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When I saw the American Hercules feature produced by Major League Baseball video and released a few months ago, I really liked the change in storytelling approach that was given to Ruth by writers, historians and mythologists. And up until I opened up this multidisc set titled Baseball Legends, I had no idea that they reprised this approach with similar baseball icons. Needless to say this was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.
For those unfamiliar with the way MLB video handles these subjects, they use narration by Martin Sheen, and with the help of mythologist Ken Cousineau or contemporary admirers such as Deadspin's former editor Will Leitch or authors familiar with the subject matter, the discussion that correlates a baseball hero to a mythical hero, or at the very least, a figure with some mythologic qualities, follows. The set follows four figures, the aforementioned Ruth as Hercules, former Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams as the Immortal One, former Ruth teammate Lou Gehrig as the Iron Knight, and longtime career home run champion Hank Aaron as The Hammer.
American Hercules sets the tone of the films early as we see early locales in Ruth's life and the transposition of an old film or still against the modern background does have a resonance that makes the world of Ruth from a century ago smaller than you think. Using the anecdotes everyone knows and shifts the focus on what makes them so memorable in a different way that makes them entertaining and you buy into the supposition of the storytellers. It makes for pleasant viewing.
The disc moves onto Williams, and discusses his military service and his desire for hitting perfection, to the point where it could have been seen as an obsession. The piece, which includes Cousineau and Leetch (as all the films do), include insight from Leigh Montville and Ben Bradlee Jr. on the Splendid Splinter. Covering Williams' confidence, which apparently bordered on arrogance to some, is discussed, but also summed up by a writer who interviewed Williams in his final year, saying that ‘God doesn't answer letters' after Williams refused to acknowledge a curtain call in his final at bat. The Immortal also includes an unlikely admirer in Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight, but
The second disc in the set may be the better one on the whole. "The Hammer of Hank Aaron" includes lots of interviews with Aaron, as it should since of the quartet, he is the only living member. Aaron recounts his humble beginnings and his having to deal with civil rights as he rose through the ranks of the minors, and further still in the majors, and does not flinch at the threats he received as he was pursuing Ruth's home run record. The metaphor introduced in the feature seems to be one where if a dragonslayer (Aaron) gets too close to the dragon (Ruth, or the vitriol from fans of him), he could be poisoned by the dragon somehow, which was one that I would have enjoyed seeing more exploration of. Nevertheless, with the previously mentioned interviewees, combine them with Aaron and writer Howard Bryant, this may be the most emotional of the films.
The quartet concludes with The Iron Knight, which examines the consecutive games streak of Lou Gehrig, but more than that, explores the modesty of the man, who grew up not far from the town where he was become a legend. The comparison of Gehrig's introversion to Ruth's gregariousness is recounted, and Gehrig's dealing with his ALS diagnosis and stepping away from baseball is touched on also. The film also harkens back to American Hercules, in that vintage film is transposed over modern shot backgrounds (The Immortal and The Hammer don't rely on it as much), but there is a certain degree of poignancy to the film as you watch it. We all know what the ending is, folks newer to Gehrig's life get introduced to it early, and it's handled as well as you'd expect.
All in all, Baseball Legends does not fall into the trap of recounting the events of its subjects too often, looking at things with a different view and even humanizing their subjects while at the same time drawing convincing parallels to mythology in them. This new telling of stories about players whose stories have been told before is a welcome breath of fresh air, and even being a now-casual fan of the sport, these were done well.The Discs:
Each feature is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the four films are split equally over two discs. The modern interviews look fine, and the vintage film looks as good as it's going to. The older source material has its own artifacts that are inherent in the source, but the colors look fine and the modern exteriors look vivid compared to the older (reformatted video). The Aaron piece looks the best, perhaps because the older video is the newest and it has the most recent interview footage of the four, but all are quite solid and represent the recent production values well.The Sound:
Each of the films has a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack and they don't get a lot to do, but are perfectly acceptable. The score sounds clear but the rear channels and subwoofer really don't have much opportunity to show off. The video and the interviews all transpire in the front of the soundstage and are clear and free of distortion. Pretty much as you would expect.Extras:
The extras from American Hercules return for this set for the Ruth portion, with the general nature of extras the same throughout. The Williams film includes his Hall of Fame induction speech (4:01), his appearance at Fenway Park for the 1999 All-Star Game (3:32) and the later appearance for the All-Century Team (1:03). Reminiscing from Knight (2:24), Montville (2:34), Cousineau (1:41) and Bradlee (2:37) are included, along with two vintage interviews. The first, in 1960, covers his thoughts on hitting (11:09), while the second, six years later, covers a variety of topics (6:05).
The Gehrig piece includes more thoughts from Jonathan Eig (5:49), Cousineau (5:29), Leitch (4:19), Dan McCoy (6:08) and Harold Koplewicz (3:28), and contemporary players recite Gehrig's speech (2:37). The Aaron feature includes thoughts from him on growing up (3:12) and on the 1969 National League Championship Series (2:38). TV calls on homer # 714 (8:13) and 715 (3, 13:59) are next, with two older interviews from Aaron by former player Joe Garagiola shot in 1974, one in April (5:41), the other in October (1:42).Final Thoughts:
Baseball Legends looks at the lives and careers of four players who could arguably be on baseball's Mount Rushmore, and does so in a way that helps break down the reason why they are so beloved by so many, in the event you weren't already familiar. Technically, the presentations are fine, and the bonus material is welcome, but not all that revelatory. Definitely worth checking out the next time you see any of them air anywhere.