Burns swings for a Homer, but 'Baseball' falls short IT'S ALL IN THE GAME

September 16, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's twice as long as it needs to be, but it's not half as powerful or moving as "The Civil War."

At its worst, it's a bloated gasbag of middle-aged, male, media-elite talking heads in horn-rimmed glasses competing to see who can use terms like "American psyche" and "national consciousness" most often in the same sentence.

At it's best, it's a narrative told so skillfully in the language of myth that it manages to achieve moments of apotheosis -- brilliant flashes where we almost believe that it's subject isn't a game at all, but rather a religion, a gift from the gods to lighten this load called the human condition.

Stop me before I use the adjective "Homeric," because I'm talking about Ken Burns' 18 1/2 -hour PBS documentary, "Baseball," which will start Sunday night at 8 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

Burns is not shy about saying that he sees himself as the American Homer. He's recently even mass- mailed press releases full of quotes -- from people he has sanctioned as "experts" in his documentaries -- comparing Burns to Homer, the blind poet of ancient Greece who sang the epics that came to be known as "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

I mention this not so much to suggest that Burns ought to study his Homer for the poet's many warnings about the dangers of hubris, but because understanding Burns' attempt to be an epic poet on film is key to appreciating the triumph and excess of "Baseball."

First, this is not history -- despite the claims of Burns, PBS and others. It's not about facts, context, consensus and claims of truth.

In its s vast middle range -- that area between inspired and tedious where most of the 18 1/2 hours is spent -- "Baseball" is a whopping smorgasbord of anecdote, lore, pictures, words and music subjectively chosen by Burns and his associates.

How subjective? Highly subjective. Burns is from New England and loves the Boston Red Sox. Thus, the Red Sox are everywhere, while Cal Ripken, to pick just one name that comes to mind in Baltimore, is mentioned only once in passing.

Burns structures "Baseball" to give it the appearance of being the definitive chronicle of the game.

The series is divided into nine "innings," which will air over nine nights during the next two weeks. Each night opens with the National Anthem and a short burst of facts attempting to elevate baseball to the level of national history: "During the 1960s," narrator John Chancellor says, "Americans lost a president . . . and Dwight Gooden was born."

The first three innings cover the periods 1840 to 1900, 1900 to 1910, and 1910-1920, respectively. They are the worst of the series. They are slow and lack any sense of drama. One of the reasons is that Burns is trying to find an American Creation Myth for the game -- a Book of Genesis kind of "In the beginning" story -- but the origins of baseball are too begged, borrowed and stolen for that.

So, instead, after too much talk of games played on the Elysian Field in Hoboken, N.J., Burns spends too long acting like he has a scoop when he trashes the myth that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday.

Two colleagues have told me that they fell asleep while screening the first three innings, but that they didn't want to admit it in print. I will. I fell asleep twice.

During these innings, all of Burns' technical tools from "The Civil War" are on display, including the use of slow and sensuous camera pans of still photographs and portraits.

Burns can take a photograph and close in on it tighter and tighter until it seems the person in it is alive and staring back into your eyes, demanding that you connect with them across the ages. I believe that part of the hold "The Civil War" had on viewers came from Burns' meticulous pacing of the presentation of still photographs. It had a hypnotic effect.

But during the first three nights of "Baseball," Burns doesn't have a real leading actor -- a Sherman, Lincoln or a Lee -- to give him a biographical lightning rod. By the third inning, you'll think you'll scream if you see one more picture of a bleacher section full of faceless, nameless men in bowler hats.

In Inning Four (to air Wednesday night), however, Babe Ruth arrives and the the series heats up.

With the arrival of Ruth, Burns finds a pair of eyes that you can't stop staring into and dreaming about. The face of the young Ruth -- just out of Baltimore and pitching in Boston -- is burned into my memory forever, thanks, I suspect, to "Baseball."

Burns is at his best as a biographer. With Ruth, he finds one of the two story lines that makes "Baseball" start to cook.

The other great biography in "Baseball" is that of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American allowed to play in the major leagues in this century. Burns lays the foundation for Robinson's story in the Fifth Inning, an evening devoted in large part to exploring the Negro League and its greatest stars, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

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