The week before baseball season began, I started to watch the Ken Burns documentary called Baseball. It traces the history of America's pastime from it's inception to 1994. Most of its history covers the Major Leagues, but it does also cover much of the Negro Leagues' history, and briefly covers other leagues from history.
I enjoyed watching the documentary, but it did have a few spots that were sour for me. First, the good:
The Height of Baseball is Thoroughly Covered and Very Entertaining
Once the history of baseball reaches 1919 and the Black Sox scandal, the documentary finds its footing and takes off. The histories and recollections by historians and writers really helps you to understand all the sides of the stories that are heard. "Innings" 3-7 are the best innings by far to watch.
Buck O'Neil is Fantastic
Much like Shelby Foote in Burn's other major documentary, The Civil War, Buck O'Neil is a man with very simple words that really keep you entertained. When he appeared on the screen, I was always tuning in a little better to see what he had to say. Not only were his insights interesting, he also had firsthand experience playing in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 40s. It was evident that he loved the game of baseball very much.
Any Major Baseball Stories are Covered
You may have heard the phrase, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," but do you actually know what even it refers to? Not only does Burns cover it, he really makes sure you understand the mindset of the fans involved.
It Tells One of the Funniest Stories I Have Ever Heard
In 1962 the Mets were one of the worst teams in baseball. So much so that centerfielder Richie Ashburn and rightfielder Elio Chacon constantly were colliding in the outfield when they both tried to catch the same fly ball. So Chacon taught Ashburn how to say "I've got it" in Spanish: "Yo la Tengo." Ashburn repeated that phrase over and over again so he had it down. Finally the day came when a fly ball flew into the outfield, and Ashburn yelled "Yo la Tengo!" as loudly as he could. He was about to catch the ball...when leftfielder Frank Thomas crashed into him instead.
The History of Free Agency
I didn't even realize how detailed and lengthy the history of free agency was in baseball. The term "player reserve clause" kept popping up all over the documentary, and over and over the baseball team owners rejected it. Finally, after the formation of a player's union and an arbitration court, free agency was born. That story was far more interesting than it should have been!
It Starts Each Episode with the National Anthem
Each National Anthem is not the same - there are tons of different variations that are heard throughout the documentary. The other commonly used song and variations are to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The other music used help to set the scene of the inning. At the beginning there is a lot of ragtime, in the 40s a lot of big band, and by the 70s and 80s there is tons of rock.
He's Not David McCullough, but He's Good
The narrator this time around is John Chancellor, and he does a great job narrating. I was disappointed that in the sequel to this series, The Tenth Inning, he did not return to do the narration.
And now, some of the negative parts:
The First Part is very Dull
I understand that to start a documentary on baseball, you need to start at the beginning. But the beginning of baseball is made to seem very dull and boring. It took me a while to get into the documentary because of it. It took a bit to find its rhythm.
The First Part Also is Parallel to The Civil War
The pictures are the same, the music is the same, and even the voices are the same. I almost thought I had put in a Civil War DVD instead.
There is a Major New York Bias
Not until the second half of the documentary does is begin to talk about the woes of the Boston Red Sox, but the ups and down of the New York teams are never more than ten minutes away! I understand that a lot of baseball history was accomplished by the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees back in the day, but there was so much other baseball history being made by other baseball teams outside of New York and some of that gets pushed by the wayside! Which brings me to my next point...
Where's the Tigers???
Ty Cobb was, at the same time, a bright spot and a stain on Detroit Tigers history. And unfortunately for us, he is the only Tiger to truly get screen time here. Aside from a brief two-minute discussion on Hank Greenberg and his impact on Jewish players in the League, that's it for the Tigers. No mention of their World Series wins in '35 or '45, nothing about their impact on the city of Detroit in '68, and nothing about their wire-to-wire dominance in '84. Heck, there wasn't even anything about Mark Fidrych, which shocked me! I spent so much time waiting for the Tigers to make some sort of dent in the documentary, and was left very disappointed.
In 2009 Burns went back and filmed The Tenth Inning, which "covers" all the history between 1990 and 2009. I was very interested in hearing these events that I was familiar with as a current baseball fan, but this documentary was not very pleasing to me. Burns decided to have the entire four hours revolve around the career of Barry Bonds, someone that I have always disliked. There would be a few other stories, but eventually the story got back to Bonds in some way. I enjoyed hearing about the 1998 home run chase and the 2004 Red Sox World Series and the emergence of Ichiro Suzuki, but other stories that they chose to talk about, like a lengthy discussion over the Mitchell Report, and the Yankee "dominance". All other World Series championships of the past 20 years were largely ignored.
I would recommend that any die-hard baseball fan make sure to watch Baseball, but the likes of The Tenth Inning could be ignored. The former did its best to combine one hundred years of baseball history into 18 hours, and also succeeded in revealing to me some of the best players in the game: Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Buck O'Neil, Cy Young, John McGraw, Lou Gehrig, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Bob Feller, and Sandy Koufax. These are great players that helped revolutionize the game with their talents and skills, and hopefully this documentary will help their efforts to not be forgotten.