Baseball (1994)

Directed by Ken Burns

After 55 films, and the incomparable, 10-part, nearly 24 hour long Ken Burns documentary, Baseball, my Baseball marathon has come to a close. I left the exhaustive documentary for last as a way to cap off everything that had come before it, place perspective on the sport I love so dearly, and to relive it’s accolades and miseries. Baseball is the only documentary in the 56 film marathon, so in addition to its massive size, it also serves as the only work of true non-fiction in the series, though some of the others were “based on true stories”. So it is separate from all the others films in the marathon, different, but that does not make it any less worthy of inclusion in such a comprehensive exploration of the sport and the medium I love, films. I can easily say that Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, which he even supplemented with a “Tenth Inning” in 2010, is the best Baseball film ever produced.

It seems impossible to write about a 22 hour+ film, and I even considered writing reviews for each “Inning”, or episode, but found that approach to be too specific. Baseball nearly speaks for itself, especially if you have seen any of Ken Burns other works. His style of documentary filmmaking is one all his own, and has found success with it in multiple projects, including The Civil WarThe War, and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I have no idea how Ken Burns approached this project, or how he envisioned formulating such a film which spans the history of game which has been around for over 150 years. Yet somehow, the output is exactly perfect, everything a fan of the game would expect. And I do say fan of the game, as the film is very exhaustive in its coverage of the game, that it is not for the faint of heart, or those not interested in the game. There is a chance that the beautiful, poetic coverage Baseball has of the game could sway some to appreciate and love the game as I do, but sitting in for 22 hours of baseball is no easy task.

I could easily sit here and type out a summary of what is covered and how I felt the film covered it, what was left out, what felt biased, etc., but in doing so I would fail to truly capture the spirit of the film and what it stands for. Ken Burns does an excellent job of finding interesting people to interview, but does an even better job of allowing them to tell their stories about the game, instead of approaching the subject like a dry historian might, recounting the dates and results of each season and remarkable achievement. The charm of Baseball is in the details, the little stories about the game and its players/teams, but even more so the little personal stories the interviewees tell about their connection to the game, how they reacted to certain events, where they were, what the heartbeat of the fans was. That is baseball. Ken Burns also excels at connecting the story of baseball with the American culture, how each influenced the other, and how, over time, the game was able to evolve and adapt to its players, its fans and America at large.

I was also more interested to hear these stories over a summary of a World Series in such and such year between such and such teams. For that reason, I also found the opening episodes which chronicle the birth of baseball and its ancient history as the most eye opening. As a student of the game, I know more than most when it comes to recent baseball history (and by recent I mean since Babe Ruth essentially), so spending time in Hoboken, New Jersey at the Elysian Fields where the game was born, and all the backwoods, country towns across the country which harbored the game is a real treat. It’s simple to classify baseball as a pastoral game, a country game played in open fields, but in reality it is a city game, born in New York City. And yet, it still feels right to call it pastoral because of its pacing and setting. To me, it is a relaxing game, one without a rival. A perfect game.

At age 27, I still play the game, in an adult league which plays its games on Sundays in the summer. I was a very good player in little league, when I played the game for fun. In high school I took things too seriously and regressed. Even today I am proud to call myself a decent player in the league I play in, but I was never a super star, never had a real dream of playing professional ball, as so many do. I have hit one career homerun (at least which cleared the fence). I was never a power hitter, and in fact sprinted around the bases, failing to even enjoy my homerun trot as I was trying to hustle to make sure of two bases, not knowing it had cleared the fence entirely. I’ve even turned an unassisted triple play in my career, albeit in little league. But the significance of that accomplishment is not lost on me. Only 15 have been recorded in MLB history, making it more rare than the Perfect Game.

I have had a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball, and what Ken Burns is able to do with his film is visualize that for so many of the games greatest fans. Baseball is a textbook of information, full of so much that it would overwhelm many in text form, but by marrying these stories with images and videos from the games past, the textbook becomes much easier to consume, and in fact a great joy. Baseball is an important film for me personally, and one with immense re-watch appeal. I will always be able to return to this film, even just to watch and episode, or a segment, and find great joy in the game I love. There is no question there are countless more great baseball stories left out, but Baseball succeeds on the stories that are included, and the passion with which the film’s director, the film’s subjects, and the film’s fans all share for the game of baseball.

**** – Masterpiece

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