Buck O’Neil is hailed as a legend, especially here in the Kansas City area. Not only was O’Neil a great ballplayer, but his achievements off the field were arguably even greater. He not only worked to spread interest in the Negro leagues, he also played a huge part in the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Depending on how he gripped the ball and how hard he threw it, Satchel Paige had pitches that included the bat-dodger, the two-hump blooper, the four-day creeper, the dipsy-do, the Little Tom, the Long Tom, the bee ball, the wobbly ball, the hurry-up ball and the nothin’ ball.
This weekend I watched a short documentary produced by Major League Baseball, Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues. While the time period covered in the documentary spans from Moses Fleetwood Walker playing major league ball in the 1880s on up to the induction of Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame starting in 1971, the documentary focuses primarily on the story of the Negro Leagues.
Dave Winfield narrates the documentary, and it includes footage from Negro League games, as well as some Major League games. It also features interviews with Negro Leagues players, including Buck O’Neil, Bob Mitchell, Willie Mays, John “Mule” Miles, Cool Papa Bell, and Ted Radcliffe. The interviews highlight just how good many Negro Leagues players really were, especially compared to white Major Leaguers, and it’s a lot of fun to see how much these guys light up when they talk about the level of talent.
The documentary touches on the racial struggles faced by black players. For example, many players accepted the fact that they would have to go around to the backs of restaurants to get food, and it was not uncommon to sleep on the bus because the hotels in a given town would not give them rooms. Nevertheless, the players talk about how much fun they had traveling and playing ball. The eventual recruitment of Jackie Robinson by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier, of course, receives due attention.
Overall, Pride and Perseverance is a fantastic overview of the history of the Negro Leagues. For a documentary that runs less than an hour long, it manages to cram a lot of interesting information into the film. It’s definitely worth checking out.
After a long hiatus, due to having to return the series to the library and wait for others to finish their turns with it before having my chance at checking it out again, I have finally made it back around to watching the Ninth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. This installment in the series covers the time period from 1970 to 1993, the ending representing present day at the time, as the series was originally released in 1994.
The Ninth Inning opens with a baseball game being played between a pair of Dominican teams. A couple players from one of the teams give interviews expressing the importance of baseball to the Dominican culture. “It’s like a religion,” one player says. “There’s never been a revolution or war during baseball season.” Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling compares baseball to the opera, insisting the two are essentially the same kind of thing.
On this disc we learn about Brooks Robinson leading the Orioles to the 1970 World Series championship against Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1971, the Orioles found themselves on the losing side of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente of the Pirates made a name for himself during this period. He was an icon for both the black community and for the Puerto Rican community, and he gave back to society as much as he could. On New Years Eve of 1971, however, Clemente’s plane crashed in an effort to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake.
Baseball’s reserve clause met its end during this time period. Curt Flood’s battle in the courts against the clause at the start of the decade came away largely fruitless, though it did serve to bring the issue into the public spotlight. In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of Marvin Miller, took on the reserve clause by claiming free agency. In the end, the reserve clause was abolished and players were now eligible for free agency after six years. This, as we see through today, resulted in an explosion of baseball salaries. The collusion of baseball owners in the late-1980s threatened this newfound free agent market, in much the same way owners once had observed the “gentleman’s agreement” to never sign a black player. This collusion, however, would soon get exposed and would cost the owners a considerable sum.
The treatment of both Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood highlighted the points made by Jackie Robinson shortly before his death. Certainly, as Buck O’Neil mentions, a lot changed in baseball, and in American society, as a result of Robinson’s role in breaking the color barrier. Nevertheless, baseball still had a long way to go in terms of racial equality. Henry Aaron knew all about this reality, playing for the Braves and chasing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. The hate mail sent to Aaron, some of which gets read in this episode, sends chills down my spine. In 1974, Hank Aaron did break Ruth’s record, and deservedly so. The 1987 interview of Al Campanis regarding the reasons behind a lack of blacks in baseball management drove home the existence of the persisting prejudice.
The Oakland A’s of the 1970s drew attention, not only due to their excellent performance, but also due to the appearance of their players. Players were given bonuses to grow their hair out, and many went on to sport some quite interesting facial hair. Catfish Hunter’s pitching for Oakland was stellar, almost unfair in the eyes of some hitters, who noticed the strike zone seemed to grow larger whenever Hunter took the mound.
The Cincinnati Reds returned to the World Series in 1975, this time against the Boston Red Sox. Not only did the Reds have Pete Rose on their roster, but also boasted of names like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Joe Morgan. Game 6 of this Series proved one for the history books, featuring Carlton Fisk’s dramatic walk-off home run for Boston in the twelfth inning to tie the Series at three. Cincinnati would win the Series, however, in Game 7. As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the various stories told by pitcher Bill Lee on this disc. The man was certainly a character. He speaks candidly and hilariously about his own experiences, blunders, and shortcomings, and his wild gesturing made it just as fun to watch him speak as it was to listen.
The 1970s saw the rise of George Steinbrenner as owner of the New York Yankees. Free agency worked in Steinbrenner’s favor, and he spent freely to build a winning organization. Though they lost the 1976 World Series, they won it in 1977 and 1978, led by Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner became notorious for running through managers like a child runs through fads, bolstering his reputation for trying to buy his way to championships.
The 1979 Series featured Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, led by Pete Rose, who had signed with them after becoming a free agent. Rose would return to the Reds later in his career. Nolan Ryan also took advantage of free agency, dominating from the pitcher’s mound with multiple teams. After the collusion among the owners was busted up, baseball contracts exploded, and player after player made headlines as the newest highest paid player.
After this point, the documentary ceased to cover every single World Series championship, but rather focused on the ones that would be deemed “most popular” in baseball history. The 1986 World Series saw a continuation of the Curse of the Bambino. The Boston Red Sox lost the Series in a stunning fashion to the New York Mets. After giving up what seemed like a sure victory in Game 6, the Red Sox also lost Game 7. The 1988 World Series went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a championship victory that included the unbelievable tale of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 in spite of his injuries.
In August 1989, Pete Rose was banished from baseball. Bart Giamatti gave the announcement in a press conference, stating that Rose’s involvement in gambling had hurt the game, and that the game must be held to the highest standards. In spite of a depressing end to the 1980s, and in spite of all the scandals and other struggles in baseball, John Thorn and Buck O’Neil exalt the continuing survivalist spirit of baseball. Admittedly, the timing of these statement is a bit ironic, considering that the next World Series after this documentary was released, the 1994 Series, did not get played due to the players’ strike. In spite of that, baseball did come back, and I’d say the fact that so many baseball blogs, such as this one, exist is a testament to the continuing love and wonder that baseball brings.
The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history. It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II. It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of women’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.
In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it. The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters. 1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.
The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees. At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players. The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.
When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue. The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said. However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result. Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort. Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.
As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart. Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited. They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine. Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.
Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.
Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well. Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.
Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate. Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series. Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today. As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm. Through it all, he bit his tongue. Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him. Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby. Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.
Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined. As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.
The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948. It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything). Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth. Perhaps nobody knows. But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game. Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.
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.
In 2006, the largest-ever induction class to the Baseball Hall of Fame were honored — 16 men and one woman, all of whom were influential in the success of the Negro Leagues. Buck O’Neil kicked off the ceremony with this perfectly fantastic, heart-felt speech.
You can find more information about this ceremony here.