Review: ‘Ken Burns’ Baseball: Tenth Inning’

I’ll say this for Ken Burns: The man knows how to tell a story. That much is clear. Otherwise he wouldn’t be what he is today: a man capable of picking and choosing whatever topic he wants to do a documentary about and making it—with plenty of funding and numerous big name interviews. That’s a nice gig to have.

Years ago, at the height of his reputation and in the afterglow of his enormous Civil War documentary success, Burns did a nine part (or innings, as he called them) series on baseball. Now, he returns with his four-hour “Tenth Inning,” which looks at the last two decades of baseball.

I entered this new edition with mixed feelings. I really liked what I saw of the original (caught it all except for the 1950s segment), but my least favorite part was the ninth inning. I thought it that last inning suffered from being too close to the events discussed. By its nature, the last inning lacked the historical perspective of the previous ones.

Also, and this isn’t so much directed at Burns as it is a general trend I’ve sometimes seen, some people who heavily promote baseball’s past and history use that legacy to beat the modern game. This isn’t fair to lump Burns in with those who do that, but the brief promos I saw for “”Tenth Inning contained snippets of how crushed people were by the ’94 strike or angst over steroids—and, oh man—if that’s what the four hours were going to be like, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it.

I needn’t have worried, though. By and large, it was an excellent job. How so? Let me count the ways . . .

First—and I really don’t think this will surprise anyone—Burns still knows how to tell a story, and the baseball moments he really sinks his teeth into really come alive. These moments ranged from Game Seven of the 1991 NLCS (which was a nice moment to focus on because it introduced both the 1990s Braves dynasty and Pittsburgh left fielder Barry Bonds) to the 2004 ALCS (you knew that was going to be in there, right?) and Burns handled them expertly.

I also liked Burns’ occasional sociological bent, as he noted how the game became more international, with the increasing rise of Hispanic players and later East Asian players. That was pretty well done (I had no idea a bunch of washed up Dominican prospects now played semi-pro ball in New York City). Plus it gave more time to present interviews with Pedro Martinez, and he may have been the best talking head in the entire “Tenth Inning.”

(Total side note: speaking of talking heads, I found it interesting that the “Tenth Inning” incorporated Keith Olbermann, because he wrote a lengthy (and frankly uber-nit-picking) critique of the original mini-series after it came out. Apparently any problems Olbermann and Burns had have been smoothed over).

Perhaps most of all, I liked the way Burns handled the potential minefield of steroids. The best way to understand Burns’ approach to the issue is to look at the final comment made about it all. Veteran sportswriter Thomas Boswell quoted a comment once made about Shakespeare. The Bard had the capacity to understand an issue thoroughly without leaping to one side in judging what’s going on. Life is more complex than just Right or Wrong.

For example, shortly after introducing the subject of steroids, Burns contextualized it in the long tradition of people bending the rules in baseball by discussing of the 1995 Albert Belle bat incident, with teammate Jason Grimsley sneaking into the umpire’s area to switch bats. (Burns threw in the theme song from “Mission Impossible,” a nice comedic touch). Then some talking heads ranging from John Thorn to Chris Rock (huh? Yeah, that Chris Rock) noted that it’s just human nature to try to get ahead and if you think a pill can do it, then many will always do it.

I suppose I also got a kick out of the miniseries because some of the most common criticisms I’ve seen people make (both with regard to the original series and the recent edition) miss the point as far as I’ve concerned.

For example, if you’re a really big baseball fan, don’t be surprised if you don’t learn too much from this. That really isn’t the point. Burns is more a synthesizer than a researcher, and this is more or less an extremely well done trip down memory lane. One person on Baseball Think Factory mentioned that the first half of the series (the two-hour “Top of the Tenth” from Tuesday night) was set up perfectly for his nine-year old son who wasn’t alive for that period of baseball. I think that’s a good way to approach what Burns did.

There’s a much more common criticism I’ve seen—it’s probably the most frequent complaint of all—and it’s one I have very little sympathy for. It’s they “Hey, he covered items A, B and C, but what about D, E and F?”

The only way to avoid that is to make a documentary that’s an inch deep and a mile wide. By that I mean the documentary covers as much ground as possible, and becomes so concerned with saying a little bit about everything it ultimately says nothing about it any of it. In other words, produce a four-hour, all-baseball version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Who wants to watch that? Not only is it bad storytelling, it shows an inability to focus and figure out what really mattered in the time period.

I’m sympathetic to this because I run into a similar problem in my day job, trying to teach college-level history courses. There always are more things to cover than time allows, and you have to decide what to cover and what to leave out, knowing damn well that some of what gets left out in and of itself can be worthy of your time. But you don’t have time for all of it.

There are things I wish he’d covered that he left out or items he spent more time on, but I can’t argue with the main themes he picked.

That said, while I thought it was generally an excellent job I thought the ending was a bit flat. Even worse, I think on its own terms the ending failed to deliver.

Much of the last hour focused on steroids. Okay, that’s understandable; it has been a huge story in recent years. However, Burns clearly didn’t want to end on a down note and so after finishing up on steroids he tacked on a brief final segment titled “Sun Shining.” This fell flat. It was only a few minutes long and consisted of a montage of final outs of the last five World Series. If Burns wants to make that the end it, he needs to do more.

Frankly, he had plenty to work with if he wanted to do that. Fun fact: After covering the 2004 ALCS, Burns discussed only steroids and Barry Bonds—until the uber-brief “Sun Shining” segment. In other words, the actual game of baseball ceased to exist in “Ken Burns’ Baseball” after 2004.

Again, it’s understandable and even appropriate to spend a bunch of time on ‘roids. However, that means Burns had a half-dozen years of actual baseball he was sitting on—footage he could have used to really make his point at the end.

If Burns really wanted to show baseball’s resilience in the face of adversity, he could’ve spent time on the White Sox finally winning their series, or the Cards-Mets NLCS in 2006, or the Rockies’ big pennant push in 2007, or something. He didn’t need any of these individual stories, but he needed something. It wouldn’t be necessary to present a lengthy, in-depth segment on any of them, but a good-sized bite.

Or, if he wanted to note how the game still reaches fans, mention MLB’s Extra Innings package that allows people to see their favorite team anywhere, or the rise of fantasy baseball. Burns’ last reel should’ve worked a lot better than it did. Ultimately, to make the end work, he should’ve spent 10-15 minutes on “Sun Shining” instead of five.

If he needed to find extra time, the best place to take it from would’ve been the sections on the 2003-04 Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. That also went on for a half-hour, and frankly it was the only time in the entire “Tenth Inning” I felt Burns got a self-indulgent.

Ultimately, I came into “Tenth Inning” with mixed feelings and left with some mixed feelings. By and large it was terrific and I’m glad I watched it. But he saved the worst for last.

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Comments

  1. Jim said...

    Michael,

    I was wondering who the narrator would be too, and I also missed John Chancellor, and would have picked him in a second were he still with us. I think Keith David’s voice was a little too “heavy” (plus hearing him reminds me of his roles in two great bad movies, “Men at Work” and “They Live”). I think Liev Schreiber would have been a fine choice. I was also thinking of an actor named James Karen who sounds a little like John Chancellor. I think David McCullough and Edward Herrman are excellent narrators, but they’re too associated with “The Civil War” and the History Channel respectively.

    I think I’ve had about enough of Doris Kearns Goodwin too.

  2. TUCK! said...

    @Chris:

    You nailed this. Great job. It totally illuminates what I adore about Burns’ work (Civil War, the first 4-5 innings of Baseball, Thomas Jefferson, and Mark Twain) and what drives me bonkers about it (the back half of Baseball, Jazz, etc.). To whit: “Frankly, he had plenty to work with if he wanted to do that. Fun fact: After covering the 2004 ALCS, Burns discussed only steroids and Barry Bonds—until the uber-brief “Sun Shining” segment. In other words, the actual game of baseball ceased to exist in “Ken Burns’ Baseball” after 2004.

    “If Burns really wanted to show baseball’s resilience in the face of adversity, he could’ve spent time on the White Sox finally winning their series, or the Cards-Mets NLCS in 2006, or the Rockies’ big pennant push in 2007, or something. He didn’t need any of these individual stories, but he needed something. It wouldn’t be necessary to present a lengthy, in-depth segment on any of them, but a good-sized bite.

    “If he needed to find extra time, the best place to take it from would’ve been the sections on the 2003-04 Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. That also went on for a half-hour”

    Amen, brother.

  3. Chris J. said...

    Thanks, Tuck & others.

    As for the narrator, I didn’t like him that much.  I think they needed someone with some more age and experience in his voice.  I know it’s recent history and not the old stuff, but part of baseball’s appeal is how far back it goes, and a Hal Holbrook-esque type voice could better relate the sport back to the past. 

    Also, looking back – one thing I should clarify because looking at it my review seems to be a be a bit hypocritical at one point:

    Up top I say he handled the ‘04 ALCS expertly.  Down below I say it went on too long.  The parts on the games were great, but I didn’t need so much on the Boston celebration.  And if you’re going to use Mike Barnicle as Boston Everyfan, you don’t need to inflict Doris Kearns Goodwin on my TV screen. In fact, you don’t need to inflict Doris Kearns Goodwin on my TV screen period.

  4. AaronB said...

    Burns does great work and I really enjoyed the 1st 9 innings and the 1st half of the 10th inning.  The story telling is very good, it got my wife to watch and she’s no baseball fan, and it shows how baseball connects to its fans, to Americans, in ways I don’t think the other sports can.  It’s a part of our fabric, our soul.  I love football, but it’s just not a part of my soul the way baseball is. 

    To nitpick, and I’m biased because I live in flyover country, Burns tends to gloss over the teams that aren’t in the big markets.  That was an issue of mine mainly from the 1st 9 innings.  I suppose I’m still mad that he barely made mention of Stan Musial, but he needs to realize that baseball was played in the midwest, the south, etc in order to show the true story.

  5. MattS said...

    Agree with AaronB.  I’ve liked the Burns work for what it is – baseball.  But I guess I’m waiting for someone to produce a midwest, or even NL version.  We pretty much get the Yanks-BoSox-West Coast concentration from general media at large anyway to the extent that it seems like they’re in pain when they “have” to report on a Central Division.

  6. TUCK! said...

    Agree w/@Aaron, @Matt (particularly re. Musial!). Except (@Matt) I don’t even see where the media-at-large even makes an attempt to placate the west coast fans anymore. They’ve become the flyover’s big brother…

  7. Daniel Evensen said...

    I apologize for not having read the entire article yet. I just wanted to point out that the game that introduced Bonds to us was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, not 1991. Sorry for being a stickler for trivial facts like that.

    I’ll write more once I’ve had a chance to read the entire article.

  8. Bob Rittner said...

    A complete tangent. But have you seen the movie “Sugar”? It deals with a young Dominican prospect who ends up playing semi-pro ball in NYC.

  9. Michael Caragliano said...

    I can’t really complain about Ken Burns’ work, either. All his documentaries are compelling and brilliantly spun, and when you look at how much he squeezes in over so many hours, you can’t fault him for what gets squeezed out. Although, off the top of my head, I don’t remember him doing anything on Pete Rose post-suspension. Considering Rose got a chunk of time in the original film, a follow-up segment here would’ve been good.

    When the film set up Griffey as the anti-Bonds, I was surprised to see no mention of Junior after that. It was like Cincinnati and the injuries and what-might-have-been never were.

    Right on about the ending and the talking heads. I thought the White Sox got shafted. After spending several minutes on the Cubs meltdown and the Red Sox comeback, he could’ve given a minute or two to the ever-colorful Ozzie Guillen and his crew ending an 88-year drought, especially after he had a couple of long-suffering Pale Hose fans bemoaning their fate for the Black Sox segment in the original. And why have Chris Rock pop up for ten seconds? Huh?

    One other observation: how did you feel hearing a different narrator? David Keith has narrated several other Burns documentaries, and he did a solid job here. However, I kept hearing John Chancellor’s voice, and whether it was because of the gravity of his news background or because you simply got used to hearing him over eighteen hours in the first go-around, I thought the tenor of his voice would’ve better fit the tone of this film, especially the steroids segments. Now, I know Chancellor has been deceased nearly fifteen years, but if he were available, who would’ve been your preference?

    BTW, if you missed the ‘50’s segment on the first go-around, you didn’t miss much. Stephen Jay Gould and Doris Kearns Goodwin spouting off about growing up in the golden age of New York baseball didn’t lend very much.

  10. Steve Brosemer said...

    As history grad and amateur historian with a mid 19th century speciality (and a narrow focus with in that), I have enjoyed Burn’s work very much with the usual nitpick over a lack of focus on my particulary area of interest. I have not seen the 10th Inning but find the comments about the first 9 Innings reflective of my reactions.  I was so disappointed in the 1950’s segment too.  Showing my age.  Thanks for the thoughtful review and comments by all.

  11. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    My problem with Ken Burns is that he stops being a historian as soon as he comes to things he remembers. I thought the original Baseball series was excellent up to the ‘60s, then it only covered what Ken Burns cared about. His Jazz series was the same way, everything up until the ‘60s was covered according to historical importance, but as soon as we get to his lifetime he only covered what he liked. It becomes a personal history of emotional involvement, rather than the academic history it begins as.

  12. Daniel Evensen said...

    I’ve now had the chance to read the whole article. Very well done, Chris!

    You know, I’m not entirely thrilled about the emphasis on Red Sox – Yankees rivalry, though, given what the first 9 innings were like, it fits in extremely well. My only complaint is that they missed the interference play in Game 6 of 2004. Then again, they also skipped right over the brawl in the 2003 ALCS.

    The steroids issue was done well, though painting Bonds in such a bleak picture didn’t impress me all that much. I guess it’s justifiable, though, as this is more a reflection of popular baseball history, not an objective examination of baseball history. Bonds is the goat because most baseball fans see him that way.

    I’m a little puzzled as to why Ken Griffey Jr. was mentioned as often as he was, and then completely forgotten by the end. At the beginning of the first part, it seemed to me that Burns wanted to contrast his career with Bonds’. By the end, though, Griffey wasn’t even mentioned as an afterthought. My gut feeling is that he was cut out as they went from whatever they had before down to 4 hours.

    Not mentioning Albert Pujols is really odd—but, then again, so was completely ignoring Stan Musial. It was nice to see baseball from the West covered a bit more, but the continuing neglect of the 1991 World Series makes me extremely disappointed.

    The 1950s segment wasn’t all that great, as was stated earlier. The build-up for the 1951 NL playoff is nice, I suppose, but the emphasis on the New York area (at the expense of the Milwaukee Braves, Stan Musial, etc) was really frustrating.

    I’ve got a video tape copy of “The History of Baseball” from 1986 (I’ve actually also converted it to DVD). It’s a quick, two hour documentary that feels more like “We didn’t start the fire” than anything else. Still, that documentary covered just about all the key plays that Burns did, in addition to a bit more from the 1955 World Series and a better examination of the cocaine scandal. MLB productions did an updated 4 hour version in 1994, which I unfortunately don’t own. I remember it well, as it’s the only general documentary on baseball history I’ve seen that gives the 1980 NLCS any coverage.

    Anyway, I think we could come up with an equally (if not more) compelling 20 hour documentary on the parts of baseball history Burns left out.

  13. Jim C said...

    I liked it for the most part, but, as usual, too much New York and Boston. He talked about the wild card, but did not bother to mention how many wild card teams had won the World Series. He talked about how dominant the Braves were but failed to mention that the Marlins won two World Series. Pedro was great, but how about some other players? He talked about Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz a lot, but did not let them speak for themselves. You could understand all of the SABR guys on the first show, since a lot of that show covered the old days, but now there is no reason not to have the players talk about their own deeds. Mike Barnicle was terrible, just like he is every morning on MSNBC. Bob Ryan or Gammons would have been much better choices for a Boston writer. Other than that, it was great.

  14. gdc said...

    I only saw the 2nd half of the 10th and probably the 40’s and 50’s of the original so I did miss Albert and hadn’t noticed the lack of Musial.  Probably because of the lack of good archival footage I have an image of DiMaggio being represented as hitting a slashing line drive and hustling into second with the baggy pants of the day with the camera position high first base side where a fan might sit.  With the recent ones it seems more batters either striking out (focusing on Johnson and Schilling) or hitting one out from a CF camera that only TV viewers get.  So the game footage seemed a little more Baseball Tonight and less baseball game.
    I also noticed that those ‘40’s and 50’s were played to what I imagine to be conteporary big-band background music (especially the Joltin’ Joe song), but 2000’s get 1970’s soundtracks (A-Rod with Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Barry Bonds with David Bowie’s “Fame”).  I might not love hip-hop but it does go with the image of baseball as the game of old white guys.
    I can emphasize with the omission of the Oz Sox, but I would have rather seen the Moneyball A’s minute end on the 20 game win streak rather than Jeremy Giambi out at the plate.

  15. jim callaghan said...

    Burns the historian repeated the fake “cheating” scandal about Bobby Thomson, the most preposterous non-story of the last 20 years.
    Anyone who examined the season and read Ray Robinson’s book would be aware of the changing stories of Branca and the liar Sal Yvars.
    THe cheating with the telescope 500 feet away was impossible.
    Prager made a nice buck with his fairy tale but Burns should have checked it out.
    also, why single out Whitey Ford for throwing a spitter and not the other cheaters.
    And Cepeda is in the Hall after admitting to smoking weed while a player.

  16. Jim C said...

    I think just about every pitcher threw a spitter from time to time, just to sow some doubt in the minds of the hitters. I do not remember who, but a SABR member did some research of the latter stages of the ‘51 NL season, and learned that the Giants’ hitting and run production did not improve noticeably, but the team ERA dropped by a run per game. As to other cheating, I was at a fantasy camp about 10 years ago, and Mike Caldwell told me that Don Sutton used to glue some sandpaper to the palm of his left hand, and when he felt the need, he went behind the mound, carefully took the glove off, and sandpapered the ball.

  17. mando3b said...

    For my money, one of the things that mars the original “9 Innings” of baseball is, in fact, the “East Coast bias”: even before Ken Burns, there were no two teams more over-hyped and over-romanticized than the Brooklyn Dodgers of the ‘50s and the Boston Red Sox, period; that Burns chose to focus so much attention on precisely those two teams to me showed a disappointing lack of imagination, if not just plain laziness. Ditto for the focus on the Red Sox/Yankees in “10th Inning”—what could possibly be said that’s new/interesting/significant? How can he, as an historian, not understand that?

  18. allanwood said...

    Does anyone have a copy or link to Olbermann’s full list of errors? I have searched online for quite awhile and have come up empty.

    (Not having seen this Inning yet, I cannot offer comment, but even as a Red Sox fan, omitting the White Sox title is weird. Their drought was actually longer than Boston’s! … From what I have read, Barnicle and DKG are going to make me wanna kick a puppy.)

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