Epic 'Baseball' reveals a nation in its pastime


Los Angeles--Nobody does a press conference quite like filmmaker Ken Burns, the executive producer of "Baseball," the 18 1/2 -hour documentary miniseries coming to PBS on Sept. 18.

Burns just steps up to the microphone, like he did here yesterday, and before you know it, he's saying things like, "We feel the story of baseball is much more than the story of games won and lost.

"We feel the story of baseball, in many ways, is not only the story of a great and wonderful sport, a repository of anecdote, memory and feeling. But it is a mirror of our country as a whole.

"The story of baseball is a story of grace -- central to its history, crucial to our larger, national heritage. Baseball provides a window through which you can see reflected and refracted the )) very inner tensions of our country.

"When Jackie Robinson, the grandson of a slave, walked out onto Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, it was the first progress in Civil Rights since the Civil War. This occurred not at a lunch counter, not on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., not on a campus, not even in our military, but on the grounds of our national pastime."

Burns can go on like that forever it seems. I've heard him go on almost that long in promoting "The Civil War." He sees himself as an American Homer -- singing the great songs of American heroism, history and life as that poet did for the ancients.

Burns' ultimate thesis for "Baseball" is: "The story of baseball is the story of America."

In terms of a preview, I saw hours one, four and eight yesterday -- the only ones available -- and it is safe to say that "Baseball" is an event viewers won't want to miss.

Burns can take a photograph and make it seem like the person in it is alive and breathing and staring straight back into your eyes, demanding that you connect with them. There's a picture like that of Negro League superstar Satchel Paige at the top of his game; it's been burned into the scrapbook of my memory forever after seeing it. There's also one of a young Babe Ruth, fresh out of Baltimore, that had the same effect.

Burns fielded questions yesterday along with his co-producer Lynn Novick and Buck O'Neil, a former player with the Kansas City Monarchs. Burns introduced O'Neil as "the Shelby Foote of 'Baseball.' "

O'Neil told a wonderful story yesterday about the day he and his fellow black sailors on a U.S. Navy base in the Philippines heard that Jackie Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But it was not all bouquets and great anecdotes at the press conference. Burns was asked about the possibility of overselling "Baseball" in the massive promotional campaign now under way and overstating his case.

"Yes, there is a danger of overstating baseball's centrality to American life," Burns said. . . . But the series, as you will see, is a narrative history of baseball. There is no didactic sort of lesson-pointing throughout this series . . . No, this is not brain surgery, but it's a wonderful way to have a window on the American soul."

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