Ken Burns' ballyhooed TV series gets crushed by cliches in very first inning

September 20, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

Opening night of the much-ballyhooed "Baseball: An Illustrated History": Let's put it this way. Ken Burns, driving force behind the 18 1/2 -hour undertaking on PBS, has his work cut out over the next eight innings. Someone drilled a three-run homer off him in the first inning . . . and it hit the warehouse on the fly.

Maybe it was a case of expecting too much under the flood of advance publicity and the commercialization that no doubt will see Burns doing personal appearances on QVC and the rest of the home shopping network stops.

The first two hours Sunday evening were a cliche-ridden rehash of the early days of the Grand Old Game in which several myths were politely cast aside and the true fan was made aware that the owners were as scurrilous back then as they are today.

While the goods were being delivered on the likes of the professional game's earliest moguls, the pompous Harry Wright, A. G. Spalding, otherwise known as "The Messiah," and the carpetbagging John McGraw, the flow of the show was constantly being interrupted with pretentious celebrity chatter.

Bromides such as "it's the only game in which the defense has the ball" and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo reminding us "There is no clock in baseball [unfortunately]; you play until you lose" were part of a montage that saw a group of guys trying to make the ultimate statement about baseball.

Many tried -- Bob Costas, Robert Creamer, Tom Boswell, even Clarence Darrow, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (posthumously) -- but all failed, guilty of over-reaching.

It really doesn't matter if the game sprang from nothingness in Cooperstown one afternoon when

Abner Doubleday was away at West Point, later to admit he had nothing to do with the game. Abner had to play the part of patron saint because he later became a Civil War hero and is said to have known Abraham Lincoln as president.

There's the usual stuff about commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis "saving the game" after the 1919 World Series scandal, but who's to say what would have happened had not a lad named George Herman Ruth jumped the wall at St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore?

For every instance of comedian-actor Billy Crystal doing his "City Slickers" schtick about "the game my father taught me to play" while whipping a spaldeen past him in stickball, there were worthwhile tidbits about the Rebels breaking up a game among Union troops by kidnapping the center fielder and stealing the only ball around in Texas one day.

Women played baseball as early as 1866 at Vassar College, but were forced to disband because the game was "too violent" for young ladies. Harvard outlawed its pitchers from throwing curveballs because "the school is not in the business of deceiving people." Anyone caught attempting to pull off the hidden-ball trick probably was banished to Yale.

This is where Ken Burns shines, as witnessed by his "Civil War" effort, and there should be more of this, and less of such statements as, "it's a haunted game in which every player is measured against those that have gone before."

Early and often the strains of the national anthem wafted in the background as we were reminded constantly that the game is as much a part of the national fabric as the Constitution, the flag, Old Ironsides, Gettysburg and the Defense Budget. And to suggest any kind of opposition to such thinking certainly marks one as unpatriotic.

The fact that first base is 90 feet from home plate "is a pick from heaven," someone said, suggesting the earth might spin off its axis if the distance had been set at 88 feet.

Most of what game historian John Thorn had to contribute was excellent as were stories of Sam Crawford and his barnstormers from Wahoo, Neb., shots of a world tour undertaken in 1888 to promote baseball (there were no takers) and the fact that Cap Anson was probably the best player in the 1800s, but he might have been the worst individual, too.

The things that will interest most fans are dead ahead these evenings at 8, but it's important that to really understand the game and all its facets it's necessary to be aware of the politics, the personalities and the shenanigans that rule the game.

When was the first salary cap attempted, 1894? The reserve clause, seemingly a contract for seven months, was actually binding for life. It was John Montgomery Ward who, nearly a hundred years ago, said "the turnstile is taking over for the good spirit and integrity of the game."

It is left for NBC's Costas to point out, "we care about baseball all the way through life." But with the eighth strike in little more than 20 years wiping out the current season and World Series, perhaps care is too strong a word for many of us.

Remember what Yogi Berra said, Burnsey, "The game's not over 'til it's over." Rally, guy.

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