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Thoughts on Ken Burns: Baseball

I watched Ken Burns: Baseball for the first time

MLB: JUL 29 Tigers at Rangers Photo by Jim Cowsert/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For most of my adult life, I have been under the impression that Ken Burns: Baseball was essential viewing for any baseball fan. Don’t ask me where or how or why that was my impression, but for whatever reason that has been my impression for as long as I’ve know of the documentary’s existence.

After having watched the first nine innings and then the following two that aired a decade and a half later, I am here to report that it is not essential viewing. You can skip this. I’m going to compare this to the movie Harriet, but it could just as well apply to any number of biographical historical dramas. Harriet is a perfectly fine movie about Harriet Tubman, but the fact that the movie is about HARRIET TUBMAN and is only perfectly fine makes me not like the movie. You could have gone in so many directions and somehow the choices you made led to mediocrity. That’s this documentary for me.

I have numerous, numerous problems with this documentary and I’ll mostly air them out in the form of ranking the best innings, but to give a general overview of the flaws, I’ll start off with saying Ken Burns chose to interview exclusively New York media and maybe a couple Boston fans. As such, the documentary is extremely slanted towards a New York/Boston point of view and you can really only understand the absurdly overabundance of those two cities if you watch it.

This is not me complaining from the point of view of a Cardinals fan. It’s as a baseball fan. The Cardinals are actually treated okay in this. They should perhaps get a little more time (and I’ll highlight moments where), but they are so far ahead of every team that isn’t New York or Boston, that it would be silly to complain. But the distance between how New York/Boston is covered in comparison to St. Louis is still way, way, way greater than the distance between St. Louis and whatever the next team would be.

And it comes down to Ken Burns just not interviewing that many people who aren’t based in New York. It’s a great Brooklyn Dodgers documentary. It’s a great New York Yankees documentary. And it’s a great Boston Red Sox documentary. And I’ll also give it this: it’s a great documentary on the history of black baseball players and the history of labor relations. If you wanted to give me a supercut of this documentary on race, on labor relations, on the Cardinals, and everything that isn’t dealing with the Yankees or Red Sox, this documentary would be like 5 episodes. I don’t think I’m even exaggerating with that guess.

With that said, I’ll go through my favorite innings to least favorite innings, highlight why and my potential issues with it.

Inning 6

If you were to watch one inning of the Ken Burns documentary, this should probably be your choice. It is for the decade of the 1940s and is the longest of the episodes at 148 minutes. The vast majority of that time is spent on Jackie Robinson integrating baseball and all of that time spent is great. The rest of the time is spent about World War II, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak, and even more Dodgers talk outside of Jackie.

If you want to get my quibbles, the Cardinals won three World Series during this era and it’s like they didn’t exist. They talk about Williams in the 1946 series, but the Cardinals being the opponent is extremely not relevant according to this doc. I would have less of an issue with this - I love Ted Williams and was cool with him dominating the doc - except that valuable time was spent on the Brooklyn Dodgers that had nothing to do with Jackie, which is just unnecessary. Nobody outside of Brooklyn gives a shit Ken. Lastly, I thought too much time was spent on Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak, but at least that one interests more than Yankees fans.

Inning 8

This one is probably most relevant to Cardinals fans. They talk about Bob Gibson at length, Curt Flood is an interviewee, and they spent a notable amount of time on Stan Musial. So I couldn’t honestly say inning 8 would necessarily be this high for your average baseball fan. This is also I believe the first inning with Marvin Miller being interviewed, which I also appreciated watching. Earl Weaver’s Orioles are one of the few teams outside of the Cards to escape the New York bubble, and are featured somewhat heavily here. Along with Gibson, Koufax is also given significant screen time. (Since the Dodgers moved to LA, I kind of count them as “New York media bubble” to be honest)

As for the flaws, a truly goofy amount of time is spent on a past his prime Casey Stengel with the Mets and the Mets pre-1969 run in general. This is what I mean when I say the doc has a New York bubble. It spends times on bad New York teams when it doesn’t do that for anyone else. It’s also very annoying when the show chooses to focus on specific games, which only happen when New York or Boston is playing. And, I’ll be more specific later on this point, but the show feels like a parody whenever it’s talking about Ty Cobb, highlighting that only three teammates showed up to his funeral, which is a silly point to make - he died four decades after he stopped playing and retired old, of course barely any teammates showed up to his funeral. This is pre-internet, pre cellphones, I doubt any of those guys stayed in touch much even if they liked each other.

Inning 4

This is one of those episodes where Burns mostly gets it right. This episode is dominated by Babe Ruth, even more so than Jackie in the 1940s episode, but it’s Babe Ruth, so that makes sense. Branch Rickey and the creation of the farm system is featured here, as well as Rogers Hornsby and Grover Cleveland Alexander and the 1926 Cardinals. They also talk extensively about the Negro Leagues, and the person who spearheaded it, Rube Foster. I guess I have less issues with this than any other episode, so it should be higher, but I didn’t enjoy any specific part of this as much as I enjoyed the feature on Jackie or the Cardinals specific stuff/labor relations in Inning 8.

Inning 5

Like I said above, when it comes to being a documentary on black baseball players, this is a good documentary. And the Negro Leagues is once again featured prominently in this episode. In particular Buck O’Neill interviews are always a highlight in any episode he’s in. This inning also is kind of cool for putting context in why the All-Star game or night games exist: the Depression make owners desperate for fan interest. We also get the 1934 Cardinals, so that’s a plus. On the downside, the episode spends time on the Brooklyn Dodgers who were bad this entire decade and NOBODY CARES OUTSIDE OF BROOKLYN KEN. Also, he isn’t given a large amount of screentime, but Joe DiMaggio making his entrance in this episode is like a warning sign to expect everyone interviewed to act like Joe DiMaggio was in any way shape or form close to one of the best baseball players of all time. He was a great baseball player, but is given screentime like he’s Ted Williams is my issue.

Inning 3

Because the dominant teams covered in the rest of the documentary are largely irrelevant prior to 1920, the first three innings is able to focus more on things that every baseball fan would care about. Unfortunately, these episodes also happen to carry the huge flaw that is how they cover Ty Cobb, which I’ll get into for inning 2. The reason inning 3 is higher is because Ty Cobb is a major part of the second inning, not so much in this one. This features Snodgrass’ Muff, and a good section devoted to the Black Sox Scandal, which I would recommend, especially Christy Mathewson’s help, which Eight Men Out ignored.

Inning 2

Yeah about how Ty Cobb is covered. He’s the great villain in this documentary in a way that nobody else really is. And it’s based on Al Stump’s word, whose stories are largely discredited at this point, but weren’t in 1994 quite yet. There is little question Ty Cobb was an asshole, but any more so than most players at that time? That’s more unclear. Solid history on the beginning of the American League, the first World Series, Merkle’s Boner, and John McGraw. Also it’s pretty cool to find out the importance of someone like Christy Mathewson, who was not only one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but very integral to baseball gaining respect as a legitimate sport since he was such a goody two shoes star in an era where pretty much everyone was an asshole and worse.

Inning 1

This covers the beginning of the sport, around 1839, to its popularity in the Civil War, the beginnings of actual major leagues, up until around the turn of the century. It’s all theoretically interesting and some of it actually interesting, but I’ll be honest: this is easily the most boring two hours of the documentary. The first 20 minutes or so aren’t even about any of what I said above, but like a prelude of what’s to come with various interviewees extolling the virtues of baseball. Which eh. You’d think you wouldn’t get tired of people talking poetic about baseball, but you would be wrong. As far as “learning” about baseball, I’d say inning 1 has to be near the top of new information for even knowledgeable baseball fans.

Inning 9

After inning 1, I will admit, I struggled with the order. Ultimately, I thought the Curt Flood case and subsequent beginnings of free agency are more important than anything that happened in inning 10 and like I’ve said, the labor relations are pretty solid history work. I believe, though I can’t remember exactly, that owners’ collusion was also covered here, though it may be inning 10 in the context of the strike. On the downside, I got irrationally angry at how much random MLB player Bill Lee is featured here, who is not nearly as interesting as this documentary thinks he is and also, in the grand scheme of baseball, is pretty irrelevant to a documentary of this scope! They couldn’t get Carlton Fisk or Yaz I guess and wanted someone who played in “the best game ever” (few things have aged as poorly as everyone claiming this). They talk about Weaver’s Orioles some more, the Big Red Machine, and the Pirates and Yankees.

And then they skip from 1979 to 1986 and talk about Buckner. Which to be sure, needs to be covered, and actually watching it from play-to-play in a way I haven’t before makes me realize Boston fans were and are insane to blame Buckner to the extent that they did. I didn’t realize the momentum had completely turned and the Mets were most likely on their way to winning anyway. It’s weird to me that Whiteyball is completely ignored only because it’s a very easy narrative thing to latch onto - in the same way as “We are Family” Pirates. You know? I’m sure he figured “Well, I have talked about the Cards enough,” which would be a fairer point had he not used that time to talk about the Red Sox more.

Inning 10

The biggest, biggest problem with inning 10 is that it focuses specifically on the 1996 World Series an absurd amount. I get the logic. The Yankees dominated the end of that particularly decade so much that they’ll have the first series win represent them all, but honestly, it’s not that interesting on its own. I actually appreciate the context to which they gave Joe Torre credit in a way I hadn’t really been able to notice before, but going game-to-game and even play-to-play is just not necessary in the slightest. It’s given about as much time as the 1998 home run chase for some reason. Here’s my main issue with it: remember Joe Carter’s game-winning Game 7 home run?! NOT COVERED AT ALL. It was presumably too recent for inning 9, but then it’s ignored here. Jack Morris 1991 World Series game that got him into the Hall? How is that not covered? It’s absurd to me how much time the 1996 World Series got in this inning.

The strike is also covered and as good as the doc has been on labor relations for the first nine innings, I was a little annoyed on this one. But nothing too egregious or worth sharing, and I liked how they framed how attendance slowly rose by covering Cal Ripkin and the home run chase.

Inning 11

The episode is only interested in four things: Barry Bonds, steroid scandal, 9/11, and the Red Sox. As for Bonds, I thought the episode mostly captured the public’s feelings on him, why Bonds acted the way he did, and his greatness. He’s the Cobb of the new episodes, although the doc has way more sympathy for him and frames him as a man wronged, and a man whose role models were wronged and that’s why he acts like does. So I actually did like that part. The 9/11 section was fine. There was a statement that made me turn my head so the audience here will have to help me. He says “most of the country was pulling for the Yankees.” I was too young to know the accuracy of that statement, but it at least is not near as true as Ken Burns thinks it was, I am sure. Young me was not rooting for them, I know that much.

Then it covers the steroid scandal extensively, and I appreciate that they had someone say - and it might have been in the previous inning - if this were available for Ruth, if it were available for Mays, I firmly believe they would have done it. How could you not? Glad to have that viewpoint expressed. And then the Red Sox. Lots and lots of Red Sox in this episode, pretty much just their two series against the Yankees. The 2004 World Series is thankfully glossed over. I would be furious if I were a Cubs fan watching this doc - not this inning specifically, but at the whole thing. They get Tinkers to Evers to Chance, Ernie Banks is given a sentence I think, the home run chase, and like 5 minutes on the Bartman ball. Just look at how the 2003 series is covered here in comparison to the 1975 series or the 1986 one or the Red Sox own 2003 one. It’s ridiculous.

Inning 7

Otherwise known as, the inning where the documentary pretends the Brooklyn Dodgers losing its team was the greatest travesty known to sports. Hearing Billy Crystal say (paraphrase) “I was a Yankee fan, but losing Brooklyn was a real loss to the city.” I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle Crystal. This is touching a nerve of mine I didn’t know existed and making me glad Brooklyn lost the Dodgers. I mean not really, but several other cities lost teams! And the series spends like a minute on them combined. It’s insane. Brooklyn was not the only city to lose a team in a shady way during this period of time. Would it surprise you to know Ken Burns is from Brooklyn because it could not be more obvious? Watching this documentary is a good refresher on why you should never root for a New York team again. If you hate the mythologizing of New York, boy would you not like this series and especially this particular episode!

Also Joe DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio in 1994 must have been the most overrated player of all time. There a few players in this doc who are given time like an all-time great: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, and... Joe DiMaggio? Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, and Albert Pujols, among others, are pretty much ignored in this doc and they were better than him. And that’s to say nothing of players who were mentioned, but with significantly less time devoted than DiMaggio. God Yankees fans must love this doc. There’s also time spent on Mario Cuomo as a failed prospect, which is the most 1994 thing this doc did, and is just obnoxious.

Honestly, I probably could have devoted multiple posts to talking about Ken Burns documentary, but I thought of the idea to write about it when I needed to vent my feelings after inning 7. We’re lucky to root for a franchise that has important moments in baseball history that not even this documentary could ignore or gloss over, such as the invention of the farm system, having a player who helped cause the mound to be lowered, having a player who helped force free agency, and having a player who participated in a nationally popular home run chase. Stan Musial was also too great to be ignored, so much so that he’s awkwardly shoe-horned in when he’s retiring.

Anyway, if you can accept all the flaws in this documentary series, there are some essential parts, but there’s a good chance the flaws will annoy you enough to stain your viewing experience like it did for mine.