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.


This day in baseball: Merkle’s boner

In a game against the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle of the New York Giants failed to touch second base while running the bases on a game-winning hit by Al Bridwell to score Moose McCormick from third base.  As a result, a force out was ruled at second base, and the game was called as a tie.  In spite of numerous appeals, the ruling was upheld.

Later that season, the Cubs and Giants were tied with a record of 98-55 for the season.  In a makeup game to determine the NL pennant winner, the Cubs beat the Giants 4-2, and went on to become World Series champions.

Fred Merkle (Wikimedia Commons)