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

9th inning

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.


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.


This day in baseball: Rose to Phillies

Having been also pursued by the Mets, Braves, Pirates, and Royals, Pete Rose signed with the Phillies on December 5, 1978 for four years and $3.2 million.  Rose’s new deal comes after having spent sixteen years with the Cincinnati Reds

rose book

Amazon

 

 


This day in baseball: The first official save

The first officially-recorded save took place on April 7, 1969 by Bill Singer as the Dodgers defeated Cincinnati, 3-2, in the season opener at Crosley Field.  The game had started with Don Drysdale giving up two back-to-back home runs  on the first two pitches he threw for the season to Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan.  Drysdale managed to calm down enough for the Dodgers to make a comeback, and Singer did not give up a hit in the final three innings to close out the game.

Bill Singer

Bill Singer (ESPN.com)


Ken Johnson’s no-hitter

KenJohnson1448391241

Washington Post

Ken Johnson passed away this past week, on November 21, 2015.  I’m not sure I ever even heard of him until I saw the news story about his passing.  It turns out, Johnson is the only pitcher in MLB history to pitch a nine-inning, complete game no-hitter and still lose the game.

On April 23, 1964, Ken Johnson and the Colt .45s played the Cincinnati Reds.  While Johnson pitched near flawlessly, it was fielding errors that became his undoing.  The game was still scoreless going into the top of the ninth, when Pete Rose bunted a roller back to the mound.  Johnson fielded but threw the ball away, allowing Rose to advance to second.  Rose moved to third on a ground out.  Then, with two outs, an error by second baseman Nellie Fox allowed Rose to score.

When the Colt .45s failed to score in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson became the first pitcher to lose a game in spite of throwing a no-hitter in nine innings.  No other pitcher has ever managed to accomplish this feat (if you can call it an accomplishment).  Statistics from the game can be found here.

“I pitched the game of my life and still lost,” Johnson would say after the game. “A hell of a way to get into the record books.”

According to Johnson’s family, he had been bedridden with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases for two years.  He died after contracting a kidney infection.

                1  2  3   4  5  6   7  8  9    R  H  E
                -  -  -   -  -  -   -  -  -    -  -  -
Reds            0  0  0   0  0  0   0  0  1    1  0  2
Colts           0  0  0   0  0  0   0  0  0    0  5  2

This day in baseball: Pete Rose investigated

Given all the hubbub surrounding this issue lately, this seems like a timely event to post:

On March 20, 1989, Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball, and commissioner-elect A. Bartlett Giamatti released a statement that Major League Baseball was investigating the allegations surrounding Reds’ manager Pete Rose and gambling.  According to the statement, the commissioner’s office “has for several months been conducting a full inquiry into serious allegations involving Mr. Pete Rose.”  While the commissioner’s office declined further comment, rumors of a possible suspension surrounded the investigation.

Huffington Post

Huffington Post