Well, it isn’t like the Black Sox scandal of 1919 is ever going to fade into the backwaters of baseball lore or anything. It’s probably the longest section of Ken Burns’s Baseball’s Third Inning, The Faith of Fifty Million People. I was quite happy at this point just to see that Burns decided not to dwell on trying to make a case for the innocence of Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose innocence is contestable on the best of days. In my official capacity as a White Sox fan, I actually felt a little relieved by Burns’s way of covering the Black Sox scandal. He didn’t try to center it by using Jackson as the entire scandal’s moral fulcrum, which is a common aspect of most portrayals of the Black Sox that pisses me off. Jackson isn’t treated any differently than any of the other folks who were nailed in the Black Sox episode.
Unfortunately, Burns doesn’t get his facts completely straight, either. He does wholeheartedly sell us on two other commonly told half-truths about the Black Sox scandal: The first is that people began staying away from the ballpark in droves. If there’s any real truth in this, it isn’t nearly as much as people like to believe. When told about the devastation of the Black Sox, one tends to imagine players playing games in the middle of nearly empty ballparks. This just wasn’t true – baseball had survived scandals before the Black Sox, a few of which were related to gambling. People seemed to have at least a little bit of knowledge that the game wasn’t entirely on the level. Yet, they attended games anyway. The Black Sox didn’t keep that many people out of the ballparks. In fact, knowing what we know now about baseball and the fans, the very idea of a gambling scandal scaring off the public is insanely farfetched. The other big myth was that the White Sox were a dynamo that would have overpowered the Cincinnati Reds no matter the circumstances. Well folks, in 1919 the Reds went 96-44, as opposed to Chicago’s 88-52. The Reds finished nine games ahead while the White Sox finished three and a half games ahead. Cincinnati actually had a better pitching rotation that year, though Chicago’s batters were miles better than the Reds. An objective argument over which team was actually better could go well into the early hours.
Inning Three also contains a little bit of detail about the batting contest between Ty Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie. Burns expounds a little bit more on Cobb, mentioning the time he went into the stands to beat up the guy with no hands. And once again, Cobb’s racism is the main angle. Once again, there’s nothing about the handful of ballplayers were were full-fledged members of the Ku Klux Klan – and that includes Tris Speaker, whom Burns felt obligated to mention on a detour about a handful of the decade’s notable stars.
Ken Burns is a fan of the Boston Red Sox, so it should come as no surprise that he tends to dote on his team a little bit. The Faith of Fifty Million People can be excused for doing that in this case, though, because it was during this era that the Red Sox reached their apex of on-field success and possibly their apex of importance to the league. Four of Boston’s seven World Series titles were won during this decade, and they were led by this young pitching phenomenon they found named George Herman Ruth. The Philadelphia Athletics – particularly Connie Mack – also get a bit of time devoted to them, and of course there was The New York Team. In this case, though, that was the New York Giants, the John McGraw-led team tearing up the National League. The Cubs are barely mentioned, if at all.
One of the important things to remember about Ken Burns’s Baseball is that it’s not a documentary about Major League Baseball. It’s a documentary about BASEBALL. The lack of those two words is very important, because Burns tends to frequently tip his hat to many of the things that were happening outside of Major League Baseball at the time. The Negro Leagues were getting started right about now, and one team tried to pass off a black player with lighter skin as a member of a different race to keep him on a team. This says a lot about racial attitudes. Consider: There were members of every race in Major League Baseball except blacks, and a team actually tried to pass off a black man as a member of a different non-white race that was getting more rights than black people. It’s a hell of a condemnation if you really think about it.
Workers’ leagues are also talked about briefly. Once upon a time, it was in vogue for corporations to offer extracurricular activities to workers in order to keep them away from the unions. I would have loved to know more about the workers’ leagues, how they operated, and the kinds of lives their players lived as both workers and ballplayers, and how they might have differed from those of workers who didn’t take the option of being ballplayers. I’ll write this off, though, because most of the noteworthy events of baseball were in the big leagues, and the histories of the workers’ leagues were likely written by their rich bosses anyway. Minor league baseball is barely mentioned, which is also unfortunate because Major League Baseball never moved south of Washington or west of St. Louis until after 1950, and this could end up ignoring a lot of events that were happening elsewhere in the country.
Once again, even though there’s live-action footage in The Faith of Fifty Million People, Burns is still stuck with a bit of clever editing with old newspaper stills. I’m not sure how much the movies had caught on by the 10′s, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to have made real footage of baseball games widely available. I couldn’t help but come away from The Faith of Fifty Million People a little bit disappointed. So far, it’s the most pedestrian entry into Ken Burns’s Baseball.