It’s been a tradition in my house that every year as spring training begins, I break out the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. I owned it on VHS, then on DVD. Now it’s available streaming. I just wished he had added more volumes with everything that’s gone on since this was first put together.
The DVD boxed set includes ten discs, covering baseball from it’s origins all the way through the 1990’s. Each disc covers a specific time period, although there are some ties to other time periods as well. There are quite a few narrators, both those involved in the sporting world and celebrities and writers who are just big fans of the game (like me!)
I love this series because of the way it brings everything together. Baseball is so intertwined with our history in this country. During the timeframes covered on each disc, the narrators give historical references as to what was occurring in the country at the time. It’s fascinating to know that during the Civil War soldiers organized games where sometimes they were shot at (and killed) while playing the outfield.
Likewise, the differences in the fans over the years is also interesting. Fans used to be able to stand in the outfield and the foul lines. There weren’t any walls to speak of, and by leaning in or pulling back when a ball was hit near them, they could affect the outcome of the games.
On thing that has always been consistent since the dawn of organized, professional baseball is the animosity between players and owners. I always find it remarkable to see that a hundred years ago the players and owners have almost the same issues that we read about now in the papers.
The series is put together beautifully. Most of the early material consists of black and white photos. These are put together nicely and the camera does a great job panning over them, making the still pictures come to life with the narration. Many of the photos and early films have been digitally restored and have an amazing clarity when viewed on the DVD. It’s something to marvel at especially when I look at fading pictures in my mother’s own albums.
The soundtrack chosen to accompany such pictures is pivotal, and I thought it added a great deal to the stories. Songs were chosen that are a part of baseball, and played with deliberate slowness at times of melancholy during the game’s history. The general instrumentation also seems to set the tone for each piece.
Although these discs obviously convey a love affair with the game, Burns doesn’t pull any punches either. He actively talks about how the African-American players were excluded from the game. Even the few that owners would sign because they did play so well were eventually excluded due to other players’ attitudes, or the fact that trying to pass them off as an American Indian or Cuban didn’t work. He also talks about the role of women in baseball and that for many years they weren’t allowed to play simply for fear of getting hurt.
Burns also tells it like it is with the players. Although Ty Cobb is regarded as one of – if not the – greatest players of the game, Burns is not afraid to talk about what a nasty S.O.B. the guy was. To give him credit, he does go into Cobb’s background a bit and talks about what might have made him this way.
It’s fascinating to see the background behind such legends of the game such as Branch Rickey, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and more. Players who I’d never heard of (or only heard a little about) from the early years of the game suddenly come to life. The game itself seems to take on a whole new meaning as an integral part of our American fabric. It’s well worth the time I spend each spring watching it, because I come away with a new-found excitement for the game after the long winter.
What’s unique between the DVD boxed set over the VHS it the fact that it is interactive. When certain players are profiled, there is a PBS emblem in the bottom left of the screen. I simply press the ENTER button on my DVD player’s remote, and this takes me to a “baseball card” of sorts on the player, giving various facts about his life and career statistics. When I’m done, I move the cursor down to PLAY BALL and I cut back to the part of the program I just left.
There is also interactive trivia on each disc. The questions are from the material covered on that disc. If the viewer answers the question right, it moves immediately to the next question. If the viewer answers the question wrong, it takes you to that part of the disc where the answer lies, then back to the next question.
My only problem is the series ends with the 10th inning, which was itself a coda to the original documentary. This covers the period of 1994-2009 and there is still so much more that has happened in the baseball world since then. We need an 11th inning!
More than any other sport, baseball is a part of American history. For finding out how it affected and was affected by that history, this series can’t be beat. It’s long, but one part doesn’t hinge that much on another, so it can be spread out over several nights or weeks. I highly recommend the series to any fans of the game. Even non-fans will probably come away from it with a new found appreciation for the sport.
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