Ken Burns' Baseball:
A synopsis of the television documentary series

First posted (as separate page): May, 2002


Ken Burns' documentary series on Baseball was a landmark event in the 1990s renaissance of baseball's place in American national culture, coming on the heels of several superb baseball movies and roughly coinciding with the boom in construction of neoclassical "retro" stadiums. Nineteen ninety four was a sad time for the sport, however, as the World Series was at that very moment cancelled by the players' strike. I happened to be in Peru doing research when it was broadcast by PBS in the that fall, and therefore did not see it until years later. Each two-hour televised episode and each chapter in the book, except for the first and the last, correspond to one decade during the twentieth century. Though weighted down by some politically correct baggage in some places, it was quite magnificent overall, one of the most worthy television projects ever broadcast. Nevertheless, there were a few outright errors:

As I was watching the video version, I noticed several scenes where the voice-over was talking about one stadium or game, while the image on the screen showed an entirely different stadium. Horrors! Ken Burns's credentials as a scholar are probably beyond reproach, but some of his film editors let him down. Perhaps only a true devoted baseball nut such as your truly would even notice such flaws, much less take the time to call attention to them, but heck, someone had to do it!

1st Inning ~
OUR GAME: Beginnings to 1900

Contrary to popular legend, Alexander Doubleday did not invent baseball. Rather, the sport evolved gradually over the decades, and in 1845 the first formal "Base Ball Club" was founded in New York City. The first professional baseball club was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, founded in 1869. Their record was 65 wins and 0 losses that year. The National League was founded in 1876 and dominated various other upstart leagues.

2nd Inning ~

The American League was founded in 1901 and managed to hold its own. The focus was on Ty Cobb, the ultra-competitive Detroit Tigers slugger who held the record for total career hits until 1985.

3rd Inning ~

Baseball truly became the national pastime as big new stadiums were built in all the major league cities, and attendance soared. The heroic aura was badly tarnished by the Chicago "Blacksox" scandal of 1919, however. Poor Joe "Shoeless" Jackson...

The segment on the opening of Boston's Fenway Park (which took place in 1912) showed the construction of the new outfield bleachers, which did not take place until 1934.
The segment on the opening of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field (which took place in 1913) showed the dugout and right field foul line of Braves Field in Boston.
The segment on the 1918 World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox played in Comiskey Park showed the rooftops of the row houses across the street from the right field fence in Shibe Park, which is in Philadelphia!!

4th Inning ~

After multi-talented Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees he became a full-time slugger, setting home run records previously unimaginable, changing the sport forever. Commentary by Thomas Boswell, erudite and earnest sports writer for the Washington Post.

The 1928 World Series between the Yankees and the Cubs showed a clip of Comiskey Park, but the Cubs did not play there after the 1918 World Series.

5th Inning ~
SHADOW BALL: 1930-1940

The Depression hurt attendance so much that some major league teams almost went out of business, but the Negro Leagues managed to survive and attract growing numbers of fans. Lou Gehrig came down with a tragic fatal disease and yet triumphed by giving his memorable moving farewell speech in 1939. Commentary by Buck O'Neill, a charming, engaging, thoughtful, and deeply sincere former Negro Leaguer who in the 1950s on became a coach and scout for major league teams.

6th Inning ~

Though the careers of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and others were interrupted by World War II, baseball became the forefront of social change when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus finally beginning the integration of baseball in 1947. Commentary by Brooklyn native Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted news commentator and scholar who once worked in the Lyndon Johnson White House and recently confessed to plagiarism.

In a segment about the Brooklyn Dodgers finally making it to the World Series in 1941, sportscaster Red Barber said "If you were in the stands at Ebbets Field you were practically in the game!" Then there was an aerial photo of Philadelphia's Shibe Park!! In the segment on Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, there was an out-of-place film clip of Sportsman's Park (St. Louis).

In Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, "Yankee Clipper" Joe DiMaggio is shown at bat, but after he hits the ball, the right side grandstand of Braves Field is shown!

7th Inning ~

The decade when three New York Teams: the Yankees, the Giants, and the (Brooklyn) Dodgers almost monopolized World Series competition, and when the latter two pulled up stakes and moved to California. The biggest heros were Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial. Commentary by George F. Will.

8th Inning ~

This was the beginning of the decline of baseball, as television and competing sports such as pro football distracted fans' attention. Ultra-modern circular stadiums with artifical turf seemed like the wave of the future, but made the already slow-paced game outright boring. Pitchers such as Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain dominated, so few games had much scoring action. The Amazin' Mets provided some much-needed drama and relief from national turmoil in 1969. During an interview retired pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee laments the alleged corrupting effect of baseball cards on American kids. Wearing a hat emblazoned with the letters "CCCP" (cyrillic for USSR), he derides capitalism by saying "An entrepreneur takes something of no value and makes money off it." Hmmm.

9th Inning ~
HOME: The Modern Era, 1970-1990

Unionization, salary explosion, illegal collusion by team owners, strikes, despair, and ~ possible rebirth? Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record in 1974, and Pete Rose surpassed Ty Cobb's career hit record in 1985, but he got in trouble with gambling and was banned from the sport for life. The expose on the collusion by owners makes one wonder if good faith bargaining is even possible in the ongoing face-off with the players' association. Former pitcher Bill "Space Man" Lee (wearing a "CCCP" cap): "Baseball cards will be the ruination of kids." "An entrepreneur takes something of no value and makes money off it."

SOURCE: Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball (companion book to the documentary series) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.) Amazon.com


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