Falling under the spell of TV 'Baseball' series

September 22, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Jackie Robinson apparently was not the first African American to play in the major leagues. In baseball's early years, some 40 to 50 African Americans played on white teams. And even after league owners reached their "gentleman's agreement" not to let blacks play, some managers kept trying to sneak them onto the field, having them pose as American Indians or Cubans, ethnic groups considered less controversial.

I learned all this from Ken Burns' "Baseball," the nine-part, 18-hour documentary on America's favorite pastime that has been running on PBS since Sunday. And now you know my terrible secret: I've been watching "Baseball" all week. What's more, I've been enjoying it.

"For heaven's sake, you need to get a life!" exclaimed my buddy, Eddie Smith, when I confessed that I had been spending my evenings glued to the television set.

"I've got a life," I whined defensively. " 'Baseball' is my life."

"We're going to have to find you some female companionship," said Eddie.

"Yeah, right. I'm still waiting, Eddie. In the meantime, I have 'Baseball' to keep me company."

Some critics have panned "Baseball." They complain that the long-awaited documentary often is pretentious and overblown. They say there are too many appearances by celebrities such as Billy Crystal and George Will, explaining the cosmic significance of the game.

And the critics are right. But between the bombast lies a compelling narrative, tracing the evolution of the game and, not coincidentally, the evolution of our society. Lower your expectations and "Baseball" will please you.

Tonight's entry, called "Shadow Ball," focuses on the Negro leagues, including a classic showdown between baseball greats Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in a Negro World Series. But blacks have maintained a presence throughout the first six hours of the series -- albeit at times a shadow presence -- just as blacks maintained a presence throughout baseball's history.

Ken Burns is good at this. His award-winning documentary on the Civil War chronicled the emotions, experiences, and observations of blacks of the time as diligently as it chronicled the whites. The result: a thoroughly integrated history.

"Baseball" is the same way. We are told, for instance, that W.E.B. Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, coaxed youngsters into delivering the organization's newspaper for him by promising to equip their baseball teams. We learn that Negro League all-stars whipped their white counterparts almost every time they played. In short, we are told that baseball was every bit as important to blacks as it was to whites.

That's one reason I am, ahem, coming out of the closet about my love for baseball the game, and "Baseball" the documentary. It is not hip in my crowd to profess anything but contempt for the game. Baseball is not considered a "black" thing. I get teased mercilessly whenever I say I am sorry the ballplayers went on strike; that I miss the pennant race, the playoffs, the World Series.

"Oh no!" shouted Eddie, when I told him this in the hope of getting some sympathy. "Say it ain't so, Hall! Say it ain't so!"

But 'tis true.

There's a theory that baseball is not fast-paced enough for black tastes. Indeed, most of my friends dismiss the game as boring. But I believe that our antipathy to America's favorite pastime mirrors our feelings about the black experience in America.

Ritual, tradition and history probably are more important to baseball than to any other sport: "It is a haunted game," intones John Chancellor, narrator of "Baseball," "in which every player is measured against those that have gone before."

Blacks, too, are haunted by history. We are haunted by slavery, by Jim Crow; haunted by the perception that when the great deeds of the world occurred -- the acts of heroism, the brilliant philosophical insights, the most beautiful works of art -- our ancestors were chained to the farm, picking cotton, singing pathetic hymns about freedom.

But that's not true. For all of his faults, Ken Burns deserves to be celebrated for reminding us all, blacks and whites, that the great deeds of history cannot be segregated.

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