Footage! Ken Burns’s Baseball now comes with real, old-school footage!
Since this was still the olden days, though, that doesn’t mean there’s a whole hell of a lot of it. We don’t get footage of anything significant, although there is a scene from the 1909 World Series where Ty Cobb is talking to Honus Wagner and, from the looks of the scene, apparently being cordial.
In the second part of Ken Burns’s massive documentary about baseball, I continue to be fascinated by the early goings of the professional sport. In Second Inning, Burns presents a part of baseball’s history that flew fast and loose as an up and coming form of entertainment which was not unlike the movies in that it was still very new and people hadn’t quite figured out just what to do with it yet. One of the facts from Second Inning that I didn’t know beforehand actually makes a kind of parallel connection between them: In the offseason, a lot of the big stars and popular players would go into the vaudeville circuit to supplement their incomes. I was amused to learn that John McGraw went into vaudeville to basically stand on a stage and be himself, reciting monologues and answering questions.
By now, baseball is such an established an unquestioned institution in the United States that we tend to forget that it had any kind of beginning at all. Burns spends a lot of time in Second inning showing us not just the development of the sport, but the development of the ballpark experience itself, including the concessions and hot dogs. It does a lot to remind us that the prototypical ballpark experience wasn’t always the ballpark experience. Burns also introduces us to the Royal Rooters, a fan club in Boston. Thats a reminder that the idea of adopting one team to follow and enjoy over the others wasn’t a thing once upon a time. Professional baseball didn’t exist at one time. Professional sports, in fact, didn’t exist at one time. Therefore, selling crappy food and clothes at the parks also didn’t exist at one time, and we start to realize that, like the sport itself, the idea of a fandom came from gradual evolution rather than being thought up all at one time. Seeing it in narration and old photographs right in our faces helps us appreciate that.
Of course, one name player who gets brought into the act in Second Inning is Ty Cobb. You have to mention Cobb’s name in baseball history because he may still be the greatest ballplayer ever. Now, I’ve seen a lot of different angles on Cobb. Some people say he was just a mean dude, others say he was just overreacting to some psychological trauma or sense of inadequacy. Some say he was a hardline racist, others say he gets too much crap for his racism because it wasn’t any different than any other Georgia man in his time and because his racism was more bark than bite. And Cobb’s life is one area where Burns chose to simplify everything. Burns gives him a very two-dimensional portrayal. Even though Burns does make room to talk about Cobb’s father and his motivations, he still gives us the one defining angle on Cobb: Racism, racism, racism. Burns didn’t attack Cap Anson this much, and Anson did a lot more to hold back equality than Cobb ever did. I’m actually a bit surprised Burns hasn’t brought up Cobb beating up a man with no arms yet, but that may have happened in the 1910’s. I wonder if Burns is going to bring up Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker being part of the KKK. Considering how much trouble Burns is taking to get several different angles on a lot of different things, his one-dimensional approach to Cobb is just lazy as hell.
The 00’s are the decade when the World Series first saw the light of day, and the explanation and photos of the first one between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates are another reminder of just how different and new the ballpark experience was back in those days. There are some very impressive pictures of that first World Series, especially of the scenes in Boston where the fans all crowded along the foul lines and in the outfield. One wonders just how the players were able to actually get the games played during the whole fiasco.
One of the other important things Burns also covers is the first dynasty in baseball history: The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe these days, but for half of professional baseball’s very existence, the Cubs were a dynamo of a team who struck fear into all their opponents. With players like Three Finger Brown, Orval Overall, and their Tinker to Evers to Chance combination, the Cubbies (who, as Cait Murphy reminded us in Crazy ’08, would have killed us for referring to them as the Cubbies) went on a spree which saw them set a regular season record in 1906, only to lose the first-ever crosstown World Series to the White Sox; win it all in 1907 and 1908; and return to the Series in 1910.
Fred Merkle is given coverage, of course, and we learn about the aftermath of his famous mistake in 1908. Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson are also featured. But for every story we know about baseball, there are other, more hidden stories which we don’t get, and Burns gives us two of those hidden stories of note: The first is the development of independent professional black baseball teams. The second is the story of a woman named Alta Weiss, a semi-pro pitcher who played for boys’ teams starting at age 14 and was playing semipro baseball with the men by 17. She became a sensation and a huge draw for whom special trains were being run out from Cleveland whenever she pitched. Weiss made enough money to put herself through medical school, became a physician, and played baseball on and off through the 20’s.
So far, all is pretty well in Ken Burns’s massive documentary. It looks like I have to wait until the next part for any significant mention of my favorite teams, though, the Yankees and White Sox.