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Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns Pt. 1

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

The notion of spending approximately 20 hours watching a film about a single subject seems like a harrowing task- almost a test of the viewer's endurance. For those who find the time and the will to meet the challenge this film's length presents, however, a rich reward awaits. While Burns has often said that this is really a film about national identity and part of a trilogy about race, the greatest riches await those who already have a love of the game. The film is broken up into nine "innings," each approximately 2 hours in length, each chronicling a unique period in the game's history, and each filled with truly great stories and anecdotes about the game and its players. While many of those who will take the time to watch this film will already be avid baseball enthusiasts and amateur baseball historians, able to recite facts and statistics from many of the eras covered by the film, each disc reflects a level of comprehensive research and storytelling from which even the most avid baseball fans will likely learn a great deal.

The many hours of "Baseball" are comprised of a narrative narrated by John Chancellor mixed with a good amount of footage, both still photos and actual film and a number of testimonials by a diverse panel, united by their love of the game. The panel includes Daniel Okrent, an editor who is prominently featured throughout each disc of the film (and usually wearing the same of one or two outfits), paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist George Will, writer George S. Plymptom, former Negro Leaguer and Buck O'Neill, Mickey Mantle, Comedian Billy Crystal and Sportscaster Bob Costas. The diverse backgrounds of these individuals help to drive home the unifying force of a love of the national pastime, and their segments are quite enjoyable, as they speak on both baseball history and their experiences as fans during good times and bad. It is interesting that Burns does not himself appear in the film to speak about his experiences as a baseball fan, although they are likely present in the tone of the film.

Although this film is a phenomenal gift to the baseball fans of the world, Burns is not off base in referring to his trilogy of films, "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz" as a trilogy about race in America. From the first disc, covering the second half of the 19th century to the later discs dealing with the last forty years, race and the treatment of African-American players is an ever-present theme in the film, discussing the "gentleman's agreement" that kept black players out of major league baseball for many years, the development of the Negro leagues, thwarted attempts to bring black players into the majors, the heroes who emerged in the Negro leagues, the experiences of those players who did break major league baseball's color barrier, and the current state of black players and managers in the game. While this might seem to be a distraction from the presentation of a tome of major league baseball history unrivaled anywhere else, the two concepts flow well and truly give a sense of the suffering of these players and the losses major league baseball incurred by failing to allow its fans the privilege of seeing some of the nation's greatest baseball players play in the national spotlight. To the extent that this film attempts not only to make a hero out of Jackie Robinson, but players such as Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, Satchell Paige, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron, the film greatly succeeds.

A considerable strength of this film are its recitations of anecdotes which are told by the panelists to help highlight the character of the game, including the telling of a play referred to as the "Merkle Boner" in which, with two outs, a player on first base when the would-be game winning hit was made got so caught up in the excitement that he failed to touch second base, as fans rushed the field, causing the opposing second baseman to realize this and go in search of the baseball. The would-be winning team's manager saw this and threw the ball into the crowd, providing a lucky fan with a souvenir with which he began to walk home until he was attacked by players from the opposing team who forcibly retrieved the ball and got it to the second baseman who caused the force-out at second base negating the winning run. While this is a personal favorite amongst the anecdotes recited by the various baseball historians in the film, there is usually at least one amusing and informative anecdote on each disc with which the typical baseball fan might not necessarily have come into contact.

While these anecdotes add a lot to the film and the viewer's enjoyment of each chapter in this recitation of baseball's history, an even greater treasure in "Baseball" is simply the footage included in the film. The viewer is treated to still photos of many of the games early greats and a great amount of filmed footage (of varying quality) of some of baseball history's greatest moments, including Babe Ruth's mammoth home runs, Lou Gherig's farewell speech, Roger Maris' 61st home run, Hank Aaron's 715th home run, Carlton Fisk's dramatic world series home run, Bobby Thompson's "shot heard round the world," Jackie Robinson's first game, Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series home run (a painful moment for a lifelong A's fan) and "The Catch" by Willie Mays. While the many interviews with baseball historians throughout the film might be a bit boring for children, it is this footage, of quality ranging from poor to pristine which I look forward to showing to my kids one day, showing them the game that their father and their grandfather loved so much and the players who earned the status of heroes. In addition, much of the footage shows some of the early ballparks of baseball which may, like Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, no longer be standing.

While Burns obviously seeks to focus on the legends of the game and the most accomplished players of the eras he examines, he also seems to love to take the time to look at the true characters of the game. While Billy Martin, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra all made tremendous contributions to their teams' efforts to win ballgames, Burns takes extra time to appreciate the unique personality each brought to the game, as well as other "personalities" like Rube Waddell, Bill Lee and many others. Further, Burns looks at those who truly changed the game off the field, like "Ban" Johnson, who brought the American League into the major leagues, Keneshaw Mountain Landis, the District Court Judge who presided over the antitrust hearings regarding baseball and later became the game's first commissioner and the man who through the 1919 Chicago Black Sox out of the game, Branch Rickey, who played the game but will be forever more appreciated for developing the farm system and for bringing Jackie Robinson into the major leagues, and Marvin Miller, a players' representative who helped bring about the abolition of the "reserve clause" which held players to their teams in seeming perpetuity and allowed for the emergence of the free agent in baseball.

All around, Burn's comprehensiveness is a thing to be enjoyed and admired. Not only does Burns, pardon the pun, cover all bases with respect to the emergence and development of the game of baseball, he covers the writing of "take me out to the ball game," the connection of "The Star Spangled Banner" to the game of baseball, years before it became the national anthem (a great story), the invention of the ball park frank, the writing and performance of "Casey at the Bat," Abbot and Costello's legendary "Who's on First!" sketch and much more. Burns truly offers something for everyone to learn about the game despite their level of familiarity with it.

To provide a quick run down of the massive number of subjects covered, here is a list of some of the highlights from each disc:

1st Inning: In the beginning… Early lessons in baseball history usually begin with Abner Doubleday. He is credited with having invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York. In fact, the very spot is enshrined by the presence of the Hall of Fame. But, patient viewers will learn the birth of baseball took place years earlier, and in many different places. In the first DVD, Burns doesn't just look at the origins of baseball he looks at the origins of everything about baseball-from the shape of the baseball diamond to the invention of the curveball, Burns examines how the game likely came about and how those who helped develop the game sought to distinguish it from games being played in Great Britain and elsewhere. Burns examines the early development of the game from 1840's, its appeal to individuals from all social classes, its emergence in the 1850's as the national pastime and its development as a business.

2nd Inning: During the first decade of the 20th Century, baseball grew tremendously in large part due to the emergence of a few superstars. In Disk 2, Burns takes a look at the continued evolution of the game through examination of the impact of players like Honus Wagner, manager extraordinaire John McGraw, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson and Ty Cobb, a man who seemed to offer both the best and worst that one could hope to expect from a baseball player. Burns looks at the birth of the American League and its rise to relative parity with the National League, the birth of the epic poem Casey at the Bat and the composition of a song synonymous with baseball- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." While many of the players featured are well known to baseball enthusiasts, Burns begins to keep a frequent eye on the way that black players were kept out of the major leagues and begins to look at the accomplishments of some of these players, bringing home how much baseball lost due to a gentleman's agreement. Burns also looks at the lethal defensive trio of the Chicago Cubs - "Tinkers to Evans to Chance"-and the freak occurrence known as the Merkle Boner, one of the most remarkable and embarrassing events in baseball, which is explained above.

3rd Inning: Burns focuses a bit more on the accomplishments of Ty Cobb, and on baseball manager Connie Mack, a great manager who got into such a heated dispute that he sought to forfeit a World Series rather than play against the American League Champion. This decade saw the rise of a new renegade league called the "Federalist League" which sought to steal players from the major leagues with various monetary enticements. The major leagues and the federalist league fought vigorously, and the matter ended up in district court on antitrust violation charges before the Honorable Kenishaw Mountain Landis, the judge who ultimately found that the playing of baseball did not equate to interstate commerce and that because of the unique position it held, it was not guilty of any antitrust violation. This caused the federalist league to collapse. Finally, Burns looks at something almost successful in bringing down baseball in a way rival leagues never could- the effect of gambling on baseball. In addition to anecdotal evidence of one fan yelling to a player "five bucks if you catch it" and another yelling "ten bucks if you drop it," gambling had a tangible, identifiable and earthshattering effect on the Chicago White Sox and the 1919 World Series in which a couple of gamblers managed to arrange the fixing of the series in which the heavily favored and superior White Sox ended up losing the series. When allegations of fixing the games began to become more and more substantiated, an investigation ensued and, although all of the "Black Sox" players were acquitted, Judge Landis, becoming baseball's first commissioner, banned the members of the team from baseball for life, including a player named "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, who was not well-educated and might not have known what he was doing but agreed to take part in the scheme, despite batting more successfully than most other players in the world series. The allegations and banning of these players rocked the baseball world, and irreparably damaged the game, had it not been for a young pitcher in Boston who was dazzling opposing batters from the mound and frustrating opposing pitchers at the plate with a mammoth power behind a swing the player, a young man named George Herman Ruth, but whom everyone called "The Babe," claimed to have learned from baseball exile Shoeless Joe Jackson.

4th Inning- While the previous 3 discs have endeavored to capture the many characters and heroes of each era of baseball depicted, the 4th disc spends almost the entire first hour on one individual: Babe Ruth. Perhaps rightly so, as few players have done as much to reshape the game as Ruth did. Burns focuses on his upbringing, his troubles, and his triumphs, carrying baseball and the Yankees on his shoulders after the Black Sox scandal threatened baseball's very vitality. During this hour, it becomes very clear that Ruth transformed the game and the place the home run had in it, at one stage in his career setting a season home run record with 29 home runs, and later setting a season record again with 60 home runs. Ruth, a pitcher from the Boston Red Sox who was sold so the Broadway obsessed owner of the Red Sox could fund a musical called "No No, Nannette!" came to the Yankees and played so well that he was converted to an outfielder so he could play every day, as he became an icon for the game in the 1920's. The coverage is quite enjoyable, and as Burns follows most of Ruth's career, the viewer really gets a good sense of the man and the figure that he was.

After laying out the impact Ruth made on the game, Burns next begins a brief examination of a Yankee's player whose achievements are much more dubious- Walter Pipp was a first baseman for the New York Yankees, who became most famous for getting injured. After Pipp had to be taken out of the game, the slot at first base for the New York Yankees was filled by a man named Lou Gherig, who would set a record for consecutive games played that would last a half-century. Burns also looks at the continued development of the Negro Leagues and its players and baseball mastermind Branch Ricky's development of Baseball's farm system.

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