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  • Updating/Improving Ken Burns' Baseball

    Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball aired on PBS in September 1994, just four days after Commissioner Bud Selig announced the cancellation of the World Series. It won an Emmy Award and remains, more than 25 years later, the most watched program in PBS history and the greatest documentary ever produced about our beloved National Pastime. Sixteen years later, an addendum (Tenth Inning) aired, covering the game from 1994-2009. Reruns of the series have been an offseason staple on the MLB Network for a decade.

    While this winter of our discontent persists, I have been watching all ten innings of Ken Burns’ Baseball. And while Baseball is a classic and will remain so for the foreseeable future, it does have some problems (in my opinion). These include an overemphasis on New York City (particularly the Brooklyn Dodgers) and on segregation. It uses the same format as earlier Burns’ documentaries (specifically The Civil War), which gives the documentary a “sleepy” quality at times with its slow pace and music. It largely ignores the history of baseball’s international spread throughout the Caribbean (Cuba especially) and Asia.

    Many of the people interviewed have little connection to baseball and their interviews don’t substantially add to it; furthermore, half are now deceased, the living are almost exclusively over the age of 70, obscure interviews with Doris Kearns Goodwin or Gerald Early won’t connect with viewers under 50, if at all. The decision to cover some topics, players or teams over others is sometimes head-scratching. Perhaps worst of all, the series essentially ended after the 1975 season in its original nine innings. Then, of course, as time passes, more of the game’s epochs are going unreported.

    Let’s assume that you are given the task of recreating this series from the ground up. Which features do you retain? Which do you change? Which do you discard? What narratives do you want to emphasize or de-emphasize? How would you break down coverage among the various episodes? Which iconic footage or photographs would you add that weren’t in the original? How about the interviews? Which interviewees would you retain and who would you add who is alive today? With narrator John Chancellor long gone to meet his Maker, who would you want to narrate the series?

    Baseball is a great accomplishment. How could it be modernized, improved upon or replaced? Let’s hear your thoughts.
    "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
    "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
    "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
    "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

  • #2
    I was going to mention something about this in your original Burns post.

    IMO an update should include more detailed 19th century coverage (rule changes, mini-features on Brouthers, Ewing, George Wright, & Harry Stovey, among others, all the various leagues that sprang up, etc...), and more rounded 1950's coverage (a little less focus on NYC baseball).

    Comment


    • #3
      Maybe he could mention Harmon Killebrew just once.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Macker View Post
        Maybe he could mention Harmon Killebrew just once.
        Great example.
        "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
        "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
        "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
        "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

        Comment


        • #5
          Get to the color video as fast as possible and ride those big moments.

          1 episode origins and 19th c.
          1 episode Cobb through Ruth era
          1 episode WWII to 1970

          70's, 80's, 90's, 00's, 10's all get their own episodes.
          Last edited by bluesky5; 03-22-2020, 10:23 PM.
          "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

          Comment


          • #6
            Unlike his Civil War series, his baseball documentary has always seemed overrated to me for many of the reasons that the original post mentions. Ridiculous how little footage - tv and radio - that his documentary used! This isn't the Civil War - radio and tv existed! Use it not just photos! Also, he should have been interviewing the PLAYERS & to lesser extent broadcasters & sportswriters. Great point about Burns' failure to cover MLB becoming a magnet for Latin American & eventually Asian players.

            Lastly, he spent too much time covering racial & general socio-cultural developments in the mid 20th century rather than the actual game of baseball. He absolutely should have covered the Negro Leagues & Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, but after that the focus should have returned to the game not the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the Vietnam War & Counterculture because those things weren't central to baseball. Baseball was a leader racially & culturally in 1947 after that it was just a follower in the cultural changes that occurred in society. Clearly, Burns seemed more interested in those topics than baseball. He should have just done a documentary about US society in the 1960s & 1970s instead of trying to shoehorn that into a baseball documentary.

            After my disappointment with his baseball documentary, I never even bothered to watch his WW2 one. Both because WW2 has been covered to death (no pun intended) & I suspected it would be his now predictable and overused Civil War format (over reliance on photos & interviews with his same small set of friends rather than the actual participants).

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by bluesky5 View Post
              Get to the color video as fast as possible and ride those big moments.

              1 episode origins and 19th c.
              1 episode Cobb through Ruth era
              1 episode WWII to 1970

              70's, 80's, 90's, 00's, 10's all get their own episodes.
              I personally would hate that kind of recency bias in production and timeline. I've lived through all those last 5 decades. While I might learn something new, it would be a lot of rehash for me. I personally always liked and respected histories and documentaries that treat each era and time with equal respect of dedication. When they just gloss over earlier times or skip through, I feel like they are cheating me, the topic, and those who have gone before us. I also tend to lose my respect for the research and production of the piece. What are they trying to do? Get to the "good parts"? Who are they to decide for my what the "good parts" are? If they're not willing to do a history of baseball, don't do a history of baseball. If someone wanted to make documentary just about the last 5 decades, fine. be open and honest about what the documentary is and call it something like "Baseball in the Last 50 Years".

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by 3rdGenCub View Post
                Unlike his Civil War series, his baseball documentary has always seemed overrated to me for many of the reasons that the original post mentions. Ridiculous how little footage - tv and radio - that his documentary used! This isn't the Civil War - radio and tv existed! Use it not just photos! Also, he should have been interviewing the PLAYERS & to lesser extent broadcasters & sportswriters. Great point about Burns' failure to cover MLB becoming a magnet for Latin American & eventually Asian players.

                Lastly, he spent too much time covering racial & general socio-cultural developments in the mid 20th century rather than the actual game of baseball. He absolutely should have covered the Negro Leagues & Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, but after that the focus should have returned to the game not the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the Vietnam War & Counterculture because those things weren't central to baseball. Baseball was a leader racially & culturally in 1947 after that it was just a follower in the cultural changes that occurred in society. Clearly, Burns seemed more interested in those topics than baseball. He should have just done a documentary about US society in the 1960s & 1970s instead of trying to shoehorn that into a baseball documentary.

                After my disappointment with his baseball documentary, I never even bothered to watch his WW2 one. Both because WW2 has been covered to death (no pun intended) & I suspected it would be his now predictable and overused Civil War format (over reliance on photos & interviews with his same small set of friends rather than the actual participants).
                Agree 110% with everything you said.
                "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

                Comment


                • #9
                  The original breakdown by era/episode was as follows below, with each episode between 2 hours and 2 hours 30 minutes:

                  1st Inning – 1800s
                  2nd Inning - 1900s
                  3rd Inning - 1910s
                  4th Inning - 1920s
                  5th Inning - 1930s
                  6th Inning - 1940s
                  7th Inning - 1950s
                  8th Inning - 1960s
                  9th Inning – 1970s and 1980s, but really just the first half of the 1970s
                  10th Inning - 1990s and 2000s


                  This is how I would break things down if I were doing this today:

                  1st Inning – Origins (Through 1870)
                  Covers the evolution and development of the game from its roots through the 1870 season, ending with the decision of all-professional clubs to form their own league and separate themselves from the amateur NABBP.

                  2nd Inning – The National League (1871-1892)
                  Covers the creation of the first professional league, its successes and missteps and the change from a player-driven league to a magnate-driven one with the creation of the National League. The history of the National League from 1876-1892, as it attempts to further solidify the power of its owners over players (now seen as employees), upstart leagues (both “major” and “minor”) and the sport itself.

                  3rd Inning – A National Agreement (1893-1919)
                  The NL revels in its triumph as a super-league for a decade before another, savvier challenger (the American League) forces it to create the modern two-league system. The two leagues operate in relative harmony for two decades before challenges from outside and weak leadership within put the leagues’ future in jeopardy. Episode culminates with the 1919 World Series and the sale of Babe Ruth to New York two months later.

                  4th Inning – Lively Ball (1920-1945)
                  Covers the changes for the 1920 season (Commissioner system, rule changes, Black Sox punishment, etc.) and the game’s growth in the Roaring Twenties. Also covers its struggles during the 1930s and Baseball’s attempts to survive during a depression and another war. Episode ends with VJ Day and the knowledge that ballplayers will be home for the 1946 season.

                  5th Inning – Integration (1946-1960)
                  Covers the integration of the Major Leagues, both for black Americans and for Latinos, as well as the impact of television. Also covers baseball playing catch-up to the demographic shifts in the country as baseball heads west. Episode ends with the threat of the Continental League ending.

                  6th Inning – Expansion (1961-1975)
                  A major league expands for the first time since 1893 and continued franchise relocations and future expansions fuel more, in turn. Also covers the creation of a functional players union. Ends with the 1975 World Series and the Seitz decision two months later.

                  7th Inning – Free Agency (1976-1992)
                  Covers the attempts of baseball owners to recapture the control they lost with the Seitz decision, particularly the 1981 strike, the collusion years, the ouster of a commissioner and the attempt to impose a salary cap despite increasing revenues from broadcast rights.

                  8th Inning – Powerball (1993-2004)
                  The so-called “Steroid Era” is presented here in light of the 1994-95 strike and its aftermath as baseball attempts to recover its popularity and seeks to find an identity in a country with growing alternative choices for sports fans. Ends with the imposition of mandatory PED testing and the Red Sox breaking the Curse of the Bambino by applying the principles expressed in Michael Lewis’ controversial book Moneyball.

                  9th Inning – The Analytics Revolution (2005-Present)
                  Covers the explosion of the international talent pipeline, creation of the World Baseball Classic, the growing ubiquity of analytics in MLB front offices and controversies over the legacy of the PED years. Also looks forward to a new commissioner’s vision for the sport and attempts to lead baseball into the new century.

                  I would also plan for “Extra Innings” with the assumption that once every 15-20 years, we could probably create a new episode to update the series, a 10th inning, an 11th inning, a 12th inning, etc.

                  While I would want to spend more time (ideally) on the older generations, let's be honest, the 1920s through the 1960s have been done to death in terms of historical coverage. And while Baby Boomers will certainly remember the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, etc., that generation is almost entirely in their sixties and seventies now. A 40-year old today would have been in middle school when Toronto won consecutive World Series and in high school when Cal Ripken and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were bringing fans back to the game after the strike. I wouldn't want to create a documentary about a sport that's 175 years old and appeal, primarily to audiences collecting Social Security. That's not exactly a winner to my way of thinking.

                  More importantly, while baseball does tend to mirror American life, yada, yada, yada....its most important conflict wasn't racial in nature, but rather economic and the history of the sport is, in many ways, a history of a group of men with capital seizing control of the game from the players and maintaining a profitable monopoly on the sport. That isn't to say that I want my narrative to be a Charles Beard-like interpretation of the game, but my point is rather than MLB's practices have been unjust to all players throughout its history, not merely those of a certain skin color or nationality for part of it. In other words, Jackie Robinson is part of a larger story, better told by Marvin Miller.

                  Nor am I interested in using the documentary to publicly flog individuals from the past with whips fashioned from today's popular morality. Individuals are men of their time and should be judged (historically) within the context in which they lived, not necessarily the one in which we live.

                  Furthermore, the story of New York baseball is the story of a particular place where baseball originated and developed and has succeeded (Yankees) the most, but in no small part because of the distinct advantages inherent to that place. Advantages that teams in Portsmouth, OH and Rockford, IL didn't have in the 1860s any more than teams in Milwaukee or Kansas City do today. There is something natural about that balance of power, but another primary theme of baseball has been the relative unwillingness of its powers-that-be to address these disparities in the interest of avoiding repeats of the NA in the 1870s or the NL in the 1890s or the Yankees in the 50s.

                  A third and final theme I would like to explore throughout the series is baseball's dichotomy between leading the sports world in innovation (the Internet, analytics) and fearing and avoiding innovation (radio and TV, the reserve clause). Baseball, as a whole, is extremely conservative, yet its greatest advances have often stemmed from the profit motive sought by clever entrepreneurs among its ownership. Owners who fought free agency, for example, saw their teams die on the vine whereas those who embraced it saw their teams improve. Branch Rickey created the farm system and integrated the game in attempts to win more ballgames as much as anything.

                  Yes, any documentary ought to talk about the sports' symbiotic relationship with American history, culture and life. Yes, that includes the history of racial injustice and immigration, but the film ought to most reflect what is unique about baseball and what sets it apart from other sports - where it has excelled, where it has led, and where it might go in the future. A series about the national pastime can be all of these things without primarily being any one of them.

                  "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
                  "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
                  "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
                  "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Really great stuff. My main changes would be to include the formation of the NL in the 1st inning, go from 1877 to 1900 in the 2nd inning- spending time on the major rule changes, other leagues, etc..., and devoting the 3rd inning entirely to the deadball era.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Chadwick View Post
                      A third and final theme I would like to explore throughout the series is baseball's dichotomy between leading the sports world in innovation (the Internet, analytics) and fearing and avoiding innovation (radio and TV, the reserve clause). Baseball, as a whole, is extremely conservative, yet its greatest advances have often stemmed from the profit motive sought by clever entrepreneurs among its ownership.
                      The only reason analytics has been adopted so fast is that it limits the money spent on players.

                      "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by bluesky5 View Post

                        The only reason analytics has been adopted so fast is that it limits the money spent on players.
                        Bless your heart.
                        "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
                        "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
                        "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
                        "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Chadwick View Post
                          Bless your heart.
                          Blessing accepted #blessed
                          "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Chadwick View Post
                            6th Inning – Expansion (1961-1975)
                            A major league expands for the first time since 1893 and continued franchise relocations and future expansions fuel more, in turn. Also covers the creation of a functional players union. Ends with the 1975 World Series and the Seitz decision two months later.

                            I don't mean to be the guy who points out a tiny spot on an otherwise clean window, but I have to question naming a chapter Expansion without extending the year to 1977. Even, say, 1976, when the approvals and drafts took place. Failing that, I might consider a different title. Just thinkin' out loud.
                            Put it in the books.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Not a big fan of Burns but I do give him credit for his skill as a film maker in putting together the pieces for a documentary. Using the inning format was a clever concept but someone doing something regarding the history of baseball would be silly to try and copy it. Inevitably, by trying to encompass everything you are still going to leave plenty out which opens the door for criticism. My favorite baseball doc was the HBO series When It Was a Game" color footage that originally covered the 1930-1960 era. They also had a part two, which reused a lot of the original footage and a part 3 that covered the 60's. HBO & Showtime also did some solid doc's about Ted Williams, The Brooklyn Dodgers, Mantle, the 68 Tigers and a few other topics.
                              It Might Be? It Could Be?? It Is!

                              Comment

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