Sunday, March 20, 2005
Baseball: a film by Ken Burns
I'm not a hardcore baseball fan (pro football is my sports addiction of choice) but I do enjoy the game. And almost every year about this time, I'm drawn back to Baseball, Ken Burns' epic, elegant valentine to the national pastime that was first broadcast as a PBS mini-series in 1994.
Like The Civil War before it and Jazz after it, Burns lovingly explores baseball's history, poetry, and social impact with vintage photos and film along with interviews with people involved with the game (players, managers, broadcasters, etc.) as well as historians, social commentators, and famous fans (such as Billy Crystal, George Plimpton, and George Will) along with dramatic readings by an impressive host of celebrities (including Gregory Peck, Anthony Hopkins, Ossie Davis, Jason Robards, Paul Newman, Studs Turkel, and many others.)
The whole thing is anchored by the stately narration of John Chancellor.
It is indeed a valentine to the game (some complain that Burns plays fast and loose with some facts but I'm not in a position to argue that one way or the other) but, that said, it doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of Baseball's history (racism and segregation, cheating players, greedy owners, onerous contracts, etc.) and the less-than-heroic aspects of great, but still undeniably flawed (that is to say, human) players such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Mickey Mantle.
In each of Burns' big projects (this clocks in at 18+ hours broken down into 9 "innings" covering roughly a decade each...excepting the first "inning" which covers 1840-1900) one of the talking heads becomes the breakthrough commentator. With The Civil War, it was puckish historian Shelby Foote...Jazz had earnest musician/teacher Wynton Marsalis...and in Baseball it was John "Buck" O'Neil:
O'Neil (who, in the name of full disclosure, I have to admit to having a special fondness for because he strongly reminds me, in many ways, of my maternal grandfather) is a stately, wise, and charming focal point for the series who lived the game for decades (he was a star player and manager in the Negro Leagues and later he became a coach for the Chicago Cubs) and provided fascinating insights and anecdotes that helped make the series come even more alive.
It's a lovely, engaging series...just the thing to savor as springtime...and the baseball season...is ready to bloom into vibrant life once again.