Ken Burns is one of those people whose achievements appear to diminish in retrospect, and whose later work reveals the faults of their earlier efforts. After sitting through the whole eighteen-and-a-half-hour stretch of “Baseball,” you can hardly help looking back at “The Civil War” and reflecting on the essential falseness of that soulful solo violin and catch-in-the-throat reading of letters whose pathos resided entirely in what subsequently happened to their authors. Yes, Ken, we know it is all very sad, but being sad is not what it was for. Somehow we never found out quite so much about that rather important question as a true history should have told us.
“Baseball,” at half again the length of “The Civil War,” is self-parody. Instead of the “Ashokan Farewell,” there is a seemingly endless series of different arrangements of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The well-tried formula of “The Civil War,” with lots of sepia-tinted photographs displayed against a background of plangent piano music and lugubrious narration, has now become a cliché, a sort of PBS house style. A couple of weeks after “Baseball” had run its seemingly interminable course, I tuned in a documentary on FDR and, hearing again that mournful piano and seeing Doris Kearns Goodwin talking, thought for a moment that they had decided to repeat “Baseball” instead.
Yes, Ken, we know it is all very sad, but being sad is not what the Civil War was for.
But just as being sad was not what the Civil War was for, so being a mirror of America’s social problems is not what baseball is for. Nor is being a metaphor for spiritual values. Nor is being a symbol of the American character. It is a game, an amusement, a diversion from the workaday realities in which the American character is actually worked out. No doubt it reflects that character as everything from television to cooking does, but it is a fundamental distortion of vision to forget as often and as systematically as Burns’s series does that baseball is first and foremost a game. Burns treats it instead as a kind of alternative reality, as if you can live in Baseball instead of The World.
Everything about the series conspires to promote this view. One of its earnest commentators, the poet Donald Hall, writes of baseball as “a refuge from America” and a “going away from our daily lives.” It is “connected with the past” but its history is self-contained. You “look at baseball and say: Daily Life is completely different from this.” Well, yes and no. Daily Life is different in that it doesn’t have the sort of neat closure that baseball has, a certainty as to outcome and an easy designation of success or failure, but it is not ganz andere. Baseball is not a world apart. It is contained in Daily Life and makes up, for those with a proper perspective on it, a fairly small proportion of it. To the Burns people it is the other way round: Daily Life is contained in baseball.
It is the immitigable smallness of baseball in the overall scheme of things that the Burns-style baseball fanatics cannot bear to contemplate. By making it into a world apart, they lose the sense of perspective. They have nothing to compare it to so it becomes of world-encompassing proportions. “It occurred to me,” says Burns, “that if you were going to make a history of America since 1865 you’d probably have to depend largely on baseball for continuity. Think about it: What other thread runs so prominently through the last 130 years of American culture? … It reflects virtually every unpleasant aspect of American life: super-competitivenesss, racial problems, labor strife, the transformation of games into big business. If a Martian landed on earth and wanted you to explain twentieth-century American life to him, you’d start by taking him to baseball games.”
The feelings elicited by “Baseball” are part nostalgia and part self-affirmation.
And indeed, it takes an almost Martian naïveté to treat baseball, as Burns does, as virtual reality. What possible instruction in American culture or history could be served by the sort of perspective on it that allows Burns to compare Marvin Miller—the lawyer who won for baseball players the right to free agency and thus multi-million-dollar contracts—to Abraham Lincoln because “he freed the players from the constraints that bound them to one team for life.” Such ludicrous rhetorical excess is very far from aberrational in Burns’s series, partly, perhaps, because of the recent tradition of florid and pretentious writing about the game which is associated with people like Roger Angell and the late Bartlett Giamatti.
In Burns’s overblown prologue, for example, whiny-voiced John Chancellor informs us that baseball “reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope and coming home.” Once you have allowed a writer to get away with that kind of nonsense, you have few defenses left against the opinion of Gerald Early, a professor of black studies who is one of Burns’s featured commentators, that “there are three things America will be known for in two thousand years: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”
This, I suppose, may be true in the same sense that what Rome is known for today is emperors, orgies, and gladiators. That it is is the measure of our own decline and degeneracy, which some thirty-eighth-century Gibbon may remark by citing not baseball but “Baseball.” Of course it is true to say that the extravagance, the outrageousness of such rhetorical conceits is as genuinely an American tradition as baseball itself. At least as early as Walt Whitman we find similar dithyrambs to the effect that baseball is “America’s game; a people’s game just as important [as our Constitution and laws] in the sum total of our historic life.” But Whitman was eccentric in his time. Such ideas take on a different cast now that the national pastime has become not baseball but narcissism—that is, a habit of attributing to our most trivial pleasures a cosmic significance.
Baseball philosophy and theology is a big part of “Baseball.” Consider this gnomic comment from Roger Angell, who temporarily forgets that baseball is about time and timelessness, etc: “I think losing is what baseball is all about in the end.”
But … but … for there to be a losing side there must also be a winning side, must there not? Is it not then just as much about winning? These questions irritate one like an unfilled tooth. Angell’s Zen koan may mean nothing more than that you can’t win all the time, or even almost all the time. But it suggests so much more. Likewise, when he tells us that the New York Mets, who went on losing through most of the 1960s, were “anti-matter to the Yankees, who always won” (while the Mets drew bigger crowds), he explains: “There is more Met than Yankee in all of us.”
Except, presumably the Yankees. Or is there more Met than Yankee in them too? In which case what makes them Yankees rather than Mets? What is the sound of one hand clapping? The puzzle just grows more complex and insoluble the more you try to solve it. But it does provide irrefutable evidence of the very “deep” quality of Roger Angell’s mind. And he is only one of the show’s deep thinkers. There is a positive Murderer’s Row of them, ready at a moment’s notice to tell us, as Stephen Jay Gould does for example, that Bobby Thompson’s home run that won the pennant for the Giants in 1951 was “the greatest moment of pure joy in my life.” Since he cannot possibly mean this unless he is mad, a conclusion that his academic career argues firmly against, he must mean something subtler, more mystical by it. But I am not deep enough to find it out.
Though there were many Americans who would qualify today as reprehensible racists, only one had a lifetime .367 batting average.
What is clear is that he is stressing the importance to the “Baseball” world view of feelings. Gerald Early does the same when he tells how, as a child playing sandlot baseball with his friends, he would take his cap off for the national anthem, just like the big-leaguers. “I don’t think there was anything that made me feel American except baseball,” he says—as if he could “feel” himself into some other nationality by virtue of non-baseball experience. For the world of baseball—the special baseball-reality in which the featured speakers in this series would live—is also the world of feelings. The game of baseball is what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin—the plot excuse (which could as easily have been something else) for eliciting certain feelings from the audience. And the feelings elicited by “Baseball” are part nostalgia (which Burns unconvincingly professes to hate) and part self-affirmation.
The self-affirmation is not only personal but political, and after the warm and fuzzy feelings the ones most frequently on display here are those of political self-righteousness. In particular, anything to do with race is made of overriding importance, and the indisputable hero of the series is Jackie Robinson. Burns himself has said: “There is not any one reason why we made the series, but if I had to give one I would say it was to tell of the life and career of Jackie Robinson.” Even so usually level-headed an observer of the world as George Will says that Jackie Robinson is second only to Martin Luther King in the pantheon of black heroes and his pioneering of the integration of baseball “one of the great achievements in the annals of the human drama—anywhere, any time.”
That’s raising the moral stakes for you! Who but a racist would deny that being the first black man to play in the big leagues is an achievement on the order of, say, defeating the armies of the Third Reich. As Charles Krauthammer observes about another example of the sort of portentous bracketing of political, cultural, and baseball stars which the series is continually engaging in (“In the 1960s, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Rogers Hornsby died”), “I suppose if Churchill had saved Western civilization from Nazism and batted .424, he might have merited a separate mention.”
Nowhere is this failure to make distinctions more egregious than in the explicit connection Burns makes between the segregation of baseball before 1947 and the rise of fascism in Europe. He says that he learned to make it from something he saw at the Holocaust Museum which, if true, is disturbing evidence that the Holocaust Museum is in the business of trivializing the Holocaust. No doubt black people in America have had a rough time of it (though professional baseball players have not had so rough a time as most), but six million of them were not deliberately exterminated.
Of course it is clear enough that such bracketings of disparate people and events are simply part of the hype “Baseball” gives itself, the drawing of a moral aura about the game and its practitioners which can justify the importance it attributes to them. The results are sometimes quite comical, as when the story is told of the Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers who, on the last day of the season in 1938, was two home runs away from Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record. Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians struck out eighteen Tigers that day, setting a new record and fanning Greenberg twice. “The next day,” says John Chancellor’s narration, “Adolf Hitler’s army invaded Czechoslovakia.” As Krauthammer says, Hitler must have been a Tigers fan.
The Boston Red Sox are the overwhelmingly favorite team of the pretentious intellectual.
What could Burns be thinking of in such witless juxtapositions? Something vaguely along the lines of its having been a bad week for the Jews, perhaps? In the same way, after Chancellor tells the famous story of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run in the 1932 World Series, he goes on: “One month later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president.” Yes? And what exactly did this have to do with the called shot? Maybe that Roosevelt’s election was a sort of political home run, a gamewinner, a unique achievement to be remembered forever after, like the called shot. But your guess is as good as mine. You have to be a deep thinker to understand it, I guess.
But what clearly emerges is the moral chiaroscuro of good and evil which the political comments of the series are designed to create. At the other extreme from Jackie Robinson there is Ty Cobb, who, in addition to having the highest lifetime batting average in history, was a pathological racist. Cobb is, says the contributor Daniel Okrent with an unfortunate choice of words, “the great black mark on the history of baseball” and “an embarrassment to baseball.” The fact that he is remembered as much for his racial prejudices as he is for his 4,191 hits exaggerates his racism into one of the two most important things about him—something worth remembering, like an act of heroism. I do not wish to diminish the importance of racism, but, although there were a great many Americans living between 1886 and 1961 who would qualify today as thoroughgoing and wholly reprehensible racists, only one of them had a lifetime .367 batting average.
Actually, there seems to be some dispute about the most famous story about Ty Cobb. This has to do with his leaping into the stands to beat up a heckling fan who, it turned out, had no hands. When he was upbraided by a witness, Cobb shouted “I don’t care if he has no feet,” and continued punching him. According to Burns, this episode was inspired by the fan’s having called him a “half nigger.” But according to the recently published Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump, who collaborated with Cobb on a sanitized memoir thirty-odd years ago, the fan had called his mother a whore and his beating him up, though it led to his suspension, caused the congressional delegation from Georgia to commend Cobb for his defense of Southern womanhood.
Either way, the wise historian concludes that there are notable differences between our ancestors and ourselves—differences which, on the whole, it is better not to moralize any more than we can help. Otherwise we end up like the Burnsian “Baseball” team for whom history is little more than an excuse to reaffirm their own moral superiority. For these people, the love of baseball is a kind of compensation for the dislike of those who played and watched it for its first hundred years. This is their saving grace and their redeeming virtue. The historian John Thorn is quoted: “The lie of baseball is that all the inequalities of American life are checked at the door.” Baseball has been as class- and race-ridden and has reflected as many disgraceful class and racial attitudes as any other American institution, but at least it is baseball.
Other political connections that Ken is keen to make range from the useful information that in the 1910s baseball became an alternative to labor agitation to the little-known fact that “Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba” partly as a consequence of having been “rejected by the Washington Senators because he didn’t have a big-league arm.” The latter is about as close to political incorrectness as “Baseball” comes, and, for the most part, it trades in standard left-wing attitudes. The egregious Daniel Okrent, for example, generously acknowledges that the owners’ purging of gambling, drinking, and corruption from the game in the 1880s was not done for “entirely bad reasons,” but it seems to him undeniable that this was “as much a historical cover story as it was a reality” since “like all good American businessmen they saw an opportunity.”
Okrent is one of several Red Sox fans (Doris Kearns Goodwin is another) who make the Bosox the overwhelmingly favorite team of the pretentious intellectual. It is one of the mysteries of the universe whether they become Red Sox fans because they are pretentious or they become pretentious because they are Red Sox fans. “Fenway Park,” says Okrent, “has been the scene of so much baseball …” and here he pauses modestly and judiciously—“tragedy might be too strong a word, but baseball sorrow—that it is like a Civil War battlefield, a vale of tears.” But even this is small potatoes to John Thorn, whose sense of cosmic significance has somehow been awakened into hyperacuity: “Hit a ball into the ether,” he says, “and it’s going to come back to you. This is the promise of Everlasting Life: It’s going to come back to you.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 3, on page 53
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