Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns

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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker talks about his latest project, The Tenth Inning, and explains why baseball makes for such a poignant American documentary topic.


Tavis: Always a pleasure to have Ken Burns on this program. The iconic filmmaker has once again turned his attention to America’s pastime for a new documentary called Baseball: The Tenth Inning. The four-hour project airs on most of these PBS stations September 28 and 29. Here now a scene from Baseball: The Tenth Inning.
Tavis: Ken Burns joins us tonight from Charlotte, North Carolina. Ken, good to have you back on, sir.
Ken Burns: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Is this Chris Rock piece convincing?
Burns: (Laughter) No. It’s funny and he’s looking right at me and he’s got a lot of truth in what he’s saying which is, you know, we give our kids pills to do better in school and we take pills to do better in the bedroom and suddenly we’re shocked, shocked when our favorite baseball players might be taking a pill to do better at their job.
But the complicated morality, as well as just the sheer sportsmanship of the steroids era, is what drew me back to this game I love, to try to figure out how to parse it a little bit more – in a more complicated way with more undertow and maybe even more compassion than our media culture in its binary response of good-bad, black-white, you know, young-old, north-south-east-west, red state-blue state does.
Once again, the national pastime reveals itself to be a startling mirror of who we are, good and bad.
Tavis: I have you on record saying that you would never do a sequel (laughter) and so here you are doing a sequel, Mr. Burns.
Burns: Well, could we roll that tape back a little bit farther? How about after the Civil War, I’m never gonna do another film about war because it just got under my skin and then we did the World War II thing.
Yeah, I thought exploiting what you’d done or sort of taking advantage, but baseball is the only game that’s accompanied our national narrative and, therefore, it does reflect us good and bad. So much of our national character is imbedded in it. We like to think of history as just presidential administrations punctuated by wars, but it’s really a lot more than that.
It’s about race; it’s about assimilation and immigration. It’s about the growth and the decay of cities and now their rebirth. It’s about labor and management, the nature of heroes and villains and fools, popular culture, all these sorts of things that caught up in baseball’s wake. And the last two decades have been, Tavis, so consequential in baseball. When we came out in 1990 with our film, 18-1/2 hours, you’d think that’d be enough, right? Nine episodes. We were in the middle of a strike.
It was the first time that baseball had suspended its play and the first time that the post-season was over and you say, whoa, this is something different. Then you hit all the spectacular action that took place, all the unintended positive consequences that came out of this strike, then improbable stuff on the field and then the steroid scandal hits, and you have to find a way to put it in perspective.
We struggled over the last few years while we’ve been working on this to find a way to deal with this recent past in a way that we can understand it. Baseball’s a sport in which statistics really matter and they matter over time.
Yet even the statistics require that a story be told. Like if you’re sitting there with your kid and you’re looking up who won the 1919 World Series, it will say the Cincinnati Red Stockings. But we know that the Chicago White Sox, now forever called the Black Sox because of the scandal that attended to it, took money from gamblers and threw that. So even that statistic requires us storytellers to move in.
Babe Ruth doesn’t have an asterisk next to his name, but he never had to bat against Satchel Paige because a so-called gentlemen’s agreement kept African Americans from playing in our game, and on and on and on.
Now we’ve got this bubble, not unlike all of the other bubbles we’ve been afflicted with in our economic world, in which the records of baseball have been inflated. Thank God, we’re on the back side of it. We can see it receding in our rear view mirror and we’re just trying to make sense of it.
Tavis: When you say we’re on the back side of it, I would argue that next year may end up being another bad year for baseball because it is very likely, as you well know, that next year the Barry Bond story will have exploded again with his trial right along the same time as the Roger Clemens story may blow up again next year.
So are we really on the back side of it yet with two of baseball’s biggest and best in trouble next year perhaps around the same time publicly?
Burns: Well, just like World War II, we constantly talk about it, but it’s over with. The steroids era is over with, but we’re gonna constantly be having to deal with the consequences. Each year, players that normally would have gotten into the Hall of Fame are gonna be rejected by the baseball writers because of this.
We’re gonna have to deal with these trials, as you say. I think Barry’s gonna get off on — I don’t think the government’s case is as strong as it is against Roger Clemens. Both of these gentlemen, let’s just say, deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
Barry Bonds is the greatest player of the last few decades and arguably the greatest player who has ever played the game who will forever be dragging this ball and chain of the steroids around with him. And Roger Clemens also deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but it might be possible that we have someone in the Hall of Fame and in jail at the same time. So that respect, in our media conversation, it will be kept alive.
But let’s just remember. George Foster hit 50 homeruns in 1977, I think. Cecil Fielder in 1990. Then all of a sudden, you and I could hit 50 homeruns in the major league. Now it’s a rarity again and it only seemed to have extended pitchers’ careers and obviously inflated the single-season homerun and the lifetime homerun achievement.
But let’s just help us out of this mess by saying there weren’t that many 300 hitters, nobody hit 406 as Ted Williams did in ’41, nobody had a 56-game hitting streak as Joe DiMaggio did also in ’41, no pitcher won 30 games or 35 games or even 40 games which would have been the statistical equivalent of 73 homeruns.
So the genie, if not back in the bottle, we’re at least seeing that when a Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest right-hand hitters, loses a third of his season for testing positive for something, baseball has finally woken up and said we need to get our house in order and that 50 homerun season, praise the Lord, is back to being a rarity.
Tavis: When you said that you are attempting here with this sequel, this new baseball documentary, to perhaps look at the steroids era with more compassion, I’m trying to juxtapose the notion of cheating with compassion.
Burns: Well, one has to be very careful, so therefore we as filmmakers and, by extension, you and viewers, it’s a fine line and we were aware of this at all times. What we tend to do in our culture is just say it’s yes or no and that’s it and that’s a sad thing.
We went in and really delved into the complicated biography of Barry Bonds. He is not just the straw man for this. He is an amazingly interesting human being in good and bad ways and his father’s biography is an important one to know because, of course, we are influenced by our fathers. His godfather is Willie Mays and his whole arc through the story of baseball is an interesting, but also complicated one, that we tend to reduce to the most superficial level.
So while we are not looking for excuses to forgive people for the choices that they make, you have to put them in a context that also puts us, the media, and us, the fans, of baseball on the same hook that we’re putting the players, we’re putting the players association, and we’re putting major league baseball.
What I felt is by enriching the story with that complication, by extending, as the writer, Tom Boswell, of The Washington Post says in the film, the same degree of sympathy and tolerance for these very human failings that we extend to the people we love and our closest friends and rather not turn these people into just cardboard cutouts.
We enrich our own experience of the game and, even as Boswell says, these mythic qualities might fall away. They’re not the perfect heroes. We see their feets of clay. We nonetheless enrich our relationship with them and our game.
I’ll tell you, the proof is in the pudding. The game of baseball is never more popular, it’s never more profitable. More people are watching it, more games are televised, it’s available. People are filling these new beautiful architectural acts of faith that have been built throughout the National and American Leagues and we’re being drawn to the same things that we’ve always been drawn to.
I would argue, as a lifelong fan, that the quality of the play on the field is never better. So we have to find ways to reconcile the fact that, for a while, the faith of hundreds of millions of fans has been tested by this scandal and other unpleasant aspects of the game.
But at the same time, we have been able either to just compartmentalize or to more fully understand the exquisite dimensions and ironies of this game and that’s, I think, what we tried to do in The Tenth Inning. I mean, we thought, Tavis, it was gonna be this simple two-hour edition, ha-ha-ha-, The Tenth Inning and it got to be curiouser and curiouser and why I think we’ve attenuated.
So what you’ll see is spectacular play. I think you’ll come to terms with the strike and what it did, good and bad. You’ll understand a little bit more the steroids scandal and put it in a place where I think you can still love the game and not have to throw it out just based on our own sort of simplistic morality.
So if you don’t engage a simplistic morality, what you can replace in part with all this right skepticism but not cynicism is that compassion that we try to extend to one another in our daily lives.
Tavis: What you call architectural acts of faith, some people call abuse and misuse of the public taxpayer money. A lot of folk who happen not to be baseball fans in these cities that have built these major stadiums see their tax dollars going to build these architectural acts of faith, given the recession that we’re in, given the burgeoning growth again of homelessness, people losing their homes. How to juxtapose – how do you square those two things?
Burns: You can’t, and that’s a reality that coexists with it. In fact, most of these stadiums are, as you say, at least partially publicly financed and they have, in many cases, on the positive thing brought people flooding into the inner cities, helping to revitalize those places.
One could think of the very first one of these new models, the new old stadiums, would be Camden Yards and what that did in Baltimore. Yet you can go outside this sort of area of the Camden Yards and see the most abject poverty this country has to offer in terms of urban existence.
So we have to, as Americans, understand that these new ball parks were throwbacks to the old ball parks, but they don’t have as many of the cheap seats. They’ve catered to well-heeled millionaires that we seem to be minting all the time during our own larger economic bubble. As that’s burst, so too, as Yankee Stadium has found, you can’t always fill up those expensive seats. The game of baseball used to be one of the cheapest forms of entertainment for a family of four and now it’s not.
These are some of the reconciliations that we’re gonna have to deal with and come to terms with and which our film, I think, engages and tries to say, yes, but and also, as your excellent question does as well.
Tavis: Finally here – and we could spend hours, I’m sure, just discoursing and unpacking this one question.
Burns: Let’s (laughter).
Tavis: I’d love to if I had the time. Let me offer this, though, as the quick exit question. What does the story that you tell about baseball since your last film, the good, the bad, the ugly, say about the culture, the parallel between what baseball has gone through, what the culture has endured?
It’s kind of back to where we started with that Chris Rock comment about the fact that any of us would take a pill if we were told we could take it and make more money. But what’s baseball’s troubles and travails say about the culture?
Burns: Well, it is always that precise – it may not be a mirror. Let’s just say it’s a prism that refracts all of the aspects of us. As Jacques Barzun once said – the great sociologist – “If you want to know the heart and soul of American, you better study baseball.” And that’s what I’ve tried to do in the original series and this update. Obviously, it reflects a resilience that we have as a people.
It’s a perfect example of opportunity. I mean, when Jackie Robinson came up, Tavis, you know better than I do, this is the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War, making that original baseball series of ours a sequel to the Civil War series.
But, you know, it’s also reflective of our greed and our interest in money, money, money, and the disparity between the players’ salaries today that used to be, at the beginning of free agency, only three or four times what an average working man made. Now it’s 50 or 100 or 250 times. That’s gonna create a distance and it’s going to be soul-challenging.
So we look at baseball and we want it always to be that treacly sentimental nostalgic repository of these carefully held verities, and it is. A 300-hitter means the same thing to me and to my great-great-grandfather, Abraham Burns, who fought in the Civil War. I defy you to find anything else in American life that’s like that.
But it’s also completely reflective of where we are now, so that when we experience our bubbles, when we think we can get someone else to pay for it, when we’re gonna float alone, that we can’t actually be confident we’ll be paid back or we’re gonna take out that mortgage that we don’t actually know where we’re gonna get the money to do it, baseball is right there with us showing us in a microcosm our larger failings.
So in any aspect of American life, not just the economics that we’ve focused on right now, but race and ethnicity, the rise of Latin and Asian players has been a hugely for the most part positive dimension to this game, we are reflecting trends in our own society as well.
I mean, the original stars were English and then Irish and then German, just reflecting the waves of immigration. Now it’s Hispanic and Asian reflecting the larger patterns of immigration. So baseball has a lot to tell us, a lot to reflect.
You know, God willing, we’ll be talking in 10 or 15 years about the Eleventh Inning and we’ll begin with Armando Galarrago’s perfect game that was taken away from him (laughter).
Because the great thing about this game is, let’s remember, it’s the only team sport without a clock, the only team sport in which the defense always has the ball, the only team sport in which the man scores and not the ball, the only team sport with irregular fields. All the outfields are different, all the foul territories are different and things can happen.
It’s a game that teaches you about loss. You fail seven times out of ten in this game, Tavis, and you’re a 300 hitter. And you do that for 15 or 20 years and you’re in the Hall of Fame and no other sport would accept that level of failure.
Babe Ruth, your best player – your Barry Bonds or your Babe Ruth or Cal Ripken, whoever, comes up only once every nine times at bat. So you can’t just inbound to Michael Jordan to hit the three-pointer at the buzzer or have, you know, Montana hit Jerry Rice for the touchdown. You actually might have to have your game or your season depend on a middle infielder you just called up from AAA last week.
Man, that’s more like life than anything else and why I think we’ll come back again and again to this game, not just me, but all of us, because of what it tells us, good and bad again, about who we are.
Tavis: You could hate baseball and Ken Burns could sell you on it (laughter). That’s why he is the best, the absolute best, documentarian in this country. Premiering on most of these PBS stations, September 28 and 29, Baseball: The Tenth Inning, by one and the only Ken Burns. Ken, good to have you back on this program.
Burns: Thank you, brother. Take it easy.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm