When I first started this blog and decided to set myself a challenge of writing a post at least every week, I thought for sure that one of the things I would do with it was post reviews. I created a category for them and everything. But I’ve been doing this for more than 10 months and I haven’t reviewed anything. So I decided to give it a whirl with a documentary that I watched last year. I decided to do it this week because I discovered that the entire series is on YouTube as well, so I linked the first installment for anyone who wants to give it a try. And I figured that now, during the World Series, is a good time to write about baseball.
I’ve never been that big a fan of watching baseball on TV, I find sports announcers to be annoying at best and homicidally rage inducing at worst. But I’ve always enjoyed the experience of going to a game, being in the stands, hot dogs, the roar of the crowd, all that wholesome crap. But it wasn’t until last year when I watched the 10-part Ken Burns documentary on baseball that I think I really understood it. I’ve always been aware of the nostalgia and passion surrounding baseball, but I didn’t really get it until I watched the documentary. I watched it because I had been watching other historical documentaries and I was really enjoying the Ken Burns ones so, I thought, “What the hell?”
And I was pleasantly surprised, I absolutely loved the way the information was presented, and the use of quotes and period music was absolutely perfect. The way each inning began and ended I also felt was brilliant, by directly narrating the historical and political situations of the time period, Burns gives the audience a much more complete picture of the era. The series was such an in-depth look at the American pastime I felt like I had an entirely new outlook when I was finished watching it. And I knew that I was going to enjoy it after the first 7 minutes, Burns’ opening monologue clinched it for me,
“It measures just 9 inches in circumference, weighs only about 5 ounces, and it made of cork wound with woolen yarn, covered with two layers of cowhide, and stitched by hand precisely 216 times. It travels 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home–and it can cover that distance at nearly 100 miles an hour. Along the way it can be made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away. The bat is made of turned ash, less than 42 inches long, not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. The batter has only a few thousandths of a second to decide to hit the ball. And yet the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game’s greatest heroes. It is played everywhere. In parks and playground and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small children and by old men. By raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game where 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. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.”
It may be a cliche, but the opening encompasses baseball so well, and shows how romantic the sport is. It really is impossible not to be romantic about baseball, especially after having seen the entire series. I’ve heard from some baseball fans that the series focuses too much on the east coast teams and that the central and western teams are ignored. I don’t know or care enough about those teams for it to have bothered me, but for someone who is a big fan it might be a problem. But I don’t think the point of the documentary is to go over every single bit of history, but the bits of history that make up the myth and magic of baseball in America, and a large portion of those myths come out of New York and Boston and Cincinnati.
More than just having a better understanding of the myth and I learned a lot of history from watching Ken Burns’ Baseball. I had heard the name Ty Cobb before, but that’s all, I had no idea he was such a dickbag. I was aware of the racism in baseball, but I had no idea that black players played in the major leagues in the beginning, that it wasn’t until later when players like Cap Anson brought their prejudices into the game that the sport became segregated. I had never even thought about the origins of baseball, but now I know about the Doubleday origin myth and the truth about it.
Part of the reason I wasn’t really that interested in baseball before, is that I was raised in a football family and around football fans. I like football, I understand how it works and I enjoy watching it with a group of people who really care about it because they’re fun to be around. Maybe if Ken Burns does a documentary about football it would change my mind, but I doubt it, football just doesn’t have that same magic.My favorite quote that touches on this point come from George Will (who I don’t generally tend to agree with, but he knows his baseball and is quoted extensively in the documentary),
“Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
– George Will