That's one view

October 20, 1994|By Allyson M. Poska

OVER THE course of nine evenings I sat captivated by Ken Burns' "Baseball" on public television: the triumphs, the defeats, the timelessness of the message, the clash of titans, the home of the brave, and the land of the free. I marveled at how Mr. Burns captured the essence of baseball as a microcosm of our culture.

But not really.

As a sports fan, I was moderately entertained by the footage of favorite games, and as a music fan, I was amused by the soundtrack. As a cultural historian, however, I was very disappointed at the idea that this was cultural history. His conception of the history of American culture is typical of a style of history which has long since lost its meaning. His history was a history of winners, in particular white, male, mostly dead, winners. In fact, the majority of the series was dedicated to a litany of dead, white, male celebrities -- hardly my notion of American culture. History has long since moved beyond such a narrow conception.

Mr. Burns bases his series almost exclusively on major-league baseball, which for decades excluded African Americans and continues to exclude women. Despite the fact that women have played baseball and softball for more than a century, they were mentioned in only one episode.

What about the numerous semiprofessional leagues that have sustained women's interest in the sport for decades? Using an antiquated notion of history, Mr. Burns saw women ballplayers as worthy of historical mention only when they acted as substitutes for major-league players during World War II.

Mr. Burns made the same error during his historical asides on the Negro Leagues. Black ballplayers only merited his attention as potential players in the white major leagues. A few prominent black players received the attention of whites, thereby paving the way for Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. For both blacks and whites, the Negro Leagues were a vibrant part of American (( culture beyond their role in competition with or as training grounds for major-league baseball.

Latinos, who have enthusiastically participated in leagues in both the United States and Latin America, received almost no mention except, again, as they related to the major leagues. The Dominican Republic's leagues are funnels for American stars, and the Cuban leagues provided racially safe situations for black players before they were integrated into the major leagues.

How did black Americans affect Cuban culture? How did their racially mixed families fare when they returned to the United States? Moreover, Mr. Burns focused on Brooklyn's emotional loss of the Dodgers, but made no mention of the hundreds of Latino homes razed to facilitate the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Baseball affected their lives, too.

Mr. Burns also made baseball an urban, East Coast phenomenon. While he made brief mention of the great stars who learned their trade in the powerful Midwestern semiprofessional leagues, the leagues themselves fell by the wayside in a flurry of statistics on some outstanding outfielder or second baseman. We saw almost nothing about great players on losing teams, or about losing teams with no exceptional players.

As far as Ken Burns was concerned, the only interesting losers were the Brooklyn Dodgers. What happened to Kansas City? Cleveland after 1920? The Cubs? More important, where were the municipal softball leagues, church leagues, Little League and American Legion teams?

For most Americans, their lives intersect with the great American game when they go to local parks to see their dads and moms, brothers and sisters, and daughters and sons play baseball or softball.

As a native of Oklahoma, I can assure you that most Americans do not live within an easy drive of major-league baseball. We had to travel six hours to either Dallas or Kansas City to see a game, but these local leagues made baseball an exciting part of our lives.

Ken Burns' "Baseball" was a metaphor for American power, not for American culture. When understood in all of its splendor, American history is the history of ordinary men and women: their emotions, their families, their hard work and their lives. Even among those who made it to the majors, most were ordinary people whose lives more clearly reflect the triumphs and struggles of American culture than the lives of men like Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio.

American history is as much about the families in the stands as it is about the guy at the plate. Ken Burns may have made an entertaining documentary, but he has a decidedly myopic view of history.

Allyson M. Poska is an assistant professor of history at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

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