With the power of Netflix, I’ve recently watched the entire 18 hours (plus bonus features) of Ken Burns’s* epic miniseries on the sport I love so well. Made in 1994, just before the strike that caused most of the country to re-evaluate its love affair with the game, it’s a beautiful film, full of trivia nuggets (Merkle’s Boner, anyone?) and interviews with legends now passed like Buck O’Neil, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle.
A few of the other reviews on Netflix complained about the New York/Boston focus, and I’d have to agree. The general response has been that the film is at it’s strongest covering the earlier years, when Boston and New York were the dominant cities with five teams between them. The film loses its way a little in the later years, partly because baseball as a sport has meant less to the country in the later half of the century. So, I can forgive barely mentioning the Twins until the coverage of the 1991 World Series because they weren’t around until 1961 — but it’s not like the Washington Senators got much coverage either, save for Walter Johnson. (Although really… no mention of Harmon Killebrew or Rod Carew? That’s just not right.) And as for teams I don’t care as much about, I think I could probably count on one hand the number of times the Cleveland Indians were mentioned and they’ve been around since the beginning.
That being said, for covering 100+ years of history, the documentary does a good job of carrying some semblance of a narrative, leaning heavily on the role racism has played in the game. In the “Making of…” documentary (a documentary about a documentary!), Burns says that Baseball is almost a sequel to his earlier work, which I was forced to watch all of in fifth grade, The Civil War. Given that, it makes perfect sense that the “hero” of the film is Jackie Robinson. He was using the history of baseball to further tell the history of America, something he also did later in his other epic mini-series, Jazz. For him, racism has been a central tenet for much of American culture, and I can’t say that I disagree with him.
Although, even I have to admit that Burns tends to over emphasize what is, at it’s core, just a game. But the florid prose he uses to describe the game puts me in just the right mood to ramp up for the upcoming season, despite overblown salaries, shady deals about television coverage, and possibly the worst commissioner we’ve had in a long time, if not ever. And so, I leave you with what is both the introduction and conclusion to the film…
It is played everywhere. In parks and playgrounds and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers’ fields. By small children and old men. Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness. Speed and grace. Failure and loss. Imperishable hope. And coming home.
* — Someone tell me the correct way to make Burns possessive… is it Burns’ or Burns’s?