‘Baseball Is A Beautiful Thing’

“The first thing about it, it seems so obvious that maybe we overlook it, Baseball is a beautiful thing.” — Bob Costas

It speaks so much.

That simple statement opens the First Inning of Ken Burns’ acclaimed “Baseball” documentary series. Burns spends the next 20-some-odd hours attempting (with a high degree of success) to prove the point.

I’d forgotten how gripping the first 10 minutes of this series are. Quoting Whitman, drawing us in on the slow fly over of the field at Fenway Park as radio calls of the past, punctuated by Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run, filter through the air.

“It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness.”

The writing in this first episode, as with all of the series, is so, so good. I watch it every spring — at some point during Spring Training — to renew my love of the game prior to the long regular season.

Over the years, I’ve been introduced to so many players and games I  (obviously) didn’t get to see first-hand.

I discovered George Plimpton’s wit, Shelby Foote’s prose and Burns’ filmmaking ability. I was introduced to Daniel Okrent, journalist extraordinaire, statistics wizard and inventor of Rotisserie league baseball. Buck O’Neil’s contributions to the series are among the finest moments throughout — I became a fan though watching the series, some three years after he was no longer with us.

And that, I suppose, is what makes the series so important. To the highest degree possible, it got to everyone of note who was still around when it was made. And when they weren’t around, it still found ways to tell the story.

I’m awed every year by Brooks Robinson’s defensive prowess, humbled by the tales of Jackie Robinson and Honus Wagner. The story, over and over again, plays out of overcoming humble beginnings, never giving up on a dream and ultimately reaching the highest levels of acheivement.

I learn something new every episode, every year. It’s a grand re-introduction to the game in survey form for longtime fans and a perfect introduction to the game for new fans – I plan on watching portions with my son this year.

The myth of Abner Doubleday – the fact that he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball – was among the most eye-opening tales my first time around.

The complex interweaving of “Rounders,” cricket and “Town Ball” into modern day baseball maybe isn’t as magical as the Doubleday tale, but it is more fascinating.

Consider:

  • The feeder, or today’s pitcher, was the least important pitcher on the field.
  • Baseball was an urban game at the beginning, played nearly exclusively in cities – mostly in cramped spaces near saloons.
  • In it’s earliest stages, the infield was a square … not a diamond.
  • Fairly early on, catching the ball with one’s cap was outlawed.
  • After Candy Cummings invented the curve ball, it was widely looked at as a form of cheating and its use was frowned upon.

Something somewhat buried in the First Inning was the birth of the Boston Red Sox out of the Cincinnati Red Stockings’ extra innings loss to the Brooklyn Atlantics in the “Finest Game Ever Played.” After Cincinnati’s subsequent collapse in 1870, team founder Harry Wright moved to Boston with the best of his squad and the nickname.

The nickname, though, didn’t stick — eventually giving way to the “Braves.” An American League club started up in the city in 1901, and seized the Red Stocking concept in 1907 when the National League club dropped the color red from its color scheme. Boston officially adopted the Red Sox as its nickname in 1908, wearing a big, red sock with on their jerseys.

The first inning brings you from the inception of the game to the early 1900s in just under two hours, setting the table for the themes that will play out through the run of the series – players vs. owners, segregation and its eventual fall and the game’s battle to remain relevant through the rise in popularity of football and basketball. I’ve generally found it to be the weakest of the set because obviously there isn’t the visual footage that is available in later episodes.

But the film does a tremendous job weaving together accounts of the game’s beginnings from a wide variety of sources. It’s an ambitious (albiet completely understandable) proposition – introducing a series with the era  least suited to television broadcast. It’s done masterfully, though, and provides a suitable opening for the greatest historical survey on the game ever put to film.

 

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