Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-02-11 08:21
by Alex Belth


An Interview with Ken Burns

The first job I had when I left college in the winter of 1993-94 was working as a post-production assistant on Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. I was with the film for the final six months of production, while they mixed the sound in New York. Needless to say, it was a stroke of good luck to break into the film business working on an 18 1/2 hour movie on the history of baseball. Good God. I should have been paying me them to sit around in a state-of-the-art sound studio watching them put the finishing touches on the series.

Nine years later, I'm through with the movies but still head-over-heels for baseball.

I've kept in touch with Ken over the years, and had him on the brain this winter. Maybe it's the historical biographies I've been reading, or maybe it's all of the changes the Red Sox have made, but I thought it would be a good time to check in with Mr. B and have a chat.

I caught up with him last week, as he graciously took a couple of minutes out of his busy schedule to talk a little baseball.

Burns sounded exhausted, and preoccupied. He told me he's traveling 300 days out of the year. Everybody wants a piece of him. Sensing that time is of the essence, we got right down to business.

Part One

BB: Did you read the Jane Leavy book on Koufax?

KB: I plan to when I retire...sometime when I'm 93.

BB: Leavy sets the drama of his career around the political and cultural events of the period in a succinct and direct way that reminds me of the style you use in your movies.

KB: Well we certainly didn't invent it, but I think it's knowing in the Blakian sense, that you can find a world in a grain of sand. And in this baseball world, I think we have an American universe.

BB: It's been almost 10 years since "Baseball" was released...

KB: Yeah, I can't believe that.

BB: When was the last time you saw any of it?

KB: I see bits and pieces of it, but I'm sorry to say it's the familiar bits and pieces that are used in promotion. Like the thing on Satchial Paige from episode 5; "The Child of God," about early Curt Flood from episode 7; the opening of the know, things like that. My girlfriend right now is actually not a baseball fan, but in some labor of love is sitting there, and on the nights that I'm not there [sic], is looking through the whole series. And so she'll call me up and say, "What's with Three-Finger Brown?" and "What was Shoeless Joe Jackson thinking?" Really great stuff like that, which reminds me that I got to dive back into it again.

BB: I remember you once said something like the ideal audience for the series was an Eastern European woman who doesn't know anything about baseball.

KB: Yes. That's exactly right. Because I think that what we were making was a film that wasn't just about baseball. That is to say, not just about games won and lost, careers rising and falling. But we saw it as this startlingly revealing mirror of our country. So that it was not just about the arc of baseball, it was the story of immigration and assimilation and about how different waves of immigrant groups felt the pride of citizenship--much more than a piece of paper from the State Department. It's about the exclusion of women, it's about the tensions between labor and management, that is to say, who owns the ball, and the ball field, and who plays the game. It's the story about the growth and decay of cities; it's the story about the World Wars and the devastating Depression. It's the story of heroes and villains and fools, and popular culture, and advertising. Most of all it's the story of race, and the exclusion of a group of people who turned out to be among the best, if not the best, who ever played the game.

BB: Why baseball? How did you come up with it in the first place?

KB: I remember sitting in a bar in Georgetown, Washington D.C. as we were embarking on the "Civil War"...So, that would have been 1985. I was with Mike Hill [coordinating producer]. He had been working on the "Huey Long" film with me and we were sort of looking ahead, beyond the "Civil War", which I think was incredibly brave, cause if any of us had really thought about it, we thought we'd DIE trying to make the "Civil War". We had this nice, pleasant, short thing that would be after the "Civil War" on baseball. A celebration of the history of baseball. And it wasn't until we got into it that we suddenly realized, we aren't doing a short history of baseball, we're doing the sequel to the "Civil War". Because in many ways we got distracted by the idea that our history is merely wars and presidents. And for many people that's all that is: the Signposts of American History. When in fact, all of the themes that I just mentioned that baseball gathers up, are much closer to our day-to-day life than wars and generals and presidents. I began to see, how particularly when you realize that Jackie Robinson was the first real progress in Civil Rights since the Civil War, that "Baseball" was the sequel to that series. During the production of "Baseball," we interviewed Gerald Early who said that when they study our American civilization 2000 years from now the only thing that we'll be known for is The Constitution, Baseball and Jazz. Those are the three most beautiful things that Americans have ever produced. We then realized half way through "Baseball" that we were actually involved in a trilogy that would require us to spend the six and a half years after "Baseball" to complete it by making the history of Jazz.

BB: How long did "Baseball" take to make?

KB: "Baseball" was essentially begun in 1990 in terms of early thinking in design, and it was broadcast in the fall of 1994.

BB: When did you realize it was going to be significantly longer than "Civil War"?

KB: When we talked about it originally we assumed it would be a 'couple of hours' thing. I think by the time we finished "Civil War" we knew it was going to be 9, 1-hour segments. You know, keeping to the idea that each episode would be an inning. Then as we developed the information of those innings, we found that we were telling a much fuller story, and that it was possible to expand it. And then, as in the case with all the films, we let the material itself truly dictate what we were about, and that's where we ended up with the 18 1/2 hours.

BB: How daunted were you at the prospect of making something that expansive? Were you worried about how to keep a pace, a rhythm throughout the movie that would tie it all together?

KB: Well, I think that's always the case. In fact I think a legitimate criticism could be made of the series, and has been of the series, that it is takes itself too seriously at times, that there is a kind of ponderousness that was appropriate to the "Civil War" but not appropriate to the game of baseball. And I think that's a valid criticism, but at the same time I think that because we were dealing with all of these themes outside of the game, it did take on a kind of seriousness. But offsetting that seriousness are plenty of moments of great humor and joy, and sort of speed , and whatever.

BB: How did the making of this series affect the way you appreciate baseball as a baseball fan?

KB: Well, I think it deepened it in many ways. Because here you connected, in more than a superficial way, to these names. I mean Walter Johnson is a name that I had known since childhood. Now I know more about him. And with Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Honus Wagner: these people now mean something to me. They're almost members of my family; they're distant cousins. And I think having those ancestors in my family has helped me appreciate the game more than anything else. In fact, I find myself even more positive about the game, particularly to the naysayers, now. I know that the game being played now is better than it ever has been. And we know that from experiencing all the decades of baseball, through our study of it. It's not to take away from any of those previous things, or to be some kind of anti-nostalgia [sic], but it's really important for people who get sucked into the nostalgia of the old game to realize that, you know Barry Bonds might have hit 80 home runs back in 1927.

BB: What do you attribute that to? The fact the game has just gotten better.

KB: I think it has to do with the way people have trained. I think it's the focus. I think that money has provided incentive for performance, in a funny sort of way. I mean I know that's counter-productive to the Myth of Baseball, but it's always been a business. One of the reasons why it's better is that throughout history the quality of pitching has gotten better. If the quality of pitching is better then you have to evaluate the quality of the hitting. And the hitting is so much better.

BB: What kind of fan are you? Are you a casual fan? Do you read the box scores in the paper?

KB: Well, I'm not sure that's a casual fan. If that's a casual fan, then I'm a casual fan. Yeah, I read the box scores every day. If I can I will watch every single Red Sox game. If I have the opportunity. That means if I'm not traveling, I'm home, I'm on the treadmill, whatever it is: I will watch every single game. Or listen to it on the radio if I'm in range. I keep a little thing in the car that tells me the Red Sox stations across New England, and other places. I'm sure in the course of a season, I listen to, or watch 120 games, at least.

BB: Was this true before you made the movie?

KB: Yeah. I mean I love the game; I love it...probably a little bit more now. Getting to watch games just tends to depend on cycles of work. If I'm doing a lot of travel, I don't see as many games. But if I'm home editing, I'll get home from a tough day and the game is starting at 7:30. And you turn it on, and you eat your dinner and you talk to friends and miss a few innings...or you go out to dinner and come home for the last two. I'd say I touch base with a good number of games.

BB: How long have you been a Red Sox fan?

KB: Well, you know I grew up in Delaware, and my father's family was from Baltimore, so I was sort of an Orioles fan. But since I had been born in Brooklyn---never spent any time there---I had this identification with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then they had the great success [as the Los Angeles Dodgers] in the early 60s, which corresponded with my explosion of love of the game. So I was really a National League guy, and knew more about the National League than anything else. Loved Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, of course. Then we moved to Michigan in 1963 and I sort of became a Tigers fan. In 68 I really became a Tigers fan because they gave me the only local World Series victory I've ever experienced in my life. By that time the war in Vietnam and all the counter-cultural upheaval of the 60s began to take it's toll on my love of baseball. Baseball seemed a representation of the establishment and I moved away. So the Mets victory, which I participated in and celebrated tremendously in 69, was more of a news event, not a sport event. It was the Under Dog Winning. Definitely. And it was a season I hadn't paid any attention to. I really lost 70, 71, 72, 73 while I was in college, and very much rebelling against the establishment. I went to college in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I befriended a professor whose husband was a big baseball fan. He would stay at home and watch the Red Sox games, and he seemed unapologetic about it. To me, baseball was a guilty pleasure. And you didn't let anyone know, cause it wasn't cool to be a baseball fan. And eventually I remember sitting and enjoying a game and it was like rediscovering an old friend. And falling in love, and it turned out to be a great time to do that because it was the magical period of Carlton Fisk coming up, and Jim Rice and Fred Lynn...

BB: The '75 Series against the Big Red Machine.

KB: The 75 Series. I mean, 1974 was when I really got back into the game; 75 brought me right in there, and had the greatest moment of all the World Series, with Fisk's home run in the 6th game of the series. And then you had the epic, titanic struggles with the Yankees, particularly in 78 with the loss of the thing, and Bucky Dent's home run. The loss of the lead. The one-game playoff and Bucky Dent's home run. I firmly believe that you should root for your local team. You can have other favorites, but if you live in a place as I have now, what, I've been in New England sine 1971, you should pull for the home team. And since 1974, the Red Sox have been my team.

BB: You cover the Red Sox a lot in the last two episodes. I remember you once saying something about the distinction between history and journalism. Essentially meaning that the book is still out on the material from 1960 to the present.

KB: I wouldn't say 1960. It's really more around the mid-70s where I get nervous. I think history involves some distance and perspective from the present. I think you need about 25 years. So it wasn't until somewhere like 1970 that we were getting nervous. In many ways we didn't really un-tether our narrative, that is to say, get more abstract, until the 79 Series. We covered things pretty tightly; as well as we had in the other episodes. But we still lacked a certain amount of perspective and since memory is so fresh, you seem to be making more drastic judgments. You know, you can go, "Where is George Brett, for crying out loud?" A favorite of mine, and somebody for whom we had a scene. But in the scheme of things, towards the end, you just have to wait until the 10th inning, when we get a chance to update the series.

BB: Well, would you venture to guess what's happened since "Baseball" first aired in 1994 that might make the cut for extra innings?

KB: We had a scene that I was deliciously in love with. A line in the narration, with regard to Steinbrenner and his attempt throughout the 80s to manipulate everyone, and his firings of Billy Martin, concluded with, "...And he's never won another." Well, that's no longer true. The Yankees have been the dominant team in baseball since the mid-1990's.

BB: In spite of George.

KB: No, I have to give him credit. He's doggedly pursued his vision of a winning team, and in the great Yankee tradition, he's done it. You know even a die-hard Red Sox fan who hates the Yankees as a concept, has to take their hat off to what the Yankees have done, all the way through. So I think the principal focus of the film, if we had to do another episode--and we're always talking about that---would be to focus on the great dominance of the Yankees, just as we focused on it in the 60s, and of course the 50s, the 40s, the 30s and the 20s.

BB: Joe Torre and Bernie Williams are hard not to like, or at least respect. These Yankees are a far cry from the som'bitches of the Bronx Zoo days.

KB: Well, the kind of sneering and arrogance you got from a Goose Gossage or Reggie Jackson or even Mickey Rivers, made it easier to dislike them, despite the presence of the Willie Randolphs and the Craig Nettles. What you have today is a Yankee team that is more professional. So yeah, it's impossible not to like Jeter or Bernie Williams or to not have the utmost respect for Joe Torre.

BB: True.

(Part 2 will be posted early next week...)

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