Reviewing Ken Burns’s Baseball

I had watched the Tenth Inning of Ken Burns’s Baseball (before watching the original nine innings) a few years ago and wrote about it here.  Having watched it again, this time on the other side of the original series, I’ve decided not to rehash what I wrote previously.  Instead, now that I’m finished, I’ve decided to look at the series as a whole.

Overall, the series provides a look at the history of baseball in a way that simultaneously provides a bit of breadth and a bit of depth.  Discussing baseball from its earliest days all the way into the twenty-first century is no small feat.  Baseball has existed on record for well over 150 years, approaching two hundred years at this point, and that existence is not confined to any one place or in any one form.  A myriad of leagues have formed and gone under over the course of the game’s history, and each of these leagues were riddled with superstars, legendary teams, and exciting games and stories.baseball

Baseball focuses primarily on five teams, all of which played a large and central role in baseball’s history: the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox.  That’s not to say that Burns completely ignores the rest of the teams in Major League Baseball, they just don’t get as much attention.  If a team was lucky enough to have a Ty Cobb or a Pete Rose, or to get riddled by some kind of scandal, they’d get some coverage.  Otherwise, most teams, especially newer teams, barely received more than a passing nod in the documentary.  While it would have been nice for Burns to have spread the love a bit more, given the tremendous scope of this project, he can certainly be forgiven for choosing his battles.  Had Burns taken on coverage of everything that fans might have liked to have seen, Baseball would have needed to at least quadruple the size of the series — and it already sits at eleven DVDs total.

I do like and appreciate that Burns does not gloss over the not-so-pretty aspects of the game and its history.  Rather, the series unwaveringly takes on exploration of the 1919 Black Sox scandal and rampant gambling surrounding the game; it pounds away at the reserve clause and the implications it had on the business side of professional baseball; a spotlight is shone on the “gentleman’s agreement” among owners and the pervading racism throughout Major League Baseball’s history; and issues like the players’ strike and steroid use taking place in more recent history receive a long, thorough look in the Tenth Inning.

As much as I applaud the scope of this documentary, I will admit that same scope does make it rather daunting to take on.  If you’ve been following along with my journey through Baseball, you’ll know that I started with the First Inning of the series back in October, before the 2017 MLB season had even fully ended.  Now, here we are only days away from the start of 2018 Spring Training, and I have finally reached the end of the documentary.  It is a marathon, for sure, though it is a marathon that most true baseball fans will no doubt be willing to push through because it is definitely worth it.  Most Americans, even among those who consider themselves fans of the game, remain wholly ignorant of much of baseball’s history.  For anyone who decides they genuinely want to learn more about the game, its history, its players, and the forces that have shaped it, this is definitely a great place to start.

If you would like to read my summaries of all the individual innings, you can do so by following the Ken Burns tag here.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Third Inning

3rd inning

The Third Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns explores the game during the 1910s.  This disc opens with a discussion of fan involvement, and how the setup of the field during this time period gave fans a greater amount of influence in the events of the game.  Fans often spectated standing in foul territory or directly on the field behind the outfielders, allowing them not only to yell at players more effectively, but also to potentially become physically involved in some plays.  And it wasn’t just fans rooting for their teams who sought to influence the outcome of games.  Gamblers during this time period were heavily involved in the sport.

Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics dominated the first half of the decade.  Meanwhile, the saga of Ty Cobb continues, from his 1910 race for the batting title against Nap Lajoie to Cobb’s suspension from organized baseball for beating the snot out of a fan in 1912.

Buck O’Neil, who has contributed to the commentary of the documentary series in the first two innings, was born in 1911, and now discusses his experience with baseball as a boy.  Baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement,” however, continued to exclude black players from the game, though teams at times undermined this agreement with light-skinned minority players.

The 1912 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants became an unusual eight-game Series when the second game was called due to “impending darkness.”  Game eight of this Series was the one in which Fred Snodgrass dropped an easy fly ball, which allowed hitter Red Sox Clyde Engle to make it all the way to second.  Engle would later score, tying the game at 2-2, and Red Sox went on to first load the bases, then score the winning run.  Poor Snodgrass joined the ranks of dubious fame with Fred Merkle as a result.

The clouds of scandal appear early with the figure of Hal Chase.  His willingness to throw games was so well-known that even fans took to chanting, “What’s the odds,” whenever Chase took the field.  Players throughout baseball expressed their own discontent with the reserve clause and the complete control of owners over their contracts.  The formation of the Federal League attempted to address this discontent in promising players the opportunity for free agency.  The new league only lasted two seasons, however, and the players found themselves still without a voice.

On this disc, we meet pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, and we see more of the progression of Branch Rickey’s baseball career.  The 1916 World Series went to the Boston Red Sox over the Brooklyn Superbas.  The 1917 Series went to the Chicago White Sox over the New York Giants, then Boston returned to win the 1918 Series, this time over the Cubs.  When World War I broke out, Major League Baseball as a whole seemingly turned a blind eye.  Some players did serve during the war, including Grover Alexander, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson, and Branch Rickey joined the effort as well.

The last half hour of the Third Inning went into detail covering the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  I particularly found it fascinating that Burns managed to find a Chicago fan who had been fifteen years old at the time of the scandal.  This fan recalled his disbelief that the White Sox had managed to lose the Series, being too young to understand the world of gambling at the time.  His shock and disappointment no doubt reflected the feeling of baseball fans everywhere at the time.  Though as Buck O’Neil describes at the very end of this disc, while the scandal turned a lot of folks away from the game at the time, it wouldn’t be long before a new hero would draw them back — a man named Babe Ruth.


The Black Sox scandal

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson.  Eddie Cicotte.  Buck Weaver.  Claude “Lefty” Williams.  Fred McMullin.  Arnold “Chick” Gandil. Oscar “Happy” Felsch.  Charles “Swede” Risberg.

These are the men known today as the “Black Sox.”  Accused of deliberately throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, these men were tried and acquitted of criminal charges.  Unfortunately for them, however, acquittal was not enough to save their careers.  They were banned from baseball for life.

Black Sox players pictured with their lawyers (Photo source: University of Missouri – Kansas City)

Having acquired outfielder Joe Jackson, second baseman Eddie Collins, and centerfielder Happy Felsch in 1915, the Chicago White Sox had put together one of the most successful teams in baseball.  They won the 1917 World Series, and during the 1919 season had the best record in the American League.  They won the AL pennant and were the favorite to win the nine-game World Series.

Surrounded by so much success and promise, what could possibly possess these players to even consider throwing away the championship series?  It has been suggested that the reason lies with the White Sox founder and then-owner, Charles Comiskey.  A lot of professional ballplayers during this period were underpaid (especially according to today’s standards), and this was particularly the case with the White Sox.  In spite of his dedication to and success in building a strong baseball team, Comiskey was notoriously stingy.

During this period, players were bound to their teams by the “reserve clause,” which forbade them from switching teams without the owner’s permission.  As a result, players had no leverage when it came to negotiating their salaries.  Comiskey took full advantage of these circumstances, dishing out as little as possible as far as player salaries and team management.  For example, on top of their low wages, Comiskey required players to pay for the laundering of their uniforms.  When the team protested by refusing to wash their uniforms, allowing them to grow dirtier and dirtier for several weeks, Comiskey responded by removing the uniforms from their lockers and fining the players.

(Photo source: U-S-History.com)

Then, on 18 September 1919, White Sox first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil met with gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, who convinced him that the World Series could be “bought,” and that such a fix could prove to be immensely profitable.  It wasn’t long before Gandil was joined in the plot by the other members of what would be known as the “Black Sox.”  Those involved in the scandal had salaries of $6,000 or less, which was at the low end for a team that was already underpaid overall.  It’s not hard to see how these players could be drawn into such a scheme, in spite of its illegality.

The gamblers are said to have bet nearly half-a-million dollars in favor of the Reds winning the Series while agreeing to pay the eight White Sox players $100,000 to split.  Once divided, that meant that each player would take home two to three years’ worth of pay.

Naturally, the players hoped that the arrangement would remain a secret, but a large number of people were involved just to make the plan work, and as folks hinted to their friends about who to bet on, word quickly spread.  When the World Series concluded, rumors and complaints ran rampant in protest against the “fixed” World Series.  By the end of 1920, the “Black Sox” nickname had become well-known, and the players were indicted.  The trial proved to be a bit of a circus, however, as evidence went missing and testimonies blurred the story more than they cleared things up.  The players were cleared of criminal charges.

In spite of their acquittal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was charged with investigating the scandal and became the first Commissioner of Baseball, was not entirely convinced of the Black Sox’s innocence.  In a statement, he declared,

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

The players were banned for life.  Most of the Black Sox confessed to their involvement in the scandal (it is unclear as to how many actually did so), but on behalf of one who did not, controversy sprang up.  Joe Jackson’s involvement in throwing the Series continues to be a topic of many debates among baseball fans.  Jackson hit .375 during the Series, which certainly goes against the idea that he was intentionally playing below his ability.  Some have argued that Jackson’s best games of the Series were the ones that the players were not intentionally trying to lose anyways.  According to some reports, Jackson did make an effort to back out of the fix, but still collected $5,000 at some point during the Series.

“Shoeless Joe” Jackson (Photo source: SABR.org)

Without a doubt, the Black Sox scandal had a negative impact on baseball’s image.  Landis’s decision to ban the players, followed by a crusade he led against gambling of any kind in baseball, helped to regain the confidence of fans and restore baseball’s place in American culture.  Nevertheless, it is an event that has and will continue to live on in the minds and hearts, not just of baseball fans, but of American history in general.

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Sources:

Everstine, Eric W.  “1919 World Series: Black Sox Scandal.”   Montgomery College.  Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1998.  Web.   Accessed 19 July 2013.  http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/hpolscrv/blacksox.htm

Fleitz, David.  “Shoeless Joe Jackson.”  SABR Biography Project.  Society for American Baseball Research.  2013.  Web.  Accessed 20 July 2013.  http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/7afaa6b2

Linder, Douglas.  “Famous American Trials: The Black Sox Trial, 1921.”  University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.  2010.  Web.  Accessed 18 July 2013.  http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/blacksox.html

“The Black Sox.”  The Chicago Historical Society.  1999.  Web.  Accessed 18 July 2013.  http://chicagohs.org/history/blacksox.html