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.


Infographic: The Changing Face of American Baseball

Here’s a good, and important, infographic from the Huffington Post that takes a look at the racial makeup of Major League Baseball.  Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in 1947, but as the graphic points out, that didn’t change the economic barriers to playing baseball.  And, let’s be honest, this is an expensive sport.  On the other hand, Robinson’s debut into the majors did also open the doors for Latinos in the MLB, and given the talent it has introduced, this is definitely a great thing.

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Quote of the day

But when he (Willie Mays) was in California, whites refused to sell him a house in their community. They loved his talent, but they didn’t want him for a neighbor.

~Jackie Robinson

 

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Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays (Dodger Insider)

 


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Seventh Inning

burns 7

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.


Quote of the day

The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.

~Jackie Robinson

 

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Amazon

 


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Sixth Inning

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 sixth inningwomen’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.


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.