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 ready to bloom into vibrant life once again.


D. Derek said...

Buck O'Neil is truly the man, if it's appropriate to put a modern tag on a man like him. After Baseball made him a star, it was amazing to watch crowds gather around him at each Kansas City Royals game. He sat behind home plate, and between every half inning, people of all ages would flock to his seat to ask for autographs. He always signed with a smile and without complaint. I've got a great picture of two of my best friends and I kneeling around Buck's seat. Anyone who has ever heard Buck speak understands what a great ambassador for the game he is. If I'm lucky enough to live as long as Buck has, I hope I have half as much dignity and energy that he still maintains.

FTS said...

I had totally forgotten about this since it has been -- what? -- eleven years ago? Thanks for the reminder from a guy who loves The Grande Olde Game

Anonymous said...

My favorite PBS documentary is not by Ken Burns but by his brother Ric: The Donner Party: American Experience. This movie accounts the horrific accounts of the Donner Party, a group of Pioneers who headed for California in 1846. Blizzards, blazing summer heat, and wrong short cuts sealed the fate of over half the party which in the end resorted to cannibalism for survival. Burns straightforward presentation and first account narration from letters of the victims makes it all the more terrifying. Not quite as uplifting as our National pastime!

And here's a question for baseball fans: Why is Mark McGwire being persecuted for his honesty while the other players who are obviously lying are given a free pass? Is lying with conviction considered more admirable than telling the truth?