As a rule, documentary filmmakers toil in obscurity; Ken Burns does not. Twice nominated for Oscars—for Brooklyn Bridge in 1981 and The Statue of Liberty in 1985—the slight, intense, deceptively boyish Burns was responsible four years ago, with his brother Ric, for a signal television event: The Civil War, an 11-hour series that won two Emmys and a Pea-body Award and earned record ratings for PBS. Now he has taken on a subject that millions of Americans think they know better, perhaps, than they do. Baseball, a study of the game from its origins, more than 150 years ago, to its distressingly contentious present, will be presented on PBS in nine two-hour installments—or innings—beginning Sept. 18.
The son of anthropology professor Robert Burns and his wife, Lyla, who died when Ken was 11, Burns was born in Brooklyn and brought up in Newark, Del., and Ann Arbor, Mich. A graduate of Hampshire College, Mass., he is separated from his wife of 11 years, Amy Stechler, and lives in Walpole, N.H., where their daughters, Sarah, 11, and Lilly, 7, spend time with both parents. Will viewers bear with him for 18½ hours of baseball in this, the summer of the game's discontent? Burns, 41, is betting they will. Assistant managing editor Ross Drake spoke with him at Burns's home.
Have you always been a baseball fan?
Yes. Baseball was the thing that brought me joy in the midst of a childhood with a mother dying of cancer. I played Little League and Pony League, and those memories are some of the happiest of my life. Baseball was the refuge from the tragedy that was overtaking my family. I can still remember getting the New York Times for my father and going down the list of everyone's batting averages. I remember him asking me what Roberto Clemente was hitting, and me knowing it was .337 and feeling proud that I could speak as an equal with my father on the subject.
What led you to believe you could make an 18½-hour documentary that would be of interest to people who don't ordinarily care about baseball?
It's not so much the topic you choose but how you choose to do it. William Blake said you could find the universe in a grain of sand. That means that if you wanted to find out, for example, the kind of country we had after the Civil War you could study furniture design, the writings of women, the history of architecture or American music. I chose baseball. Baseball is the story of race, labor, immigration. It's the story of the exclusion of women and the rise and decay of great cities. It's the story of popular media: newspapers, magazines, radio and television. It's the story of the nature of heroes and villains and fools—all of these things that offer a window on the American soul.
So you see this as a logical next step from your earlier work?
I think anybody who's curious about what it is to be an American will find in this series the emotional continuation of what we began in The Civil War. This is a study of who we are. Gerald Early who is director of the African and Afro-American studies department at Washington University in St. Louis, says this game makes him feel more American, that 2,000 years from now, when they study this civilization, we'll be remembered for only three things: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball.
Race is obviously a very important theme in this series, as it was in The Civil War.
It's the most important theme in our republic. We are a country founded on the idea that all men are created equal, yet we tolerated slavery. That irony has bedeviled us through the decades and is responsible for so many of our contemporary problems. Race is a central story in baseball as well. When Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball in the 20th century, this, in a broad, popular way, was the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War. And this occurred not at a lunch counter, or on a city bus, or in a school, but on the diamonds of our so-called national pastime.
What figures in the game did you come to admire most?
There are heroes who are great baseball players, and then there are heroes as human beings. Those are few and far between. I think of some of the early black stars who were excluded from the game. I think of Robinson, of Curt Flood, who challenged the reserve clause that bound players to a major-league team for life—the closest thing I know to indentured servitude—and of Henry Aaron. These are men who withstood tremendous racist pressures as well as the pressures of the game. I like Hank Greenberg for what he had to put up with as the first great Jewish star. And I like Babe Ruth.
He is just an ebullient American character. Ruth was, as columnist George Will says in our series, an Everest in Kansas. He stood out beyond anyone else in the game, and he's fantastic to contemplate—a lot more complicated than the character John Goodman and William Bendix played in the movies. He had joie de vivre, and he had a dark, complicated childhood and inner life, as so many great Americans do. He's just larger than life.
Are you equally interested in more ominous figures, like Ty Cobb?
Yes. The two most important figures in this game are Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb. They are both from rural Georgia, they both have terrific tempers, and there the similarities end. Between these two lies the fault line in baseball and American history. Cobb is a chilling, terrifying figure. His violence, his virulent racism are inexcusable, yet they are manifestations of American thought as much as our noblest ideas.
How do you feel about the current baseball strike?
I love the game. I want it back. I think the owners and the players have forgotten that they have a special responsibility—that they are custodians of something a lot more important than their bottom line. I'd like to have the game going on while our series is running. But if it isn't, we will offer a clue as to why this strike happened. Because after race, the second sub-theme of this film is labor.
Many fans speak wistfully about baseball, to the effect that it was once a game but now it's just a business.
It's always been a business. Even in the mid-19th century, the fans' complaint was that players were greedy. At the same time, players were succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse. Players were banned for life because of gambling. Owners were firing their managers and meddling with their teams outrageously. There was near constant complaint in the press in the 1860s that the game just wasn't what it used to be.
Do you think baseball is losing its hold on the public? After all, the game no longer seems to produce stars of the magnitude of, say, Michael Jordan in basketball.
Michael Jordan is very much to the point. Look what game he's playing now. At the peak of his basketball career he quit and has played, with great humility, baseball. And he's doing it for his father, which means that it's tied to time, memory, family and home. Here is the greatest athlete, perhaps, of our time, struggling in the minor leagues to play the greatest game ever invented. Baseball has its ups and downs, but it will always be the national pastime.
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