Reviewing Ken Burns’s Baseball

I had watched the Tenth Inning of Ken Burns’s Baseball (before watching the original nine innings) a few years ago and wrote about it here.  Having watched it again, this time on the other side of the original series, I’ve decided not to rehash what I wrote previously.  Instead, now that I’m finished, I’ve decided to look at the series as a whole.

Overall, the series provides a look at the history of baseball in a way that simultaneously provides a bit of breadth and a bit of depth.  Discussing baseball from its earliest days all the way into the twenty-first century is no small feat.  Baseball has existed on record for well over 150 years, approaching two hundred years at this point, and that existence is not confined to any one place or in any one form.  A myriad of leagues have formed and gone under over the course of the game’s history, and each of these leagues were riddled with superstars, legendary teams, and exciting games and stories.baseball

Baseball focuses primarily on five teams, all of which played a large and central role in baseball’s history: the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox.  That’s not to say that Burns completely ignores the rest of the teams in Major League Baseball, they just don’t get as much attention.  If a team was lucky enough to have a Ty Cobb or a Pete Rose, or to get riddled by some kind of scandal, they’d get some coverage.  Otherwise, most teams, especially newer teams, barely received more than a passing nod in the documentary.  While it would have been nice for Burns to have spread the love a bit more, given the tremendous scope of this project, he can certainly be forgiven for choosing his battles.  Had Burns taken on coverage of everything that fans might have liked to have seen, Baseball would have needed to at least quadruple the size of the series — and it already sits at eleven DVDs total.

I do like and appreciate that Burns does not gloss over the not-so-pretty aspects of the game and its history.  Rather, the series unwaveringly takes on exploration of the 1919 Black Sox scandal and rampant gambling surrounding the game; it pounds away at the reserve clause and the implications it had on the business side of professional baseball; a spotlight is shone on the “gentleman’s agreement” among owners and the pervading racism throughout Major League Baseball’s history; and issues like the players’ strike and steroid use taking place in more recent history receive a long, thorough look in the Tenth Inning.

As much as I applaud the scope of this documentary, I will admit that same scope does make it rather daunting to take on.  If you’ve been following along with my journey through Baseball, you’ll know that I started with the First Inning of the series back in October, before the 2017 MLB season had even fully ended.  Now, here we are only days away from the start of 2018 Spring Training, and I have finally reached the end of the documentary.  It is a marathon, for sure, though it is a marathon that most true baseball fans will no doubt be willing to push through because it is definitely worth it.  Most Americans, even among those who consider themselves fans of the game, remain wholly ignorant of much of baseball’s history.  For anyone who decides they genuinely want to learn more about the game, its history, its players, and the forces that have shaped it, this is definitely a great place to start.

If you would like to read my summaries of all the individual innings, you can do so by following the Ken Burns tag here.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Ninth Inning

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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.


Ty and The Babe, by Tom Stanton

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In a recent browsing session through the public library, I came across this book by Tom Stanton: Ty and The Babe: Baseball’s Fiercest Rivals: A Surprising Friendship and the 1941 Has-Beens Golf Championship.  Tom Stanton is a journalist and associate professor of journalism at the University of Detroit Mercy.  Ty and The Babe was a finalist for the Quill Award in 2007.

Naturally, I chose to read this book because of its coverage of two great figures in baseball, though, as one might guess from the title, the book is almost as much about golf as it is about baseball.  The book covers the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth during their baseball careers, which simmered to a sort of grudging respect by the time Cobb retired.  Years after both their baseball careers had ended, Cobb challenged Ruth to a golf competition, which Ruth accepted.

As America made its way into the 1920s, Babe Ruth burst onto the baseball scene as a power hitter on the field and a late-night carouser off the field.  Everything about the Babe’s style of play and personality clashed with that of Ty Cobb, who was comparatively meticulous about his self-care, his preparation, and his in-game approach to baseball.  Furthermore, Ruth’s presence in the game now threatened Cobb’s claim to being the best player in baseball.  Cobb represented an older style of baseball, which revolved around more of a “small ball” approach involving bunting, stealing, and effective base running, while Ruth represented the newer, flashier, slugging style that now took the country by storm.

The early relationship between the two ballplayers was laden with jealousy, pettiness, and mind games.  When facing one another on the diamond, the two snarked and jabbed at each other constantly, at times going out of their way to do so.  The book covers a number of their encounters, bringing them to life on the page with a level of detail that makes them seem like they happened just last week.

Over time, Cobb was forced to acknowledge that Ruth understood baseball at a much deeper level than just a platform for displaying his brute strength and garnering attention.  Though the two men continued to compete with one another, they also came to respect each other, and even acknowledged this respect publicly.  By the time Cobb retired from baseball, the two even had seemed to become friends.

I struggled a bit with the last portion of the book, which revolved around the golf competition between Cobb and Ruth.  This isn’t a knock on Stanton’s writing so much as a reflection of my own indifference to the game of golf.  The descriptions of the approaches and personalities of Ruth and Cobb continued to captivate my attention, but when details about the actual golf matches became the focus of the narrative, I confess that I largely skimmed through those parts.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the book came in Stanton’s refusal to demonize Cobb in the manner Cobb often gets portrayed in baseball histories.  Not that Cobb was without his flaws, Stanton acknowledges, but contrary to popular belief, he did have friends and he never actually sharpened his spikes.  The image of Cobb as a fierce, hard-sliding, no-holds-barred ballplayer started, for the most part, with his autobiography, ghostwritten by Al Stump, and perpetuated through popular culture.

In spite of the golf, I have to say that I’m thoroughly pleased with this book and I certainly don’t regret reading it.  Stanton presents a refreshing look at both these ballplayers, and looking at each of them through the lens of their relationship with one another offers a fun perspective.


Major League Baseball teams with the most Facebook fans

I came across this graph from Statista listing the ten MLB teams with the most Facebook followers.  The numbers listed are in the millions, and the data is current as of December 2017.  I’m sure most of the teams that made the list would come as little or no surprise to most folks.

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This day in baseball: A trade of two Babes

The Phillies traded first baseman Babe Dahlgren to the Pirates on December 30, 1943 in exchange for catcher Babe Phelps and cash. Ellsworth Tenney “Babe” Dahlgren would be best remembered in baseball history as the man who replaced Lou Gehrig in the lineup on May 2, 1939, at the end of Gehrig’s fourteen-year, 2,130 consecutive game streak.

 

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Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Eighth Inning

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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.


This day in baseball: DiMaggio retires

On December 11, 1951, two weeks after his 37th birthday, Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio announced his decision to retire from baseball.  DiMaggio lamented, “I can no longer produce for my ballclub, my manager, my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves.”  The Yankee Clipper finished his thirteen-year career with a .325 batting average and 361 home runs.

 

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Joe DiMaggio (ESPN)

 

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Amazon