Thursday, September 24, 2015

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, PBS

Yogi Berra

I discovered the joys of baseball fairly late in life: The crack of a bat on a summer evening, lanky young men loping around the grass making each catch and toss look effortless, excited kids wearing their mitts, sitting in the outfield bleachers scuffling with each other, trying to snag the occasional foul ball or home run.

Summer is winding down, now, and our local minor league team has finished up their short season. Major League fans are looking forward to baseball's World Series, which begins October 27th. The seasons of and around baseball provide a thread that runs through the American calendar.

Famed Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, died yesterday. Berra was 90 years old, and has been a baseball constant, through the decades. Well-loved announcer Vin Scully tweeted: "As long as people talk about the game, whenever they mention the name Yogi Berra, they will smile."

Ken Burns' tremendous eleven-part documentary Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns covers the sport in magnificent detail from its earliest incarnations as played before the American Civil War, through the beginning of this millennium. Burns talks about teams, about the game itself and the evolution of rules, customs, and strategies. He talks about great players, tragedies, and triumphs over the last nearly two centuries of this quintessentially American game. The documentary includes nearly 24 hours of footage, interviews, stills, and commentary, and the end result is an absolute work of art. I've watched the entire thing from beginning to end at least three times, now, and every time I see it, I appreciate the attention to detail and obvious love of the game lavished on every single moment of Burns' footage.

"Say it ain't so, Joe..."
Burns discusses team names — like the Brooklyn Trolley-Dodgers, later to become just the Dodgers. He looks at great players — players like Yogi Berra —and great scandals, like the alleged Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series. He examines the evolution of equipment and techniques. He nods to the early Robber Barons of baseball and today's swashbuckling free agents.

Baseball is an unabashedly sentimental game, steeped in tradition and superstition and proud of its beginnings. This is a game where the players remove their caps and hold them over their hearts for the playing of the National Anthem. Small boys hanging over the fence can get a nod from a world-class player on his way to the dugout. No matter how far the game has evolved, it remains quintessentially steeped in nostalgia. To go to a local game is, in some ways, to take one's place in an unending stretch of American tradition. If you hold your breath and close your eyes, you could be listening to a game Anywhere, Anywhen. The gentle rhythm of the game itself as well as the cold beer in paper cups, the hotdogs sharp with the tangy smell of mustard, belong to more than a century of baseball custom. Burns captures that sense of the game, and the customs surrounding the game, with intensity and eloquence.

[caption id="attachment_55993" align="alignleft" width="203"]Yogi Berra, record ball We'll miss you, Yogi[/caption]

Ken Burns has given us a remarkable gift, in this documentary. When the season is over, and winter sets in, we can cozy up at home and watch it again and again, dreaming of spring, when it all begins again.

And regarding Mr. Berra? I can only agree with Ken Burns: "Yogi Berra was one of the greatest HUMAN beings to play the game. I will miss him terribly."

So shall we all.

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns is available streaming on Amazon Prime, for sale as a boxed DVD set, and can be rented via Netflix.

(Ken Burns, PBS, 2010)