One of the things the baseball channel does that I really like is, each off season, they seem to broadcast Ken Burns great Baseball nine-part original documentary series.
Actually, last summer, just before the updated Tenth Inning episode was premiered, Burns spent some time promoting the special, and when he was in San Francisco, at a Giants game, I was able to meet the filmaker and historian for a brief moment. I was at my spot in the booth, just prior to first pitch, when Burns was escorted into one of the offices in the press box for a local news interview.
As he sat, awaiting the onslaught (I had already told him how much I admired his work) I whispered as loud as I could to him, American Lives is awesome." I really love all his work. Among them, The West, The Civil War, and American Lives are my favorites (I still have not seen all of Jazz) but I put the Baseball episodes in a different category.
Baseball combines so many things I love not just about the game itself, and its characters and wonderful history with the crazy body of stats. But, there is more. Somehow, and this is true of all Burns work, but I find it especially rich in the Baseball series, is draw upon our country and how his subject does not just modify our national personna, but Burns manages to tap into our best and our worst moments in such a human way. He does not apologize for our weakness, nor does he lord our strengths--though each get their share of time in the spotlight--but Burns also ties his subject into our bloodstream.
He is able to plug into those ideals, realized literally or not, of "liberty and justice for all" in its simplest form, so we can all both relate and share the experience with the larger whole. Or the idea that "all men are created equal," and that optimism and fighting Rocky Balboa one in a million chance we all have to be the flavor of some period of time.
I think Baseball really ties into these notions, and last Thursday night, the MLB channel broadcast Inning 6, which deals with the 40's, including both World War II an then the integration of baseball with Jackie Robinson's debut for Brooklyn April 15, 1947.
This two-hour look at arguably the most intense decade in America's history, when truly our sense of right and wrong and freedom were challenged is, I believe, the greatest documentary on American history ever made, and it might be the best all around documentary ever, with an ability to stand alone powerfully, without the other now nine installments.
It was poetice to watch the other night, for example, and see Bob Feller, who had passed away within the previous 24-hour period, acknowledged for being among the first (actually, I think he was first) American to enlist to fight Japan right after Pearl Harbor. Similarly was Ted Williams acknowledged and Hank Greenberg and Joe Dimaggio and even one-armed Pete Gray (who knew he only whiffed 11 times over more than 200 ab?) got his Andy Warhol minute.
Of course, one of the things that gets me in a sentimental way about that period is that it seems then we were all one country, fighting something cruel and antithetical to those basic tenets of liberty that Burns threads throughout his work. So different than today, this feels, where everyone has their own cause and sadly, if feels the good of the group has lost ground to the good of the individual when it does matter, and the inverse when it does not.
Inning 6 also acknowledges the Womens Professional Baseball League, and then moves on to the compelling story of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, and the road to changing the face of baseball, and in the process of our country, finally, and for the better, with Robinson's 1947 date with destiny.
It is hard for me to imagine the empathy and courage of both of these men, who were not afraid to push forward with what was right--and in the perfect American way, made some money out of the whole deal--in the face of two cultures, and come out on top (those cultures would be both that of baseball, and that of our country as well).
Corny as it is, when I get depressed about our politics and sorry way America sometimes acts when truly we live such a comfortable and safe life compared to much of the world, I think about men things like Robinson crossing the color line, and that reminds me that Americans might get waylaid sometimes, but ultimately we get there. Or, at least we have so far.
So, I love watching this installment again, for it is a lot like going to temple (or church) would be for many. It restores my soul.
Thank you Ken Burns.