6 April 2008 | classicalsteve
Documentary that Parallels a History of America, But Not All Teams Could Be Covered
The issue with this kind of a documentary is fans will inevitably criticize it for what it leaves out. If you are a Minnesota, Houston, Seattle or Angels fan, you might feel shortchanged if not entirely ignored. If you are a Yankee or a Boston fan, you probably feel the piece is just about perfect. Burns had to make the inevitable and painful decisions about what to keep and develop and who and what to cut, just like the manager of a baseball team must do at the beginning of every season. There are always players with potential that are regretfully cut from the roster. Burns only had a finite amount of time to tell his story, and he focused on those incidents that captured the spirit of the larger American experience.
Burns decided to create a narrative that is obviously more of an anecdotal history of baseball than a comprehensive history of the entire sport. The amazing aspect of the film is how much he was able to expound upon in 9 parts, which may seem like a lot until you realize the film is trying to cover a 150-year history that encompasses thousands of players and millions of fans. And just about every story is worth the time allotted to it. From the discredited legend of Colonel Abner Doubleday supposedly inventing baseball to the Owner's Collusion and Price-Fixing Scandal of the 1980's, "Baseball" presents a lengthy narrative that covers the major events and people who populated the sport at the nation-wide level of the American public consciousness, each of which could be a documentary by itself. The derivation of baseball from Rounders and Cricket, the first baseball scandal of the late 19th century, the many company teams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the African-American Black leagues, the first African-American players who were driven from the white leagues, the first successful female player, the press' role in covering games, the "curse" of the Boston Red Sox (with an amazing story by Bob Costas) and the mediocre Chicago Cubs who at one point were garnering more attendance than the Yankees paint an historical portrait with all the colors and subtleties that tell us so much about what is good and not so good in America.
Burns I think chose those incidents that either reflected the historical context of their times or captured the spirit of America's strangest yet most-loved pastime. Of course the price was the absence of lesser-known teams and personalities. However, if he had left out the likes of Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, or Joe Dimagio, baseball historians and fanatics would have cried foul that you can't have a baseball documentary without these people. And other incidents, such as the Black Sox scandal of 1919 demonstrated that baseball players were still little better off than working class Americans. My personal favorite episodes chronicled the early years of professional baseball with the likes of Christie Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb. Cobb was probably the most controversial of all American sports figures, and some sports writers view him as an embarrassment to baseball despite his lifetime batting average which still stands. (Later in his life, Cobb was kicked out of a San Francisco men's club for cheating at poker.) Love him or vilify him, Cobb was a personification of what was (and is) best and worst in America. And I must mention the little piece about Rube Waddall who was possibly the strangest character to infiltrate major league pitching. His story is worth the price of admission as he makes Billy Martin appear like a very stable and confident person.
One of the historical facts that is explored is the race discrimination that was enforced by all the white-run major league baseball teams until the 1940's. In response, African-Americans created the so-called Black Leagues which ended up making almost as much revenue as their white counterparts. Some have criticized that the documentary spent too much time on this issue, but I strongly disagree. This is a very important issue as it showed how professional baseball was, at first, as racially segregated as other American institutions, but then became a beacon for racial integration. The willingness of Jackie Robinson, who realized he was in the for the fight of his life, and the foresightedness of Branch Rickey, then owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, put Baseball on the forefront of racial integration. I think if there was ever a documentary that could instill in children, both black and white, the injustice of racism and prejudice, "Baseball" would probably impress them beyond other kinds of documentary material since it deals with baseball, a sport many of them are probably playing. Ironically, Major League Baseball ended up making tons of money when Jackie Robinson signed up with the Dodgers, as many African-American fans came to see his games when Brooklyn was on the road. Racial segregation was not only wrong, it was unprofitable!
An all-inclusive history of baseball would have been 90 hours long instead of 20, and therefore impossible. Thoroughly documenting every team's history would have taken over Burns' entire film-making career. Being an SF Giants fan myself, I was a bit disappointed that very little was spoken about my team after its move from New York, except an off-hand remark about Willie McCovey's shot that went right at the Yankee's short-stop in the 9th inning of the 7th game that ended the 1964 World Series. Some Yankee and Giants fans attending the game said it was the hardest hit ball they had ever seen. (I was not alive at the time but I have heard it oft-repeated from older Giants fans.) Simultaneously, I prefer subjects explored with depth than just glossing over names and dates. This is just about as good as American documentaries get. Maybe Major League Baseball teams should document their histories with Burns-like style.