. Burns does look at the free agent collusion which took place between team owners to keep players on their current teams, and the resulting court case in which the court found against Major League Baseball, acknowledging that collusion had taken place and ordering the owners to pay out damages to the players. Finally, Burns leaves the viewer with words which, though recorded in 1994 about escalating player salaries seem still to apply today in the wake of Alex Rodriguez's record setting contract, suggesting that the game will persist and will continue to grow while holding its place as America's pastime.

The Picture

"Baseball" is presented in full screen with the aspect ratio of its original television exhibition. The picture quality varies with the footage being used, which itself ranges from extremely grainy to fairly clear. The interview footage generally looks good, although not quite as sharp as one might hope. While much of the footage shows either signs of aging or reflects the limits of recording equipment at the time, there is more clear footage from the 1940's and 1950's than one might expect. All in all the image clarity deficiencies are usually a result of the footage itself and not the film's presentation on the DVD. Under the circumstances, the full-screen presentation quality is as good as one could hope to achieve.

The Sound

Much as the picture presentation varies with the age of the footage contained in the film, so too does the film's sound presentation. The sound presentation is in Stereo, and there does not appear to be any attempt to conduct a fresh sound transfer for the DVD. This does not greatly impact the viewing of the film, however, as much of the sound of the film is driven by either John Chancellor's narrative, various interviews, or the wonderful piano music which accompanies a fair portion of each disc. The stereo presentation is sufficient for an enjoyable viewing of these features, and does not require much volume adjustment over the course of each of the ten discs of the film.

Bonus Materials

As if approximately twenty hours of material was insufficient, this DVD collection, put out by PBS DVD Gold also includes virtual baseball card for many of the players profiled in each "inning," a series of 25 or so trivia questions on each disc about the material covered (a wrong answer will instantly transport the viewer to the portion of the film in which the answer was given,) and a bonus disc containing interviews conducted by Charlie Rose of Ken Burns, Bob Costas, Jackie Robinson's widow, Yogi Berra, and Bob Gibson. The bonus disc also contains fairly extensive (and rather up-to-date) information about each major league baseball team, and a somewhat short documentary on "The Making of Baseball."

In particular, the virtual baseball cards and the trivia questions are nice additions which allow the viewer to supplement and reinforce his newly gained knowledge disc by disc. The baseball cards, which mainly contain career statistics do provide the viewer with a statistical perspective with which to judge the accomplishments of many of the game's greats from throughout the 150 years covered by the film. The trivia questions are quite enjoyable and, with each wrong answer, the disc takes the viewer directly to the portion of the film during which the answer is provided. While many of the questions are somewhat obscure, it is impressive that a single viewing of the film will likely provide the viewer with the knowledge to correctly answer some, if not all of the questions.

The "Making of 'Baseball'" documentary is also quite enjoyable, truly taking the viewer behind the scenes, introducing the viewer to Ken Burns, and showing both the process by which the film was made and the great volumes of film from which Burns worked. Singled out for her contribution to the film is the film's pianist who does do a fantastic job throughout each of the discs setting a mood that complements the film wonderfully and makes the film seem both more poetic and more historically accurate.

Finally, the Charlie Rose interviews are also enjoyable, particularly the interview with Bob Costas regarding his close relationship with Mickey Mantle, filmed the day after Costas delivered the eulogy at Mantle's funeral. It is quite touching and really sums up the relationship between a fan and his hero and the greatness of Mantle in particular. The interview with Bob Gibson is also quite enjoyable, as Gibson talks about his treatment in the game and his perspective that he developed from these experiences. In addition, the interviews with Burns, Jackie Robinson's widow and Yogi Berra, who has a short interview dedicated mainly to his wonderful turnings of a phrase, second in baseball lore only possible to Casey Stengel's Stengelisms, but perhaps more lucid.

As stated above, this film is one of the few films which does not leave a viewer thirsting for more. That being said, this bonus disc of materials is quite enjoyable, with its only shortcoming that many of the stories and anecdotes contained herein are already covered by the film.

Final Thoughts

Quite simply stated, this is an amazing film. Burns has done a superb job capturing the soul of the game and presents a film which is both a treat and a learning experience for everyone, from avid baseball fans to baseball neophytes. Comments that this is a film about race and America's national identity are not far fetched. As said in the film, years before "The Star Spangled Banner" became the national anthem, it became a staple at baseball games. Before America was ready to serious address inequalities in the treatment of the races, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. While the viewing time is a tremendous commitment, every minute of this documentary film deserves to be seen. For parents and children, sitting around even once a week to view a disc from this film will imbue each with a greater sense of history and a great love for the game which has served as a bond between generations for 150 years. This film is a tremendous addition to any baseball fan's DVD collection.

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