Ken Burns documentary series ‘Baseball’ fills Opening Day void streaming on PBS

Babe Ruth
In this undated file photo, New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth hits a home-run. As part of its collection of Babe Ruth items, the Baseball Hall of Fame says it has the bat the slugger used to hit his then-record 60th home run in 1927. (AP Photo/File)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Ken Burns' 'Baseball'

It’s supposed to be a day of hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks, but our national pastime will have to wait as the coronavirus COVID-19 has postponed Opening Day.

Not to despair, filmmaker Ken Burns has stepped up to the plate by making his Emmy-winning documentary series “Baseball” (1994) available to stream for free on PBS.

The nine-part series is broken into “nine innings” from the 1850s to the early 1990s. You can find more recent history in his extra episode, “The Tenth Inning,” on Amazon Prime.

Having seen most of it with my father upon its release, I have used my quarantine time to re-watch the entire series, which is roughly 25 hours. Here’s a comprehensive guide:

FIRST INNING

The first episode kicks off with a montage of interviews with famous baseball fans like Billy Crystal and Bob Costas, as well as quotes from writers like Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw, describing what makes the game special.

They point out its nostalgic magic as a pastoral game played in the middle of cities, the miracle math of the 90-foot diamond, the only sport where the defense has the ball and the only sport without a time limit, meaning it could conceivably go on forever.

Burns then explores the game’s 19th century roots, evolving from British cricket and rounders, not the mythical tale of Abner Doubleday’s founding in Cooperstown, New York. The first American games are played on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.

We then meet the early heroes from Cap Anson to John McGraw to Cy Young, who still holds the record with 511 wins as the namesake of pitching’s highest honor.

We learn about the formation of the National League by William A. Hulbert, followed by the American League by Ban Johnson.

We also learn of sporting equipment pioneers like Albert Spalding and Louisville Slugger, the invention of the curveball and the seeds of a battle between owners and players.

SECOND INNING

The second episode explores the turn-of-the-century invention of hot dogs at the ballpark, songs like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and poems like “Casey at the Bat.”

As the game gains in popularity, we see the invention of the World Series as an annual clash between the National League and American League.

We meet dominant early pitchers like Christy Mathewson, Three Finger Brown and Walter Johnson, who carries the Washington Senators with a record 110 shutouts.

We also learn about the era’s two greatest hitters with opposite personalities: the classy Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ruthless Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, who regularly spikes his opponents, attacks fans in the stands and spits racial epithets.

Most fascinating is the chaos of the “Merkle Boner,” a boneheaded play named after New York Giants rookie Fred Merkle, who forgets to touch second base as fans storm the field of the Polo Grounds.

The opposing Chicago Cubs fetch the ball from the mob, touch second and claim victory, forcing a tiebreaker that the Cubs eventually win.

THIRD INNING 

The third inning takes us into the 1910s, as President William Howard Taft becomes the first president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

We learn of beloved figures like Connie Mack, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, Smoky Joe Wood, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose swing is so smooth that it’s copied by Babe Ruth.

We see the building of Fenway Park in Boston and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where the Trolly Dodgers are named after their citizens dodging trolleys.

We see the explosion of recreational leagues as a means of escape for blue-collar workers in factories and meat packing plants. We also see the Federal League of 1914, its members waging a failed monopoly lawsuit against Major League Baseball.

The biggest influence arguably comes from manager Branch Rickey, who not only invents the entire farm system of minor league teams, but also introduces practice techniques still used today, including batting cages, sliding pits and calisthenics.

The game stalls when players are drafted for World War I, as Alexander comes home shellshocked from the trenches, and Mathewson is fatally exposed to poison gas. During this patriotic time, the “Star Spangled Banner” is played before a baseball game decades before it actually becomes the national anthem.

Unfortunately, we also learn of the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal, where Jackson and his teammates on the Chicago White Sox are paid by gamblers to throw the World Series. We see their banishment by new Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who also refuses to let African Americans play in a gentleman’s agreement between owners.

FOURTH INNING 

The fourth episode marks the end of the “Dead Ball era,” after Ray Chapman is hit and killed by a pitch, forcing balls to be replaced with clean white balls that are easier for batters to see.

This erupts into the Roaring Twenties as Babe Ruth saves the game, bringing fans back in droves after becoming disillusioned by the Black Sox scandal.

We watch Ruth’s rise from his rowdy roots at a Baltimore reform school to becoming a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, before being traded to the New York Yankees because the Red Sox owner needs money to produce a Broadway play.

Ruth’s powerful home-run swing and hard-living lifestyle instantly fit the decadent times. His popularity inspires the construction of Yankee Stadium in The Bronx in 1923, dubbed “The House That Ruth Built.”

He joins Lou Gehrig in a lineup dubbed “Murderers Row,” making the 1927 Yankees arguably the best team in history.

While the Yankees steal all the headlines, fans in other cities root for Goose Gossage, Hack Wilson and Rube Foster, who becomes a star of the Negro League, founded in 1920.

Sports writers like Shirley Povich and the first ever radio broadcasts bring the game into living rooms, while Times Square hosts watch parties with electronic scoreboards.

The episode ends with the aging Walter Johnson finally winning a World Series and Christy Mathewson succumbing to his war injuries, marking the end of an era.

FIFTH INNING

The fifth episode takes us into the 1930s, when black players entertain fans by tossing an invisible ball around for “shadow ball.” In serious play, Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige dominates the Negro League, winning an estimated 2,000 games.

We also meet Negro League stars Buck O’Neil, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, who many call the “Black Babe Ruth,” although his teammates say that Babe Ruth was the “White Josh Gibson.”

Many black players actually find a warmer reception playing in Latin America during the offseason.

Major League Baseball sees its own stars in Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Leo Durocher and Mel Ott, who is so feared that he’s intentionally walked with the bases loaded. Hank Greenberg shines as the first great Jewish star, Carl Hubbell throws screwballs with his deformed elbow and Bob Feller proves to be a 17-year-old phenom.

We also see further heroics by Babe Ruth, who mythically calls his shot at Wrigley Field by pointing to the outfield seats. Ruth also tours Tokyo, inspiring Japan’s first professional baseball league with Japanese star Eiji Sawamura.

We see the twilight of the Babe’s career, hitting a home run out of Forbes Field in his final game, then his unfulfilled dream of becoming a manager.

Sadly, we also see his teammate Lou Gehrig’s tragic battle with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ending his “unbreakable” streak of 2,130 consecutive games. His farewell speech still has the power to give goose bumps, as the Iron Horse echoes across Yankee Stadium, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Off the field, we see innovations like the first All-Star Game and the first night game, as bright overhead lights are lit by FDR by pressing a button in the White House.

Radio broadcasts ramp up, with Red Barber making trademark quips like “rhubarb” and “ducks on the pond,” while the Hall of Fame opens in Cooperstown in 1939 with the inherent hypocrisy that blacks aren’t allowed.

SIXTH INNING

The sixth episode tackles arguably the most pivotal decade of the sport’s existence, the 1940s, when baseball can at last be called the National Pastime for all Americans.

It begins with two stunning feats in 1941, first Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak for the New York Yankees, then Ted Williams becoming the last batter to hit over .400 in a single season. Not only does he inspire fielders to do “the shift,” he says he wants to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

Elsewhere in the league, Leo “The Lip” Durocher becomes the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who rise from lovable “bums” to World Series contenders, albeit losing to the Yankees numerous times throughout the ’40s.

Suddenly, World War II puts the game on hold with the recruitment of players like Bob Feller, Hank Bauer and Warren Spahn, who fights in the Battle of the Bulge.

While backup players play in the major leagues, the first women’s league launches with the Rockford Peaches, later made famous by the film “A League of Their Own.”

While Japanese players play ball in American internment camps, the aforementioned Sawamura is killed in a torpedo attack on his ship. General Douglas MacArthur finds a Japanese stadium full of ammo and orders baseball to be played again as a means of peace.

After the exit of prejudiced commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, new commissioner Happy Chandler paves the way for Branch Rickey to desegregate the sport.

Thus, Jackie Robinson famously breaks the color barrier in 1947, enduring racist threats, stealing home and winning over teammates like Pee Wee Reese.

It’s one example of baseball ahead of American politics, desegregating the game 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After Robinson, other Negro League players join the majors, allowing an aging Satchel Paige to finally win the World Series.

The episode ends with Babe Ruth’s scratchy-throated final address on the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium in 1948, followed by his funeral, where his body lays in state in an open casket for fans to pay their final respects.

SEVENTH INNING

After the death of Ruth, the seventh episode explores a new wave of 1950s heroes on three excellent teams in New York City: the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants.

Under iconic coach Casey Stengel, the Yankees shine with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin and rising slugger Mickey Mantle, a switch hitter with bad knees who becomes the closest to ever hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium. Yankee fan Billy Crystal jokingly describes the home run disappearing into the clouds.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers boast Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson, while The Giants showcase the “Say Hey” kid Willie Mays, arguably the greatest to ever play the game. Not only does Mays whack 660 homers, he also makes acrobatic catches, such as his overhead grab in the outfield simply called “The Catch.”

When the Dodgers and Giants collide in the 1951 NLCS, Giants slugger Bobby Thomson delivers “the shot heard ’round the world,” inspiring Russ Hodges’ legendary radio call, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! They’re going crazy!”

While other broadcasters like Vin Scully make a name for themselves, comedians like Abbott and Costello develop their hilarious stand-up routine “Who’s on First?” The bit returns throughout the episode, providing plenty of laughs between the history.

After the folding of the Negro League, a floodgate of black players enter the major leagues, including Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, famous for saying, “Let’s play two.”

We also see heroics like a perfect game by Don Larsen in the World Series and Ted Williams belting a homer in his final at bat. The real-life John Wayne refuses to tip his hat to the fans, saying he thought about it briefly, but it wasn’t his style.

By the end of the ’50s, television hurts stadium attendance, while a number of teams change cities. The Braves move from Boston to Milwaukee, the Athletics move from Philly to Kansas City and the Browns move from St. Louis to Baltimore to become the Orioles.

Most devastating is a double blow of New York teams leaving for California, as the Giants move to San Francisco and the Dodgers move to Los Angeles right after winning their first World Series.

As a baseball-shaped wrecking ball demolishes Ebbets Field, it’s a heartbreaking moment for Brooklyn baseball fans, including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

EIGHTH INNING 

The eighth inning opens with a montage of the counterculture sixties, space race, JFK, MLK, civil rights and Vietnam War, all set to Jimi Hendrix’s electric national anthem at Woodstock.

While the country changes, so does the sports landscape, as football challenges baseball as the new national pastime, the two hilariously compared by comedian George Carlin. For the first time, football’s Super Bowl tops the TV ratings of every World Series game.

However, baseball still has plenty of heroes. Pittsburgh Pirates star Bill Mazeroski smashes a game-winning homer in Game 7 of the World Series, while St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson notches a record 1.12 ERA, so dominant that the league lowers the mound as a result.

The season is also lengthened to 162 games, allowing Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 61, an asterisk added to Maris’ record due to the longer season.

The New York Mets arrive in town with star pitchers like Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver, while the Houston Astros play on AstroTurf in the new Houston Astrodome.

Elsewhere, Sandy Koufax turns in masterful pitching performances for the L.A. Dodgers, Stan Musial puts on a hitting clinic for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pete Rose earns the nickname “Charlie Hustle” for the Cincinnati Reds and Carl Yastrzemski hits with perfection for the Boston Red Sox.

In Baltimore, manager Earl Weaver gets kicked out of numerous games for cussing out umpires, while his squad of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Jim Palmer become perennial contenders for the World Series.

Off the field, a retired Jackie Robinson becomes a civil rights advocate, Satchel Paige enters the Hall of Fame and Curt Flood loses a Supreme Court challenge of antitrust laws, before Marvin Miller organizes the first ever baseball players union.

NINTH INNING

The ninth episode covers the 1970s and 1980s, starting with the Reds vs. Orioles in the 1970 World Series. It highlights Brooks Robinson as the best third baseman ever to play the game, while Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench form the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati.

On the racial progress front, Frank Robinson becomes the first black manager, Jesse Jackson delivers a eulogy for Jackie Robinson, Willie Stargell leads an all black and Hispanic team for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Roberto Clemente paves the way for Puerto Rican ballplayers before tragically dying in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaragua.

Most impressive, Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting No. 715, rounding the bases in triumph en route to belting 755 total in his career. It’s a major moment of relief for Hammering Hank after death threats from white fans who didn’t want to see their beloved Babe’s record broken.

As attendance falls, owners try anything to put butts in the seats, including mascots, exploding scoreboards, disco demolitions and other crazy promotions. The one change that sticks is the American League’s introduction of the designated hitter, allowing a batter to replace the pitcher in the batting lineup.

The Oakland A’s shine with players like Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, who is soon poached by money-spending Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. It works out well for Jackson, belting three homers in one game and earning the title “Mr. October” for his late-season playoff heroics.

While the Yankees surge, rival Boston deals with the “Curse of the Bambino” for having traded the Babe. This manifests itself as Bucky “bleeping” Dent hitting a game winner for the Yankees, then Bill Buckner muffing a routine grounder to allow the Miracle Mets to finish an impossible comeback.

Alas, at least Red Sox fans will always have Carlton Fisk seemingly waving a foul ball fair, clanking off Fenway’s left-field foul pole in extra innings to win Game 6 of the ALCS.

Off the field, the players union holds impartial arbitration of salary disputes, removing the so-called “reserve clause” and reaching a deal that players can become free agents after six years. Soon after this, though, all 26 owners are caught colluding in a conspiracy to unofficially avoid free agency from 1985-1988. Egg on the face.

While Tim Raines and Doc Gooden battle drug addiction, Pete Rose battles a gambling addiction that gets him banned for life after betting on games as a manager in his post-playing career. It’s a fall from grace for Charlie Hustle, who still holds the record for hits.

As the ’80s came to a close, fans enjoy Nolan Ryan’s record number of no-hitters for the Texas Rangers, Bo Jackson’s laser throws for the Kansas City Royals, Ozzie Smith’s wizardry at short stop for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit magic for the L.A. Dodgers (“I don’t believe what I just saw!”).

The episode ends with brief mention of ’90s stars like Roger Clemens, Kirby Puckett and Barry Bonds, the explosion of baseball cards and memorabilia, and noting that the league achieved parity with a stretch of 10 different World Series winners over a span of 10 years.

EXTRA INNING

After wrapping his documentary series in 1994, Ken Burns had no way of knowing the drama that would unfold around the sport in the years to follow. So in 2010, he returned with a four-hour extra inning called “The Tenth Inning” to cover more recent events.

It explores the 1994 players strike that canceled the World Series and deprived the Montreal Expos of a potential title, Matt Williams of potentially breaking the home run record and Tony Gwynn of potentially hitting .400.

Furious fans view it as a pointless battle of spoiled “millionaires vs. billionaires” and boo at the beginning of the 1995 season.

That is until Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. saves baseball by breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played as the numbers 2,131 unfurl on the warehouse of Camden Yards. The pageantry is symbolic of a lunch-pail guy who goes to work every day to play the game the right way.

Ripken’s example brings fans back, along with a thrilling World Series win by the Atlanta Braves, thanks to sluggers like Dave Justice and an unrivaled pitching rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Fans also enjoy two second generation stars in Seattle Mariners slugger Ken Griffey Jr., son of Ken Griffey Sr., and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds, son of Bobby Bonds and godson of Willie Mays. Upon moving to the San Francisco Giants, Bonds takes anabolic steroids to set inflated home-run records of 73 in a season and 762 total.

It’s the zenith of a steroid scandal that starts with Oakland A’s “Bash Brothers” Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, who later battles Sammy Sosa in a memorable chase of Roger Maris’ single season home run record in 1998. It results in testimony before Congress with Rafael Palmeiro defiantly waving his finger, one of many false denials to come from the likes of Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.

Not everything is “doom and gloom” controversy. Japanese slap hitter Ichiro Suzuki becomes an international star with a throwback style of placement over power, while beloved manager Joe Torre turns around the struggling Yankees to make six World Series appearances in eight years (winning four) thanks to stars like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.

This Yankee team also helps New York get back on its feet after the attacks of 9/11, competing valiantly in the World Series as Americans return to normalcy. Despite late-night heroics by Jeter (Mr. November), the Yankees fall to Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose intimidating arm makes it seem like the ball is already halfway to the plate upon its release.

While the Chicago Cubs suffer the “Curse of the Billy Goat” with foul ball interference by fan Steve Bartman, the Red Sox endure the “Curse of the Bambino” with a walk-off homer by Yankee hitter Aaron “bleeping” Boone in 2003. However, the following year, the Red Sox stage an improbable comeback against the Yankees, turning a three-game deficit in the ALCS to a 4-3 victory. Boston finally wins its first World Series since 1918 thanks to stars like Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, who pitches with a bloody sock.

You see, no matter how many years pass, there are always more stories to tell. Through heroics, scandals and national tragedies, baseball will always be our national pastime.

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