“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” wrote esteemed critic Jacques Barzun, “had better learn baseball.” In documentarian Ken Burns’ cinematic journey-in-progress to find and define the American heart, he covers the bases of the national pastime with 18 1/2 hours of passion and grace. Like Brooks Robinson, little gets past him. If only he’d had an umpire to keep things moving and speed up the game.
As was clear in his mammoth treatment of “The Civil War,” Burns is never satisfied with the obvious. Beneath every battle, every campaign, every personality and every plot, he found a story, and beneath that story, he found a truth that held things together through the cohesive force of the light it shed.
The monumental “Baseball” is an apt companion to Burns’ earlier epic; indeed, it appears to have grown directly out of it. Similar themes — race, labor, nationhood and what it means to be a hero — run through both works, and they use analogous techniques of storytelling mixed with biography and image presentation.
“Baseball” has the added edge of a tremendous archive of live footage. That Burns uses similar music and title cards is no accident. In “Baseball,” Burns is fighting the Civil War all over again.
The fight is daring, often brilliant, sometimes exotic and occasionally trite. Show runs 18-plus hours (several segs run a few minutes overtime), divided into nine two-hour “innings,” which are basically defined by decades. Burns’ mission is to go beyond the game without losing sight of it, to explore why and how it has so pervaded America’s culture and consciousness, and what it’s taught us about ourselves. If his conclusions are not startling, his thoroughness and detail are.
Each episode begins with a rendition of the national anthem and a quick recitation of the era’s historical events. Context is critical to Burns; he doesn’t belabor it, but his sociological emphasis can’t avoid it. To understand baseball, he knows he’s got to get beyond the foul lines.
He also knows he’s got to get beyond the Major Leagues, into the Negro Leagues and the sandlots, the industrial leagues, the barnstormers, the semi-pros. He does.
The preciousness and tedium that at times emerge are not unlike badly executed hit-and-runs; they simply come with the territory. The errors along the way — not many — don’t alter the outcome of the game.
For Burns — and here’s where he shines — all the poetry and myth that have attached themselves to baseball are, on one level, just that. But that poetry and myth also act as facade for something more basic and essential, and that’s really what he’s going after.
The game mirrors society, but the nature of the game is more perfect than society. When New York Gov. Mario Cuomo talks about the “justice” of the game, fans understand the on-the-field concept. When columnist George Will and Negro League veteran Buck O’Neill talk about the injustice of the segregated Major Leagues, a nation can look back in shame and understand that concept, too.
O’Neill is one of the true heroes of “Baseball,” a man who loved the game above the limits its white power structure once imposed on him, and one of the too few players whose voices we hear (former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee is priceless).
One on-camera Yogi-ism would have penetrated deeper into the game’s mystique than any moment of screen time taken up by historian Shelby Foote; Burns should have retired his number after “The Civil War.”
Beyond Foote, Burns’ catalogue of expert witnesses is an eclectic one, heavy on articulate baseball writers like Roger Angell, Bob Creamer, Dan Okrent (who’s marvelous) and Tom Boswell.
Broadcaster Bob Costas offers fine insight and good tales (particularly one concerning the Bill Buckner muff against the Mets in 1986), and a witness to the 1919 Black Sox scandal is absolutely heartbreaking.
Cuomo, a former minor leaguer, lifts “Baseball’s” rhetoric by his presence, and anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould is delightful; his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” fittingly in the section of the “Seventh Inning’s” stretch , is off-key and unforgettable. The late Red Barber is especially moving in revealing his personal battle with racism and the role Branch Rickey played in that fight.
Rickey, along with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller, stand particularly tall in Burns’ conception of the game’s history. The first two are forever intertwined in the struggle to break the game’s color line, the third in breaking down the serfdom implicit in the reserve clause. (It is especially interesting, in this lost season of a strike, to see how little the attitudes of baseball owners have changed since the game turned professional in 1876, and how often the players have revolted over issues that remain central today.)
The seg covering the ’40s — which ultimately turns into an episode on Robinson — is “Baseball’s” most powerful two hours. Robinson’s speed helped change the game, but his dignity, his courage and the symbolism ascribed to him helped change so much more.
In many ways, he is the fulcrum on which America began to balance itself. Baseball may be just a game, but with Robinson, the game began to lead the nation — kicking and screaming, to be sure — out of organized Jim Crow and institutional exclusion.
Of course, baseball has led at other times, too. In the early years of the century, the game became the melting pot; on the ball field, boys of every culture assimilated.
Given the breadth and seriousness of what Burns is trying to accomplish in “Baseball,” there is yet, as in the game itself, much fun to be had. There are hundreds of highlights: Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander on the mound; the Babe’s 60th; Willie Mays’ catch; Al Gionfriddo’s catch; Bobby Thompson’s homer; Don Larsen and Sandy Koufax perfectos; Hank Aaron’s 715th; Jackie Robinson stealing home; Reggie Jackson’s consecutive World Series homers in 1977 (though his titanic at-bat against Bob Welch in ’78 is not included); Kirk Gibson’s improbable blast in ’88; the epic sixth game of the ’75 World Series, recounted in glorious detail; and a fast-paced montage of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chasing Ruth in ’61.
A quibble: Though Mantle had immense power, even he could not have dropped a ball into the bleachers at Wrigley Field with a swing from Yankee Stadium. And Maris wouldn’t have hit off the Reds until the World Series. Editors should be more careful when playing with the icons of a man’s youth.
There is spectacular film on Babe Ruth (to go with the careful examination of how his outsized presence kept the game from going under in the wake of the Black Sox scandal), Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, and magnificent stills from the 19th century.
Yet for all that’s so good about “Baseball,” in the end, it’s a difficult documentary to stay with. It’s long, and its length is taxing. Its pace, at times, is slower than a bad ballgame. Its comprehensiveness is numbing. Burns’ racial theme is critical to his pursuit, but he is so heavy-handed with it on occasion that you just want to send him to the showers for relief.
But Burns went the distance, and in the box score, “Baseball” goes down as a solid performance, by no means perfect but certainly memorable. In this, the summer that the game failed us, at least temporarily, by striking out, Burns is able to remind us why the game itself, in the long run, continues to mean so much to us, and who we are as a nation.