`Baseball' Mirrors America

Evocative new Ken Burns documentary series powerfully captures the sport's mystique

YOU can't watch live major-league baseball on television any more this year, but on Sunday you can watch ``Baseball.''

The ballyhooed series by Ken Burns recounting the game's history in loving and often haunting detail premieres that night, and the timing could not have been better. The series has been enjoying near Super Bowl visibility: from the cover of U.S. News and World Report magazine to a segment last week on ABC's ``Primetime Live'' and many other star turns.

It has, in fact, become a legend before it airs. The question is, will it be a legend after it airs?

The answer is yes, it probably will survive its prebroadcast overexposure and become a talking point in TV history - even if it does not achieve quite the elevated status of Burns's earlier series, ``The Civil War.''

Whatever the impact on viewers of this new series, its stats alone get your attention. Airing in nine episodes - ``Innings,'' as they are called - the series adds up to 18-1/2 hours of rather close viewing that starts Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS. The first five episodes air on consecutive nights, followed by a two-day ``travel break'' (figuratively). The remaining episodes air over the next four evenings. It took four years of work, including research almost beyond recounting, endless interviewing, and innumerable other tasks.

The mass of raw material that resulted has been brilliantly synthesized by Burns in a final product that uses the medium's potential in that uniquely effective way familiar to viewers of ``The Civil War.'' It draws its story from the material, leading viewers, inductively, to an understanding of baseball's role in America that ultimately transcends the details.

``Baseball's'' thoughtful narrative - read by John Chancellor in a solid, easygoing style geared for the long haul - weaves through an evocative flow of screen images: old photos, drawings, documents, clips, close-ups of faces, brief but telling interview segments; and, in the last segment, fast-paced color clips.

To read remarks by writers and poets like Whitman and Longfellow, the show has recruited a refreshingly varied succession of famous, unidentified off-screen voices. Some are unexpected, like Anthony Hopkins, and some are not, like Garrison Keillor, whose specialty is reminiscent Americana.

This rich mix traces the game from its 19th-century roots in cricket, rounders, and ``town ball.'' The show moves engrossingly through economic conflicts, civil-rights struggles, tales of heroes and villains, scandals, greed, and bleak personal stories, right up to our era, with modern names like Roger Clemens.

Even if you don't agree with writer Robert Creamer that it's the ``best game that's ever been devised,'' you sense that Burns has hit upon an irresistible metaphor for America. The sport's history has what seems an inexhaustible dramatis personae of quintessentially American characters, whose link with the nation's history is revealed so skillfully and with such persuasive insight that it should prove potent viewing to a broad range of people.

One reason for this is that the real theme of ``Baseball'' is the mystique of the sport. The scrupulously detailed episodes never lose sight of the spirit of the game and its gut connection to the American experience. This comes across most convincingly in the issue of civil rights. If the show has a key element, it is undoubtedly the sport's woefully slow and painful inclusion of black players, an obvious parallel to the struggle going on in the nation itself. The first episode refers to ``baseball's finest moment,'' in 1947, ``when a black man wearing the number 42 trotted out to first base.''

It was Jackie Robinson, of course, and he is only one part of the series' attention to the inflammatory cause of integration. Viewers will get to see or hear about all the big names and innumerable obscure ones. Much of episodes three through six focus on the legendary players - Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, and others. But the heart of the series lies in its description of how gifted black players fared at different stages in the game's rocky past. In 1884, for instance, Moses Fleetwood, the first black to make it ``all the way to the majors,'' ran into ``a wall of prejudice.''

Sunday's broadcast brings us up to the year 1900, when fans were turning to other sports. But Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Casey Stengel had been born. They were men, the narrator says, ``who would rescue the national pastime.''

It's a teaser, of course, but one that will undoubtedly work. Most viewers will tune in to find out how the rescuers do it.

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