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Basic Biittner : Enjoying 'Baseball'

Friday, August 31, 2012

As regular readers of this column know, I am a lifelong fan of Major League Baseball. I started collecting Topps bubble-gum baseball cards and watching the "Game of the Week" with Dizzy Dean on our black-and-white television set when I was just five years old.

I still follow the sport to some degree, though I am well aware that it lost its status as "the National Pastime" to football many years ago. There are many reasons which contributed to this shift in public interest, but I won't go into them in this space.

Suffice it to say that no matter what others may think, baseball is still number one with me. That being said, I must confess that I am just now getting around to watching Ken Burns' Emmy-winning 1994 documentary, entitled "Baseball," or more accurately, "Ken Burns' Baseball."

The series first aired on PBS in September of 1994 - 18 years ago - and I videotaped the whole thing, but didn't watch it, intending to view it in the future. My intentions were good, but since the entire series - which is presented in chronological order, with each episode designated as an "inning," in keeping with the baseball motif - runs more than 20 hours in length, I just never got around to watching it, and the tapes - along with my VCR - have long since vanished.

I have often read what a fantastic documentary "Baseball" is, but I refrained from spending the money to purchase the DVD set. I have finally gotten around to watching it now, however, and I can say that in my opinion, the praise and awards are well-deserved.

Ken Burns first came to fame with his excellent 1990 documentary on The Civil War, which also aired on PBS (and was recently rebroadcast), and his style in the baseball film is similar to that he used in the earlier documentary, in its use of archived pictures and film footage, mixed with interviews for visual presentation. Actors provide voice over, reciting written work (letters, speeches, etc.) over pictures and video. The episodes are interspersed with the music of the times taken from previous Burns series, original played music, or recordings ranging from Louis Armstrong to Elvis Presley. The series was narrated by the late journalist John Chancellor, best known as the anchor of NBC Nightly News between 1970 and 1982. Chancellor died two years after "Baseball" originally aired.

Major themes explored throughout the documentary include race, business, labor relations, and the relationship between baseball and society. The series had an audience of 45 million viewers, which makes it the most watched program in Public Television history.

Interspersed throughout the episodes of "Baseball" are comments from several baseball-loving celebrities, including actor Billy Crystal, author Doris Kearns Goodwin, political columnist George Will and sportscaster Bob Costas, and especially notable are the frequent comments of the late Buck O'Neil, a pioneer of Negro League baseball.

There are plenty of film clips from games too, and viewers are able to watch Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and many other baseball legends in action.

And to top it all off, there are also clips of two classic comic routines involving baseball - Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First" routine and George Carlin's "The Difference Between Football and Baseball."

I am so glad that I finally got around to watching Burns' loving tribute to the "true" National Pastime, and if there are any other die-hard baseball fans out there who haven't seen "Baseball" yet, you owe it to yourself to watch it to remind you of baseball's glorious past - and why you came to love the sport.

And for you "football generation" fans, you might want to check it out, too, to see what all the fuss is about. The Cherokee Public Library has the entire series available on DVD, along with "The Tenth Inning", a 2007 video which covers baseball history from 1994 onward.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner