Ken Burns’ Baseball


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?


5 responses »

  1. I actually heard the song from the Civil War documentary a couple of weeks ago. I instantly recognized it. Its like its been burned into my brain ever since 5th grade.

  2. THE correct way is Burns’s…however, the modernist grammarian MAY tell you the Burns’ “will do nicely,” in his or her book, while his or her grammarian opponent may claim otherwise and hold out for the classic Burns’s — as do I, which may be “just the thing” for giving you permission to do as you please 😀 and plant your flag with Burns’.
    But then…Just LOOK at the aesthetically offense with which that previous sentence ends: Ugh!

  3. While the Good Doctor is essentially correct. He pushes the envelope a bit by saying ‘modern grammarians’. Unless, of course, he defines ‘modern’ as anytime after 1964, since that was when I learned that possessives for words ending with an s could be either s’s or drop the latter s.
    You may think it a wee bit odd that I learned this at such a young age, 3rd or 4th grade, but when your name is Russ, then it is a critical question for which to have an answer. And let’s face it, Russ’s just looks damn stupid.

  4. Russ’s point of view is latter day for this guy who was graduating from hs the year after Russ was learning the rule: his teacher was ahead of the curve,which my teachers were and had long been forewarning us about: those who tolerate change for the sake of change.
    Russ’s point of view that Russ’s just look damn stupid is an offense to my tender eyes and ears and to my very sound mind, which claims that Russ’s looks quite normal and is not only acceptable but necessary.
    Of course, all this is moot: the world moves apace and drags some of us along with it: the rest are the firm and dependable anchor of civilization.
    PS: Yer dad’s a nice guy with a sense of humor, I see. I do wish I could approach such a standard: it would relieve me of much troublesomeness for which I have only myself to blame. ;-D

  5. I promised my daughter to not belabor the point. As such I only have two comments.
    1) Discussions of grammatical minutiae, much like coding styles, tend to be religious in nature. Thus, must be entered into carefully. I generally follow the Heinlein aphorism, ‘Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.’
    2) I did spend time this morning researching both the point in question and the history of grammar. I’d like to thank The Good Doctor and admit that it was a delightful ‘waste of time’. In so doing, I came upon this course syllabus:
    I forewarn all, this should only be read by the maniacal as I am afraid that I am already driving my beloved daughter’s loyal readers to the nether reaches of the blogosphere when they should be concentrating on her message of the joy of baseball and the wonder that is spring.

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