Long and languid--and determinedly so--detailed, devoted, and only occasionally dramatic, Ken Burns's new documentary, Baseball, mimics the very pace and temperament of its chosen subject. It is, at times, somewhat arch in the way its structure apes that of a baseball game: the documentary airs in nine "innings" over the course of two weeks, beginning Sunday night on Channel 11. While each of those innings lasts precisely two hours (with a 30-minute epilogue, the total running time is 18 1/2 hours), and thus violates one of baseball's most treasured traditions as one of the few sports without a clock, the documentary as a whole and each of its innings revel in that unhurried, deliberate feel unique to the game.
Eighteen and a half hours is an intimidating length for a TV miniseries. Burns's previous hit, The Civil War, was a comparatively pithy 11 1/2 hours long. Yet people just ambling into the series on any given evening should find themselves satisfied by the time the ten o'clock news comes along--and that goes, truly, for anyone and for any of the nine episodes. For baseball aficionados, those who grew up playing the game and who know not only Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average but Rogers Hornsby's as well, Baseball is required viewing. See it over the two weeks, or tape it and see it at your leisure, but see it. It is as exhaustive as any of the many books on baseball history, from Harold Seymour's multivolume masterwork to Bill James's mid-80s Historical Baseball Abstract. And there is nothing like seeing these famed athletes in action.
The key to its success is that it reminds one, constantly, that it is not a textbook but a documentary. It tells its tale in a way that a textbook can't begin to imitate. Babe Ruth is introduced as Louis Armstrong plays on the sound track, thus superimposing two titans of 20th-century American culture. Old photos and newsreel footage are edited together seamlessly with the contributions of aged witnesses describing the past, and younger theorists speculating on its meanings. Whenever people find that I've seen most of Baseball, they ask right away if it has that Civil War feel of a camera panning slowly across sepia-tone photos while someone's words are read aloud and a solo piano tinkles away in the background. And, yes, there is every bit as much of that in Baseball. Yet that style--which is Burns's style as a filmmaker and as an artist--never seems hackneyed; it is his distinctive way of telling a story, and he sticks to it with confidence because he knows it works so well. The trademark of that style--the slow pan across old photos by a camera that has zoomed in tight on even the smallest image--gives one the impression of really being there, of surveying the scene, as one scans the crowd at the Polo Grounds or a team portrait of the 1934 Saint Louis Cardinals, the Gas House Gang, noticing the little details that catch the eye one by one, just as they do in real life.
There is an inevitability to Baseball that parallels that of the sport. One knows there are 27 outs to a team in a game (give or take the bottom of the ninth), and that the game will run until the outs are made. There is a similar feel to Baseball: that Burns is going to cover the length and breadth of baseball history, and he will be there until it is done. In the documentary as in the game the pace is variously slowed and quickened, but it's an organic pace that will not be altered by outside forces. This will alienate many people who are alienated by baseball (as a general thing, not as a currently strike-torn enterprise), but for people who love the game Baseball should seem a long afternoon in the Elysian Fields.
After burning through the 50-plus years of 19th-century baseball history in the first inning, Baseball follows the structure of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract for much of the rest of the way: it's a decade an inning, following the arc of the game and players' careers in arbitrary ten-year increments. The sport advances as an institution, but time is also made for remarkable in-and-of-themselves events--for instance, lavish detail is devoted to the 1912 World Series and to game six of the 1975 series. Each inning is self-contained; a viewer can drop in one night, miss the next, and come back without much disruption to the flow (although some delicious anecdotes of one sort or another will be missed). While Burns's Civil War style is, of course, best suited to baseball's early years, before the days of moving pictures, there's no use denying that the documentary is deepened and enriched as it moves along, as the players actually spring into motion.
This is baseball, after all, and much of the sport's appeal has always been in the ability of the players to etch their characters in the mind's eye by the way they carry themselves and perform their tasks. Babe Ruth is established as a star by the sheer volume of footage devoted to him. While in the teens and 20s it took a rare occasion, a World Series appearance, say, for someone to train a camera on a player even as great as Walter Johnson, Ruth was captured in every conceivable circumstance.
And what a presence he is, and what a swing he has. One of the highlights of the series is the Negro League star Buck O'Neil describing Ruth as an unsightly human being whose swing was sheer beauty. Ruth's swing looks both effortless and immensely complex. His stance is closed, with feet close together. Most players' swings share fundamentals, but Ruth's begins with a movement I have never seen anyone else get away with: the first thing to move toward the pitcher is his ass. As his arms flex the bat in a noticeable hitch, his rear end moves to the right, in the manner of someone with an armload of groceries trying to shut a balky car door. Then his right leg moves swiftly out in front to catch his weight and his whole body goes swinging through the strike zone. It's an amazing sight.
Yet Ruth is by no means alone as a charismatic player. Johnson, "the Big Train," has an easy, fluid sidearm motion to match his placid personality. Christy Mathewson is noble and erect in his motion, coming straight over the top, the better to throw his infamous "fadeaway" (a screwball prototype). Carl Mays, the only pitcher to bean and kill a batter, has a menacing submarine delivery, fearsome as the lunge of a snake. These are the images any baseball documentary must live or die on, and Baseball thrives as the years pass, as the footage improves in quality and the players become ever more familiar.
The pitfall is that the series could easily fall victim to detail--too many pictures of various players merely swinging, pitching, and fielding, and not enough effort to clarify the messiness of history. Yet with Burns in charge that is not such a concern. Alexander Cartwright, Henry Chadwick, Harry Wright, Branch Rickey, and dozens of other essential baseball figures are both established as characters and placed in context. If anything, Burns errs in the direction of context. His witnesses and experts are wonderful when they stick to the point--John Thorn and Daniel Okrent both provide equal parts character detail and opinion in describing various figures in baseball history--but this being baseball they frequently stray. Burns seems to have a feeling here, too, of trying to make the documentary mimic a game, complete with the tangential asides muttered in the stands. So he leaves in scenes where Studs Terkel describes being gypped by a kid at a sidewalk scoreboard (the kid had heard on a radio around the corner that a particular rookie had gotten a hit in his World Series debut, and he raced to the crowd in front of the scoreboard in time to flummox Studs, the first available sap), and where George Plimpton describes the big roundhouse "cuhve" he used to throw as a lad.
With minutiae like that, mixed with indelible images of men in motion and almost endless ruminations about their impact and meaning, the single adjective that best describes Baseball is Proustian. It is baseball's made-for-TV version of Remembrance of Things Past. Yet just as Proust did, Burns finds ways to make the material cohere by establishing a few essential themes and motifs. Two are foremost: the longtime segregation of the sport (time and again, Burns takes pains to qualify the phrase "national pastime" until Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier, in 1947, to make baseball "truly the national pastime") and--much more timely--the idea that baseball has always been a ruthless business masquerading as a game, as idle entertainment. Images of Jackie Robinson and references to the reserve clause recur the way Proust's thoughts return to the Guermantes Way.
Baseball was four years in the making and was completed earlier this year, before the strike, so it would seem to have nothing to offer in the way of explanations for this summer's calamity. In fact, after concentrating on the 100-year battle over the reserve clause, it observes a near moratorium on the work stoppages of the last 20 years. Yet it explains more about the strike in its very first sequence than most columnists and sportswriters have achieved all summer. In a seemingly inconsequential preamble, Baseball focuses on Brooklyn, where one of the first baseball stadiums was built in the mid-1800s, where Charles Ebbets later built one of the greatest of the stadiums of the post-1910 boom, where the team and the community nurtured a relationship in which each defined the other, where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, where a long tradition of suffering was finally snapped by triumph in the 1955 World Series, and where, only two years later, the team's owner pulled up stakes and moved to greener pastures.
That preamble creates an atmosphere that lingers over the rest of the series, right down to the final ninth-inning sequence, in which Bart Giamatti's words on the responsibility of the game's caretakers are repeated while images of Comiskey Park's destruction flash by on the screen. It was Giamatti who said that baseball will break your heart, that it was designed to break your heart. Even he didn't realize how well the game's corporate structure was suited to just that end.