Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Eighth Inning

8th inning

The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s.  In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such.  Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game.  Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.

The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes.  In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite.  Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.

Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs.  Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound.  As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit.  This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.

This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league.  The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country.  Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball.  We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers.  The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League.  The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland.  After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal.  (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)

At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball.  Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965.  The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years.  Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years.  Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball.  After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds.  The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.

In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others.  Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.  In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles.  One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.

In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller.  Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.  The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around.  He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”

By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning.  Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade.  This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.

I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball.  In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason.  Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity).  But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Seventh Inning

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The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America.  Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.

It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel.  With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever.  The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence.  “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence.  Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer.  After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.

Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him.  It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced.  His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.

We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country.  I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant!   The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”  

A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees.  The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying.  Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy.  Sadly, we’ll never know.  Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.

While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside.  Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues.  On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake.  We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.

The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast.  In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans.  The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game.  These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss.  Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period.  The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.

The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting.  We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business.  Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball.  It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fourth Inning

ken burns
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.


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.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Second Inning

 

Gushing with patriotism, the Second Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns begins with proclamations of the game of baseball being America’s “safety valve” and a montage of old baseball photos being scrolled to the sound of the national anthem and a spoken list of various American accomplishments during the early twentieth century.

Not all was perfect in the country, however, as Burns also points to an increase in racism across America, the growth of tenements, and a decline in baseball’s popularity.  As it always does, however, baseball managed to recover.  It was a time when small ball dominated the style of play, and pitchers like Christy Mathewson, “Three Finger” Brown, and Walter Johnson became legends on the mound.

Major league baseball entered the twentieth century in trouble, beset by declining attendance, rowdyism, unhappy players, and feuding, greedy club owners, but then divided itself in two, cleaned itself up, and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The World Series began, and season after season more than five million fans filled stadiums to see their heroes play, and countless millions more, who had never been lucky enough to watch them in person, followed their every move in the sports pages.

In part two of this documentary series, we see the rise of players like Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb, two of the most diametrically different players as the game has ever seen.  We meet player-manager John McGraw, who approached the game with a furious kind of passion recognized throughout baseball.  The “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson, also appeared on the scene playing for McGraw, and his precise pitching captured the attention of teams and fans across America.  Together, Mathewson and McGraw’s Giants dominated the sport.

2nd inningWe also see the rise of Ban Johnson and the American League.  The National Agreement brought peace between the new AL and the older National League, though the reserve clause remained intact, leaving ballplayers themselves with no voice in the administrative side of the game.  And to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, overpriced concessions have been a staple of ballparks since the game became a business.  This time period saw the introduction of hot dogs, served to fans in buns to allow them to hold them while watching baseball.

Once again, we see descriptions of racism in baseball followed closely by an update on the life of Branch Rickey.  Burns hints at the impact of seeing discrimination on Rickey’s views.  Later in this disc, there is a more in-depth discussion of black baseball, including the creation of the Negro Leagues led by Rube Foster.  The documentary also introduces (though it really doesn’t dive much into) the concept of “bloomer girls,” women playing baseball during this time period.

Some of the most recognizable pieces in baseball pop culture also came into existence in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  Franklin Pierce Adams’s poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” also known as “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” was written in 1910, Ernest Thayer’s iconic poem “Casey At the Bat” (1888) was recited frequently by performers, and Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” became the game’s anthem.

The Second Inning ends at the conclusion of the 1909 season, following a discussion of Fred Merkle’s 1908 boner and a more direct rivalry between Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner in the 1909 World Series.  It’s hard to tell if Burns is particularly fascinated by Cobb, or if there are just too many good stories there to ignore, but Cobb does garner a fair amount of attention in this inning.  Not that I’m complaining — I wouldn’t have wanted to play against him (and probably not even with him), but Cobb does add some color to the game’s history.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The First Inning

In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious.  ~Walt Whitman

Thus begins the first disc of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns.  This is a series that I’ve checked out from the library and started watching multiple times, yet never managed to finish.  In an effort to change this, I’ve decided to commit myself to writing about each “Inning” of the series here.  This way, I have a form of accountability to encourage me to get through the whole thing.

Approximately the first twenty minutes of the first disc serve as kind of a nostalgic, feel-good introduction to the series and the game.  Images of Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and several others flash across the screen to a background of melodic music and various speakers ruminating about what an incredible game baseball is.

The First Inning then begins with the myth of baseball’s founding by Abner Doubleday.  Burns describes the story behind Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game, then immediately refutes it, asserting that Doubleday likely never even saw a professional game.  Baseball, rather, is most likely a direct descendant of two British sports: rounders and cricket.  The game went through multiple variations until the founding of the New York Knickerbockers and the codification of rules by Alexander Cartwright.  Henry Chadwick soon appears on the scene and becomes instantly enamored with baseball.  Chadwick went on to invent the box score, using statistics to track players’ performances.  The National Association of Base Ball Players was then formed to help maintain control over the sport and further codify the rules.

The outbreak of the American Civil War presented a disruption to organized baseball.  On the other hand, it also served to help spread the game’s popularity as soldiers returning home at the end of the war took knowledge of the sport with them.  In spite of the end of slavery, black teams found themselves banned from organized leagues.  Women and girls, also, struggled for the right to play ball, as it was deemed too violent and dangerous for the fairer sex.

Burns chronicles the evolution of baseball from its status as an amateur pastime to a professional sport — a business.  It is evident from his focus on the establishment of the reserve clause that Burns intends to delve into the subject further.  It only makes sense to do so, of course, given the impact that this clause would have on the occurrence of so many events throughout the game’s history.  Burns also puts some attention on gambling, which, as we know, would also impact baseball’s timeline of events.

The First Inning covers the development of the NL, the AA, the Players’ League, and the rise of Albert Spalding.  A number of players are introduced, including Cy Young, Cap Anson, King Kelly, and John McGraw.  We also meet Moses Fleetwood Walker and the bigotry he faced in the big leagues as a black player.  This, followed closely by a discussion of Branch Rickey’s early life, present a foreshadowing recognizable by anyone familiar with the game’s history.

Most histories I have seen covering this period in baseball seem to treat the game with a kind of veneration.  Personally, this is perhaps my favorite period in the game’s history to learn about, possibly in part due to this sense of awe that it brings out about baseball.  So much of what happens next has already been established, yet there is still something pure and clean about baseball during the 19th century.

 


Diamond in the Dunes

diamond in the dunes“But if a hero can arise — like Jackie Robinson — there will be great beauty in the world.”

Diamond in the Dunes, a 2014 documentary produced by the Documentary Foundation, follows a baseball team in China’s Xinjiang Province, comprised of Muslim Uyghur and Han Chinese students.  Racial tensions color the relationship between these two groups, as the indigenous Uyghur population had been conquered by Communist China in 1949.  In retaliation, Uyghur Muslim terrorist groups have taken to violent attacks against their Chinese rulers.

The poverty of the region where Parhat Ablat, a 20-year-old Uyghur shepherd, lives comes to the forefront, from outmoded plumbing and appliances to the simple homes and scarcity of automobiles.  The differences between the Chinese District and the Umghur District in the city of Urumqi are also apparent.  The Chinese District booms with industry, towering businesses, lights, and automobile traffic.  Umghur District, meanwhile, speaks to an older time, with more pedestrian traffic and street side markets.  Even at Xinjiang University, the two ethnic groups are kept separate.

Baseball brings these two groups together, however, as each side finds itself unable to form a complete team without the other.  Parhat forms and leads the team — the first-ever mixed race team at Xinjiang University.  Without Parhat’s team, most of its players would never have even touched a baseball.  During practices and scrimmages, everyone from the players on the field to the children in the stands bursts with the excitement of a four-year-old on Christmas morning.  But as their practices also show, baseball is not an easy game to learn or play.  It takes a lot of practice, and at times, it can be outright frustrating.

As the documentary depicts, there is more to any story than just what’s on the surface.  Parhat isn’t just playing baseball, he is attending school and struggling over a love interest.  The city of Urumqi deals with the strain and conflict that ethnic tensions provoke.  As a result, the team has its share of struggles as well.

The team only plays one game in their season, against a Tibetan team on the Qinhai Plateau, a thousand miles away.  Therefore, the documentary revolves around the players coming face-to-face with their ethnic differences and overcoming them as they learn to play as a team.  When the time finally comes for the game, the train ride lasts thirty hours, and the game itself proves to be a struggle of its own for the Xinjiang players.

Parhat views baseball as more than just a game.  To him, it is a means through which life lessons can be learned and one can grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  And, as he has proven in this documentary, it is also a means through which the hurts of our social world can find some healing.

My thanks to Steve for recommending this documentary.  If you can spare about an hour’s worth of free time, I would like to pass on the recommendation: http://vimeo.com/76566259