Having watched all 18 and a half hours of Baseball (PBS, Sept. 18-22, 25-28; check local listings), I would first say this: If I never hear ”Take Me Out to the Ball Game” again, I will die a slightly happier man. Ken Burns’ mammoth documentary offers what must be hundreds of versions of that tune, in styles ranging from country-blues to New Age jazz. Like so much else about Baseball, the endless variations of this rinky-dink song are wildly excessive, regularly boring, and, at regular intervals, great, clever fun.
Baseball is structured coyly, divided into nine ”innings,” each lasting two hours or more. Every episode commences with a ludicrously sententious list of what was going on in the world besides baseball (”Between 1940 and 1950, penicillin was introduced and the atom was split ”). Like Burns’ previous documentary, The Civil War, the film presents a dreamily edited mixture of still photographs and vintage film combined with new interviews of baseball players and notable fans, including Mickey Mantle, The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, and Billy Crystal, who insists on telling us that he cried when the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series. (Funny-I cried when I saw City Slickers II.)
Baseball is rigorously, excruciatingly chronological, beginning with Garrison Keillor reading Walt Whitman on the subject (”The game is glorious”) and then slogging relentlessly through 150 years of baseball history. Former NBC newsman John Chancellor provides narration in a voice so warm and lulling that it took me three days to get through the endless episode on the 1919 Black Sox scandal without curling into a ball to nap.
But many times, Burns earns his bold dullness by offering remarkable profiles of great players. The sections on Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and Joe DiMaggio are small masterpieces of television biography. The testimony of 82-year-old Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil is tremendously moving. Many little throwaway lines and anecdotes repay our attention (it was said of pitcher Lefty Grove, for instance, that he was so fast, he could ”throw a lamb chop past a wolf”). And Burns may be a portentous filmmaker, but give him credit that he’s no sentimentalist: He makes sure we understand that Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s racial barrier in 1947 barely dented the racism of many players and fans; that most baseball owners were and are soulless greedheads; and that Ted Williams was one genius SOB.
It’s startling to see legendary announcer Red Barber pop up to offer his thoughtful analysis of the game—Burns did the interview with him before Barber died nearly two years ago. Among the most insightful and articulate commentators are the poet Donald Hall, St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood, Life magazine managing editor and baseball book author Daniel Okrent, and TV sports announcer Bob Costas, who’s so eloquent, it’s eerie. Costas is the only guy who could get me misty-eyed just talking about the reserve clause.
I doubt whether huge numbers of viewers will plow through the history of Ebbets Field and a reggae version of ”Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to get to the truckload of good stuff in Baseball, but I’m glad to see such a quirky, personal, overwrought work as this on PBS, which gets more timid and tame with each passing year.
And Ken, I have an idea for the subject and length of your next project: Ventriloquism. Twenty minutes, tops. B+