For Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker and historian, baseball is not just the American pastime; it’s also one of the best ways to understand the American past. So central is baseball to American history, Burns says, that he calls his Emmy Award–winning television series Baseball a sequel to his much-lauded 1990 series The Civil War.
His newest film, Jackie Robinson, is set to air on PBS stations April 11–12. Though Baseball does delve into the history of the legendary icon, who broke the sport's color barrier, this four-hour film, co-directed with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, tells the story of the man — not just what he accomplished through baseball and in baseball, but how he got there and what he did after.
We talked to Burns — a Red Sox fan — about what he loves about baseball and what it can tell us about history.
Baseball is all about stories.
Burns, a consummate storyteller, loves that baseball is all about storytelling — that whenever we talk about it, we’re also sharing our memories. In other sports, Burns says, a story always starts with, " 'I went to see the Patriots, and Tom Brady threw for three touchdowns.' But in baseball, the story always begins with, ‘My mom took me,’ or ‘My dad took me,’ or ‘I took my son,’ and then you describe what you saw.”
Baseball tells us who we are and who we’ve been as a society.
“Baseball has accompanied nearly every decade of our national narrative,” says Burns. The game came to New York in the mid 1850s, just before the Civil War, and the American story has played out on the diamond ever since. The history of baseball has also been a history of the long struggle for civil rights in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, white owners in both the major and minor leagues barred African Americans from the sport. It would be nearly fifty years before Dodgers GM Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in 1946 — whose life after retirement a decade later tells us in turn about the Civil Rights Movement and the political and social activism of the 1960s. “This simple children’s stick-and-ball game,” Burns says, “is a prism through which you can see much more.”
The defense always has the ball.
“The defense has the ball. Always,” Burns says. “The offense never has the ball except for the millisecond that the ball hits the bat. That’s the only time. In every other sport, the ball has to go into the basket, but it’s the human being who scores in baseball. In fact, the ball can be somewhere else.”
Baseball links generations, in big and small ways.
A long backdrop to history is also one in our lives. “There’s no institution in American life that offers that much continuity,” says Burns, the father of four daughters. “A .300 hitter means the same thing to them as it does to me, as it does to my father, as it does to my great-great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War.”
Baseball history is a testament to the power of social and cultural change.
The story of Jackie Robinson’s path-breaking challenge to racial segregation isn’t just a story about capital-P politics, Burns says. “If you understand the cross-section of baseball and the larger American life in the context of baseball, you can see, just for that moment, what it reveals about human beings. If you’re a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in 1947, you’ve got three options. You could change teams or sports — but you know Jackie’s the handwriting on the wall. Or, option three, you could change.” By the end of his first year with the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson was at the top of national opinion polls — ahead of Frank Sinatra, Dwight Eisenhower (“who’s just won World War II,” Burns marvels), and Eleanor Roosevelt. “It’s a great instructive story of the power of the sport,” he says.
Statistics matter, but they’re only the beginning.
For over a century, baseball-record keeping has been so meticulous that you can figure out how a game was played with only the stats to go by. But, says Burns, a fuller understanding “requires telling stories.” Show someone the stats for the 1919 World Series, and they can tell you who won, but they can’t tell what really happened without a story, too.
Time speeds up — and it slows down.
Baseball has no clock. “It’s this leisurely game that demands blinding speed, with infinite chess-like combinations.” (Note, however, that the legendary ‘84 Brewers/Sox matchup, which came in at eight hours and six minutes, is pretty measly compared to Burns’ 1994 series: Baseball clocks in at a whopping 18 hours and 30 minutes).
Baseball’s our future, too.
In 2010, PBS aired Baseball: The Tenth Inning, a four-hour series that was an instant replay of the fifteen years since the original Baseball had ended — at the 1994 World Series Strike. These years, too, tell stories, like the long history of American immigration and assimilation we can reconstruct from the game. “It’s the history of who baseball stars are,” he says. And every season, the story goes on.
Sometimes Hell freezes over.
When people ask Burns if Baseball: The Eleventh Inning is in the offing, he tells them, “Yeah, when the Cubs win the World Series. They’re having a bad century.”