Sunday, April 17, 2011


"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." ~Jacques Barzun

Well, the season is underway. I myself have been underway watching the Ken Burns documentary Baseball, halfway through the eleven hour epic and drinking it up. More than one of my paintings feature people wearing baseball caps. And there will no doubt be more.

Baseball is nearly as interwoven with Americana as the notion of democracy. The dollars players get paid may have changed, but when all is said and done a ball game is nine innings and three strikes is still an out.

Burns appears to be a master of the documentary form. My first Burns series was his Civil War, a singular achievement and the highest rated mini-series in PBS history. A couple year ago I saw his ten inning series on Jazz, with its phenomenal insights into twentieth century black culture. Here again, in his ten inning offering on Baseball, Burns makes yet another contribution to our understanding of black culture. It's impressive how full-orbed his contribution is to our understanding of a theme we could easily take for granted.

What makes this a rich heritage piece is the great images and footage of those early days of baseball that are simply stats in the history books. Beginning with baseball's roots and Abner Doubleday, Burns takes us on a tour of baseball's influence through the 1800's and straight through to the unpleasant present with its scandals, walkouts and steroid use. But at its heart, there is still something pure, a game of not only skill or science but psychology.

Quite naturally, if you have a favorite ballplayer from the past, Burns will give you a glimpse and a handful of new insights. Naturally Babe Ruth get a lot of attention, but here's footage of Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and my one-time favorite Ty Cobb.

Did you know that Jackie Robinson was not the first black pro baseball player? Did you know that there was a subset of the game called Shadowball in which black ballplayers would play ball with an invisible ball, as if something real were happening? What president turned on the lights with a push of a button for the first night game in Major League history? The game took place at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. (I fondly remember watching the Big Red Machine there on more than one occasion.)

As one reviewer puts it, Ken Burns' documentary is essential viewing for baseball fans and American history buffs. I would concur.

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