As a person who devotes large amount of my time to writing about baseball on the internet, the whole “social distancing” thing that we are expected to (and should) do to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus probably comes a bit easier to me than it does to most, but it is still a bit of an ordeal. But luckily, much of the world is making it increasingly easy to stay inside and not go crazy. Ken Burns, in association with PBS, is among those helping.
The highly acclaimed documentarian expressed his wishes that, as the world quarantines itself, his legendary 1994 docu-series Baseball would be available free for streaming on PBS’s website (and on PBS’s Roku app, the means through which I watched it). And while I have watched the Baseball series before (including the 2010 supplemental documentary The Tenth Inning), I decided this was as good of a time as any to revisit the series.
Like any film from 1994, some things inevitably aged well and some things inevitably aged poorly. On the whole, I think Baseball is a worthwhile viewing experience at least once for any fan of the sport. But I think it’s also worth pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the series.
What’s aged well
- The way it treats labor issues–Famously, the series debuted during the 1994 MLB Player’s Strike, at what was probably the nadir of fan perception of players. And while the original series does not cover the particulars of the work stoppage, it delves throughout the series into labor issues, and it is unabashedly honest about the countless cases, from the Federal League to the poor payment of the players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox to the preservation of the reserve clause to Curt Flood to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to 1980s free agency collusion, about the many ways in which players have been mistreated by ownership. Although fan perception of players is hardly universally rosy in 2020, it has certainly improved, and a series that portrays Curt Flood as a heroic martyr and baseball owners as miserly creeps is trending in a more widely agreed-upon direction.
- George Will–I agree with George Will on very little, be it politics, his overly florid descriptions of a past that was never quite as glorious as he believes it was, or his truly awful choice in favorite baseball team. But in a documentary series populated mostly by the types of hyper-literate East Coast liberals that Ken Burns seems to view as his people, some of the best observations come from the Midwestern Ronald Reagan campaign aide. He has some hilarious put-downs of The Ken Burns Demographic (he, almost certainly speaking from the perspective of a Chicago Cubs fan, dismissed Boston Red Sox fan fatalism as the byproduct of bored poets fascinated by their own mortality), among others, but his finest moments come when he speaks on bigger issues. He notes that observations of Willie Mays as a natural, freakish athlete were coded in racial language that minimized Mays’s intelligence and effort, and advocates for players’ rights to negotiate for their labor as an inherent right of the free market. Also, I want to create a Twitter bot that replies to every @BestFansStLouis tweet with video of Will complaining that choosing to be a Cubs fan made him bitter and conservative while his Cardinals fan friends grew up happy and liberal.
- Coverage of the Negro Leagues–An episode devoted largely to Babe Ruth was obligatory, given how major of a figure Babe Ruth is, but to some degree, it was unnecessary. Everybody knows who Babe Ruth is, and his legend is extremely well-known. But Ken Burns covers the Negro Leagues in a more-than-passing way, delving deep into the folklore of its legendary players beyond simply mentioning Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson a lot. The presence of Buck O’Neil is particularly helpful here, as his memory of the great Negro League players and his perspective of generations (he isn’t an old man ranting about the old days; he speaks glowingly of the then-contemporary Bo Jackson) adds texture to the story.
What’s aged poorly
- Ty Cobb–The problem with how Baseball tells the story of Ty Cobb isn’t simply that it regurgitates the history of the man that Al Stump told the world–it’s that it regards Ty Cobb as a singularly important figure in the sport’s segregation. One could easily believe that Ty Cobb was the sole reason baseball was whites-only until 1947 based on the documentary. That much of the Ty Cobb folklore has been discredited makes the integrity of the documentary come into question–I would highly recommend Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, a far more comprehensive and well-vetted biography than Stump’s. Cobb, it turns out, was a somewhat surly man with occasional spats with fans, not unlike Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, but he had many friends in the sport and was vocally supportive of the sport’s integration at a time when most players and ex-players were being, at best, wishy-washy on the subject. The series often falls back on stereotypes of a white man from Georgia at the turn of the century being a stark contrast to the modern, learned New Englanders that populate most of the interviews (note: the show never mentions that Tris Speaker, a Cobb contemporary who is also one of the ten or twenty greatest players who ever lived, was a literal Ku Klux Klan member–this would seemingly make for a more effective straw man).
- The lack of non-American baseball–While The Tenth Inning remedies this problem a bit, the series spends virtually no time discussing baseball outside of the United States and Canada, aside from occasional mentions of Mexican and Caribbean leagues that only come up in reference to Americans who played there. The series makes no mention of Alejandro Oms, Hector Espino, nor Sadaharu Oh, and while I understand that the series largely paints baseball as a parallel to America, it never explicits states this as its mission, so to not even cover non-American leagues seems like an oversight.
- New York and Boston over-coverage: A popular, untrue refrain about Baseball is that Stan Musial goes unmentioned. In fact, Musial gets a several-minute section about his quiet greatness and his long peak, one which, in a vacuum, seems sufficient. However, the larger problem is an over-romanticism about baseball in New York and Boston, particularly of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even aside from the absolutely understandable coverage of Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers are given more coverage than arguably every non-Yankees MLB team through 1957 combined. The relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles is treated as the sport’s darkest day since the Black Sox, while the relocation of the Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns are treated as logistic inevitabilities that allowed two-team towns to still have a team while a new market got one (glares incessantly at New York). By the final episode, all good and pure baseball fan romanticism is transferred to the Boston Red Sox (the series essentially follows the fandom of contributor Doris Kearns Goodwin), and even I, a Cardinals fan, was wondering why the Chicago Cubs couldn’t get any attention after 1908 beyond literally one sentence about Ernie Banks.
Baseball is not a comprehensive guide to baseball history, but it is entertaining, and if you haven’t watched it yet and have to decide between that and re-watching The Office for a twenty-eighth time, it is worth your time.