Five Things I Learned about Baseball from Ken Burns’s Baseball

Take me out to the ballgame.

I (Martin) just spent 18.5 hours watching Ken Burns’s epic 1994 PBS documentary Baseball—and then I watched the 2010 two-episode sequel. I was delighted to see that Evander and I got the basic information correct in Right Off the Bat. That said, a few topics stood out for me in a way that I hadn’t appreciated before. They are, in no particular order:

  • I hadn’t realized quite how sociopathic and uncontrollable Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were, in spite of their self-evident brilliance.
  • I knew the owners were reactionary. But I’d assumed that was a 20th-century phenomenon. I was wrong. From the very beginning, it seems, they were forces of sclerosis and exclusion.
  • I hadn’t grasped fully the connection between the dominance of Babe Ruth and power hitting and the decision to allow balls to be changed in the course of a game. Before 1920, pitchers generally kept the ball, which allowed them to manipulate, scuff, and generally mess it up so it moved more in the air and became less white, and thus more difficult to see.
  • Before 1920, the New York Yankees were virtually invisible; after 1920, they became the dominant force in baseball. The acquisition of Ruth and much of the champion Red Sox team turned them around. I hadn’t realized before how sharp that volte-face was.
  • I’d not had much of a chance to hear the players from the Negro Leagues tell their stories. What a delight it was to listen to Buck O’Neil! One of them claimed that the racist horror-show that Jackie Robinson was forced to go through brought about his premature death. After watching this show, I can well believe it.

As a cricket-lover, I was tickled to be reminded that it was an English cricketer, Henry Chadwick, who was instrumental in taking the nascent game of baseball from the East Coast to the rest of America in the mid-nineteenth century. I was also irked by the insistent refrain from Baseball’s talking heads that baseball was unique among ball games for its sense of timelessness, its eternal virtues, its mimicking of life, and so on and so forth. As readers of this blog and our book Right Off the Bat will know, cricket and baseball’s claim to uniqueness is, in fact, yet another of the many traits they share.

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About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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