Burns' stuffy 'Baseball' more limerick than poetry

September 29, 1994|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,Sun Staff Writer

Each evening, as I sat on my couch and took in the full historical sweep of Ken Burns' "Baseball," I started feeling very elegiac.

Now, I don't even know what elegiac means, but that's the kind of word that greensward-smitten poets use when it comes to the national pastime.

Consider this evocative -- which reminds me, "Baseball" makes me feel really evocative, too -- quote on the grand old game attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Baseball is a game played by idiots for morons."

And John Kenneth Galbraith definitely was feeling elegiac when he once recalled: "I last attended a major-league baseball game in Washington in the summer of 1934. It was the only one I ever got to; it wasn't very interesting, so I didn't go back."

Cue the tinkling piano.

"I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," Ernest Hemingway's old man said. That is, his old man in "The Old Man and the Sea," not his old man as in his father. But maybe his father wanted to take DiMaggio fishing, too.

You see, that's what links baseball across the generations. Fathers and sons, taking DiMaggio fishing.

And that's why "Baseball" had to be 18 1/2 hours long. Sure, Burns covered the Civil War in half the time, but consider this: Was the Civil War ever contested on AstroTurf?

Baseball is woven into the very fabric of our nation -- though it doesn't have the versatility of Dacron. Therefore, Burns needed much time to give the experts their say.

Yeah, most of us would have been contented hearing no one but George Will on "Baseball," but how can you possibly do a documentary on the sport without a comment from Billy Crystal?

Coming soon to a PBS station near you: "The Industrial Revolution," with cogent observations from Charo.

While we wait for that series, let's review some of the "Baseball" highlights:

* On his deathbed, Abraham Lincoln tells Abner Doubleday to invent baseball, and then whispers, "I want Gregory Peck to play me in the movie."

* In the 1860s, pioneering baseball reporter Henry Chadwick invents the box score. Shortly thereafter, he receives the first complaint from a Rotisserie Leaguer who didn't see the box from a West Coast game in his newspaper.

* The era's two greatest players, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, meet in the 1909 World Series. Cobb taunts Wagner with a scathing critique of "The Flight of the Valkyries."

* In the wake of the Black Sox scandal in 1919, baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, outlaws the wearing of dark hose with a white suit. This ruling holds until John Travolta flouts the regulation in "Saturday Night Fever."

* In the 1920s, Babe Ruth emerges as America's greatest sports hero. Informed that his salary is higher than that of President Herbert Hoover, Ruth replies: "You think that means they'll name a stadium after me in Baltimore?"

* The Reds' Johnny Vander Meer pitches consecutive no-hitters in 1938. When he fails to throw a third straight no-hitter, callers to the team's radio station demand his removal from the starting rotation. Sports talk radio is born.

* Sometime during the 1950s, someone types the words "emerald chessboard." This is the defining moment in the history of baseball.

* A lot more stuff happens, but I doze off or check out the new episodes of "Silk Stalkings."

I'm not sure, but I think the last episode ends with one more version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," this one a collaboration between Snoop Doggy Dogg and Bobby Vinton.

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