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.


This day in baseball: First Hall of Famers

The first five men elected into baseball’s new Hall of Fame on February 2, 1936 were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson.  The Hall of Fame was scheduled to open in Cooperstown, New York in 1939 as part of baseball’s celebration of its “centennial,” that is, the centennial based on the myth of Doubleday’s invention of the game.

 

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fineartamerica.com

 


Ty and The Babe, by Tom Stanton

baseball

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.


“Line-Up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals,” by Ogden Nash

I have a feeling that I have seen this particular poem before, though for the life of me, I do not recall where.  In any case, this piece by Ogden Nash was originally published in the January 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine.  Nash uses the letters of the alphabet to pay tribute to some of baseball’s most popular players.

You can find a chart listing the players each stanza stands for here.

*

A is for Alex
The great Alexander;
More Goose eggs he pitched
Than a popular gander.

B is for Bresnahan
Back of the plate;
The Cubs were his love,
and McGraw his hate.

C is for Cobb,
Who grew spikes and not corn,
And made all the basemen
Wish they weren’t born.

D is for Dean,
The grammatical Diz,
When they asked, Who’s the tops?
Said correctly, I is.

E is for Evers,
His jaw in advance;
Never afraid
To Tinker with Chance.

F is for Fordham
And Frankie and Frisch;
I wish he were back
With the Giants, I wish.

G is for Gehrig,
The Pride of the Stadium;
His record pure gold,
His courage, pure radium.

H is for Hornsby;
When pitching to Rog,
The pitcher would pitch,
Then the pitcher would dodge.

I is for Me,
Not a hard-hitting man,
But an outstanding all-time
Incurable fan.

J is for Johnson
The Big Train in his prime
Was so fast he could throw
Three strikes at a time.

K is for Keeler,
As fresh as green paint,
The fastest and mostest
To hit where they ain’t.

L is for Lajoie
Whom Clevelanders love,
Napoleon himself,
With glue in his glove.

M is for Matty,
Who carried a charm
In the form of an extra
brain in his arm.

N is for Newsom,
Bobo’s favorite kin.
You ask how he’s here,
He talked himself in.

O is for Ott
Of the restless right foot.
When he leaned on the pellet,
The pellet stayed put.

P is for Plank,
The arm of the A’s;
When he tangled with Matty
Games lasted for days.

Q is for Don Quixote
Cornelius Mack;
Neither Yankees nor years
Can halt his attack.

R is for Ruth.
To tell you the truth,
There’s just no more to be said,
Just R is for Ruth.

S is for Speaker,
Swift center-field tender,
When the ball saw him coming,
It yelled, “I surrender.”

T is for Terry
The Giant from Memphis
Whose .400 average
You can’t overemphis.

U would be ‘Ubell
if Carl were a cockney;
We say Hubbell and Baseball
Like Football and Rockne.

V is for Vance
The Dodger’s very own Dazzy;
None of his rivals
Could throw as fast as he.

W is for Wagner,
The bowlegged beauty;
Short was closed to all traffic
With Honus on duty.

X is the first
of two x’s in Foxx
Who was right behind Ruth
with his powerful soxx.

Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People battled against him,
But I never knew why.

Z is for Zenith
The summit of fame.
These men are up there.
These men are the game.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fourth Inning

ken burns
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series.  Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth.  Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!”  The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!”  It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today.  At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park.  Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage.  However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that.  Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt.  This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.

Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life.  I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992).  Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.”  His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.

From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher.  From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees.  The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.

Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance.  However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears.  But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field.  Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual.  His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.

After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded.  He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products.  Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.

Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further.  The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues.  The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games.  Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.

During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes.  The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely.  Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities.  The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.

Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler.  Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received.  Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants.  Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.

During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues.  Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.

It was a booming decade for the sport.  However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.


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.