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.

 


“Home,” Ken Burns

At the kickoff of the the 2010 World Series, Ken Burns narrated the poem “Home” for the MLB.  It’s one of those videos that makes you feel pretty nostalgic about baseball.  Enjoy.


Baseball: The Tenth Inning, Ken Burns

baseball

I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball: The Tenth Inning.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I have yet to watch the original Baseball documentary, but when I found The Tenth Inning at the public library, I had to jump on the opportunity to at least watch that much.

The Tenth Inning is a two-DVD set that covers the story of Major League Baseball through the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.  From the strike of 1994, to the influx of Latino players, to the home run race of 1998, and delving into a long look at the steroid scandal of recent years, this documentary does a good job of not only looking at the game itself, but also at the relationship between baseball and its fans.  We see how baseball struggles against its own demons — greed, drug use — and consistently manages to rebound and draw its supporters back in.

My biggest criticism of the documentary lies in its extensive coverage of the steroid scandal.  While hats were tipped to the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr., Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ichiro Suzuki, there were many moments throughout both DVDs that I felt like I was watching the Barry Bonds Show.  We get an almost biographical look at Bonds’ background, his early years in baseball, his career as a whole, and his attitudes about the game through all of it.  The focus of the second DVD primarily revolved around steroids, with Bonds right in the middle of it, of course.  Meanwhile, all the teams that won World Series championships in the early 2000s received about twelve seconds of coverage each.

It’s unfortunate that such a negative chapter in baseball history has drawn so much attention.  But as the documentary still reminds us, at the end of the day, it is baseball itself that keeps fans coming back.  In spite of greed and scandal and steroids, baseball in itself is still a pretty great game.


Quote of the day

It’s a beautifully designed game. Timeless, but always changing. It’s a game in which the defense always has the ball; and a game in which every player is measured by the ghosts of all who have gone before.

For more than 150 years, baseball has been a mirror of the complicated country that gave it birth.

From California to the New York islands, through good times and bad, through wars, depressions, and civil strife, it has entertained us, it has inspired us, and sometimes, it has even transformed us.

We pass it down from mothers to sons, fathers to daughters, as every generation invests itself in the sweet hope of springtime and endures the painful realities of fall.
Its essential dimensions never change, yet nothing ever happens the same way twice. It is a game in which the person scores, not the ball; where the objective, always, is to come home.
Home, where no asks where you come from or who you voted for.
Home, where all season long, we congregate to cheer and plead, laugh and cry in the magnificent cathedrals of our game – the places, the poet Donald Hall says, “where memory gathers.”

Home, where every October, baseball’s greatest stars do battle.

Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the powerful sense of belonging, and the freedom from time’s constraints than does our National Pastime.

It is the place we always come back to – home.

~Ken Burns