Logan Morrison: I’ve been enjoying the previews with my dad, and he’s been ranting and raving about your earlier documentary, Baseball — I was born in 1987 — still pretty young when that came out…
Ken Burns: That original 1994 series was nine episodes, or nine innings as we call them — 18.5 hours — and it was the attempt to tell the whole history of baseball from its beginnings in the early 19th century to where we left off, which was the World Series in 1992. I think it was interesting that, when our film first came out in 1994, the strike was on so it felt, to many people, like a whole new ball game. But if you watched the previous “Nine Innings,” you would see all the seeds of what happened, not just with free agency, but the fact that the owners and the players were always at each other’s throats, and every time there was a new agreement to be negotiated, there was a work stoppage or a lockout or a strike of some sort. I think it armed people with the sense of what had gone on, as well as celebrated the spectacular players and plays over that century and a half. We just felt compelled to do this again because, besides the strike, there are steroids, and the many great things that have been going on in the game. The changes of inter-league play, the wild card and the Brewers changing leagues, which had never happened in the history of the game, and all sorts of great things, like the Braves and the trio of pitchers that they had, Joe Torre taming the Bronx zoo, the rise of Latin players and the home-run chase of McGwire and Sosa, and then later, in the second half of our two-part, four-hour series, the story of Latin players, 9/11, the Red Sox comeback — all of the spectacular plays before the steroid scandal really hit the front pages. I think we found a way to deal with that so we can all feel comfortably that it’s in the past. It’s so interesting because I’ve traveled around the parks, and everyone seems really invested in the newer, younger players, if that by loving them and caring for them the game goes on, and that’s a wonderful thing. One of the commentators said that forest fires are good for the forest.
LM: I have to agree with that because I think I would be one of the forest fires…
KB: Exactly — someone who reminds us of the beauty of the play and all that goes on. And I think, despite the fact that a lot of fans wring their hands and “What do we do? Should there be an asterisk?” There shouldn’t be an asterisk. If you go back and look at 1919, it says that the Cincinnati Red Stockings won the series. It doesn’t say “*The Chicago White Sox, forever now known as the Black Sox, threw the series after taking money from gamblers.” We just have to tell stories about it. I think the gambling scandal of the late 1800s and early 1900s is much more important than the steroid scandal of today. It’s just hard for people to believe it when you’re in it or it just passed.
LM: That makes a lot of sense. You mention the strike in ’94 when the first series aired. Did that influence you at all in choosing to do a sequel?
KB: Very much so. I think that, at that point, we were moving on to other things. The film was hugely successful, seen by 43 million people, which is still the most-watched program in the history of public television. That’s 16 years ago. So we said no and we had other things to do. But I live in New England, and when the Red Sox won in 2004, I went “Hmm…” but it wasn’t until the steroids scandal hit that I realized we had to go back and do an update and come to terms with it, and also celebrate the game because it’s still ongoing, it’s still the greatest game that’s ever been invented, and I don’t think people realize that. And I don’t think they realize that the strike had unintended positive consequences. That is, people were so upset, the fans felt so betrayed that I think the owners and the Players Association said, “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t play with the faith of tens of millions of people. We have to get our act together.” Since then, there has been labor peace. Every time they’ve had to negotiate stuff, they’ve negotiated it. They’ve been focused on what has been a spectacularly profitable and popular sport, so in a funny kind of way, the strike happened and only good things have come from it.
LM: It’s odd you should mention that, because we have the Players Association come in and speak with us on a fairly regular basis. And now that they’re going into the next round of collective bargaining, they’re talking about this quite a bit, saying there has been labor peace for 16 years now. And as much as that’s a good thing, another sort of negative is that there has always been a passing of the torch, as they call it, where the older players taught the younger players about the importance of the union, collective bargaining, etc. The one thing they’ve increased is the frequency of our meetings. There’s not a single player on our team who played in the major league in 1994-1995. There isn’t that senior… We have veterans, but we don’t have a senior person who can share the war stories from 1995 who can say, “Hey guys, this is why we need to vote and be involved…”
KB: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it from that angle because, you remember in 1994, Tony Guinn was approaching .400 and didn’t hesitate to strike. He said, “I stand on the shoulders of other great people.” When there’s no crisis, you don’t have the urgency to learn the importance of the player’s stance. Another thing: the owners and the players were so anxious to get along when they were wooing the fans back after the strike that they also didn’t pay attention to the growing scandal of performance-enhancing drugs. No one wanted to call off the good time. All the home-runs were sailing out. Even when a couple of people in the press brought it up, they were vilified, not just by baseball and the players but by their own fellow press members. The fans certainly didn’t want that to end. So I think you’re right. Maybe one of the things for the players to do is to look at the ninth episode of our series, the last one, because it tells about the foundation of the union, it tells about how Marvin Miller had worked his magic early on and how beneficial it has been to baseball. Everybody kept saying how bad it was and players wouldn’t be loyal to their teams, but I think they had forgotten the plantation system under which the players had already operated. For a century and a half, if you didn’t want to play for that owner, you didn’t play. No fan comes out to see the owner — they come out to see the players. I think it gave the players the power, and even then, their total share of revenue is less now than it was a few years ago, and obviously it was significantly less before free agency. What has happened with free agency is it has made the game better and more profitable for everybody.
LM: Yeah, and obviously I was called up on July 27th, so you’re probably more versed than I am, which is funny, but it’s very true. I’ve listened very closely in these meetings because I think unionized labor is something that has many benefits that protect our rights, and if you don’t know what they are and you aren’t involved in the process, it’s difficult to go about your life, especially in this game that can be taken from you at a moment’s notice…
KB: It’s interesting that labor has been sort of, particularly among conservatives, in disfavor, but conservative George Will, who appeared not only in this current edition but in the previous edition, said he was a semi-Marxist, which was very surprising to hear from a conservative commentator because he believed in the labor theory of capital, saying that those who do the work ought to reap the best rewards and that runs counter to what goes on in the rest of the country, which is often anti-union. But I think we begin to see — when it’s highlighted in something that is important to the rest of America like baseball — how important it is to have those rights protected, to have collective bargaining, to speak with one voice. Now it hasn’t always been perfect. You could argue that the Players Association was very slow to agree to testing and allowed the steroids issue to get out of hand when major league was trying to instill some testing program that had some teeth. The original one didn’t, and if you wanted to cheat, you could cheat. Now that it has the best, it represents the fact that the union, however slow, got up and got in gear, and everything is in sync and in harmony and is able to at least provide the public with some reassurances that the steroid era is over — that the 50 home-run season is a rarity again.
LM: There’s only one this year…
KB: There’s only one, and I don’t think anyone else is going to be doing it. It’s interesting to see that even Bautista is getting all those comments, and he has to come back and said, “Look, we’re being tested all the time. This is something that does occur in baseball.” It was 1977 with George Foster I think it was and then 1990 it was Cecil Fielder, and then all of a sudden it seemed like everybody, a middle infielder…I could hit 50 home-runs.
LM: Well, that’s my hope. I’m a bigger guy. I’m still growing into my power. I think Bautista went from 13 last year.
KB: I think he had a total of 50 his entire career and now he’s got 50 in one season. That’s always the great promise of baseball. Once you get past the steroids era, nobody has to question or doubt about it and it becomes legitimate the way it used to be when I was growing up as a kid in the late ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. When somebody hit 50 home-runs, you said they did it because they’re talented. They saw the ball better than anybody else.
LM: It’s funny because somebody mentioned it to me the other day — they always focus on how many fewer home-runs the guys are hitting overall. I can’t remember who said it, but he was noticing how many more pitchers’ ERAs are below 3 and then 3-4. I guess, in that era, ERAs overall were elevated. Now you see a lot more pitchers with guys below 3 which was so uncommon, and now really lots of pitchers flood in at 3-4.
KB: I’ve been traveling on the road to most of the ballparks and throwing out the first pitch and going on the local radio and the local TV, and everywhere you go, people want to know what the golden age is. I think it’s now. You’ve got the strong hitting, but you’ve also got strong pitching, you’ve got extraordinary fielding… No one ever tires of watching a highlight film of spectacular catches or plays. It’s as great as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve seen a lot of games this year.
LM: Well, you made some pretty spectacular catches yourself. I saw one on YouTube.
KB: I’ve been trying to clear the record ever since last Tuesday night. That was at Fenway Park. So I’m sitting there up in a suite and finally got a moment to look at the thing. I’ve just been on with the TV folks and the radio folks, and I’m up there with a glove that I always bring to the park, and I’m holding in my glove that I threw out. I’m not paying attention, talking to some people, and this ball comes screaming right by my head. If it had hit me, I’d be dead. It dented the chair, and nobody got it, so a guy a couple suites down starts yelling, “Hey, why didn’t you use your glove?” And I just instinctively stood up and showed him the ball so, at that moment, the TV cut and said, “Burns made a spectacular catch.” It was really screaming. It really put a dent in this chair.
LM: We do the same thing when we trap a ball — just throw your glove up in the air and pretend you caught it.
KB: Yeah, so I figured I’d go along with it, but it’s not like Derek Jeter faking getting hit where you just wink wink in the clubhouse after. You just have to man up and say I didn’t catch it — that was the ball I’d thrown out a couple hours earlier.
LM: Creative editing.
KB: Yeah, creative editing on the part of the sports network in New England, and then of course they talk about it, so I spent most of the last week politely telling people what really happened. But I have to say, for a filmmaker, I’ve been making films for 40 years, and I love baseball, and you know better than I do that every male in America thinks he can play the game you play that only 1,000 people on the planet play well enough, and the difference between the best of them and the least of them in batting average is so spectacular that I have thrown out a ceremonial first pitch and really zinged it a few times and gotten it in so much so that the catcher has come out, shook his head and said, “That’s the best catch I’ve had in two years.” And at that point, when Joe Torre comes out of the Dodger dugout clapping, or the lead in the Denver Post is: “For the first three innings of yesterday’s game, the best pitch thrown by somebody in a Colorado Rockies uniform was thrown by Ken Burns,” you feel pretty damn good about it all. You could come up and tell me I’m the worst filmmaker ever and I would say, “So what? I just threw out a first pitch that was a strike at Force Field…”
LM: Where did your great passion for baseball come from?
KB: All my life I’ve loved it. You know those earliest memories you have from three or four years old — those little film strips in your head? Mine always have a glove on my left hand. I’ve always loved the game and I’ve always followed it. When I started working on the original Baseball series in 1990 after my Civil War series, I thought, “Oh, this is the first time I’m doing something I know about.” And within the first two days, I realized I knew nothing, and despite all the statistics I knew and the players, to get into the history and understand how it was born and where the stadiums came from and who the great players of the 19th century were and how the game was invented — all of that was a delight to learn, so it just reinforced it.
LM: I’ve traveled around America a bit this season, and all the passionate fans at different ballparks are very cool. Some of these places you go to — Philly, San Francisco — the fans did some really funny stuff, but I couldn’t laugh because it was my first series in the big league. But speaking of passionate fans around the country—how would you describe baseball significance to America and, for that matter, the world?
KB: It’s a huge thing. We open this with these kids playing in bare feet in rocky back alleys in the Dominican Republic. They hear the sounds of baseball and they want to follow it up to the majors. It’s become a globalized sport. When you travel around the country, you see how passionately devoted… I think, in some ways, we’ve got to do a good job of public relations. For the last 30 or 40 years, Pete Rosell at the NFL was able to convince people that now football is the national pastime, and he was basing that on one rating of the Super Bowl. But this is the only game that accompanies nearly every decade of our national narrative. We don’t need to go over all the reasons baseball is distinct and better, but all of the other sports we follow — soccer and hockey and basketball and football — they’re all running up and down a field or a court or a rink, and the idea is to score the puck. Well, in baseball, the person scores. In baseball, the defense always has the ball. In baseball, there is no clock. In baseball, every field is irregular. If I told you we were going to play football on my field that was 95 yards, it wouldn’t be football anymore. But every single outfield is different. And the greatest thing is it happens every single day. It begins in spring and ends in fall, like life. And its lessons are life lessons. You fail seven times out of ten, you’re a .300 hitter. You do that for 15, 20 years in a row, you’re in the Hall of Fame. There’s no other sport in the world that would accept that statistical failure. More important than anything, Joe Montana can always throw the pass to Jerry Rice, every play, and you can always inbound that ball to Michael Jordan to hit that three pointer at the buzzer. But in baseball, Babe Ruth only comes up to bat once every nine times, and that means someday you might have to rely on some young kid who just got called up in July to win the game and maybe the season for you. That’s the beauty of it and why I love it so much.
LM: We’ve noticed it in our clubhouse. There’s a guy every night. If you just relied on him being up every night, you’d win more games than you lose. Every night there is someone — you get a great pitching performance or a great catch or a big hit at a timely situation from a guy you’d never guess.
KB: The ball gets hit in every direction. It’s all on one person at one time. The pitcher has to make the pitch, the batter has to hit the ball, the fielder has to field it. It just goes from one singular experience to the next, not to say that everyone else isn’t in motion and calculating and figuring out how to get the cutoff guy or whatever it is, but it’s just a beautiful singular sport in this way, and no other sport is like that.
LM: Barry Bonds seems to be a central character in your film. Given my age, what he was doing through the late ‘90s and this new century, he was someone I followed closely. Because of what has happened with steroids, do you see his story mirroring the larger picture of what was happening in baseball?
KB: I think you hit the nail on the head. In some ways, that is quite unfortunate. While we were working on this project, when you were talking to baseball folks, they would tell you that Barry Bonds was the greatest player that ever played the game, period, and certainly the best player of the last 25 years, but he will forever have this ball-and-chain butt of steroids hanging over him and his records for not only the rest of his life but the rest of baseball, because in baseball, those statistics matter and last, and we will all be telling stories about him and others the way we tell stories about the Black Sox scandal. And it will be a terrible thing because, in some ways, it is like a Greek tragedy because he didn’t need to do this. He was already the best when he was so frustrated when his 400 home-runs and 400 stolen bases hadn’t been a thing, and it was buried in the sports pages when McGwire and Sosa were on the front pages. He knew what they were up to, so he decided to join it, so when he did it, his results were so spectacular or lurid that he became the poster boy for that, and that with his personality… Everyone loved to hate Barry Bonds, and it was so unfair, just as it is for the arrogant Roger Clemens, who won’t come clean and say what is going on. Those players, like Jason Giambi, who said, “Hey, we made a mistake…” they have been forgiven and the game has gone on. And while sports writers, when it comes time for the Hall of Fame, won’t forget that, they’ll also be appreciative of the contrition and redemption that is possible through asking for forgiveness. It’s sad. If you look at the Mitchell Report, they are saying that not just hundreds but perhaps thousands were taking during the steroids era. It’s just sad that we now, in our own minds, have two villains. It used to be just Barry Bonds now joined by Roger Clemens, with lesser ones like Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and the Typhoid Mary of them all, Jose Conseco.
LM: It’s kind of like the best hitter and best pitcher, from what I’ll call my era growing up, were “using steroids”…which is kind of weird because Roger Clemens was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
KB: No question about it, and he didn’t have to take any either. He had two 20 strikeout games ten years apart. It’s a sad, sad thing, and you’ll never know. It’ll be impossible to point to even the favorite players of the year and know 100% for sure, because it’s impossible to prove a negative, that someone wasn’t taking. That casts a shadow, but as I said, the thrill of all these new players are coming up on your team…think about Buster Posey at the Giants, think about my team, the Red Sox, have been decimated by injury, are even six games out. It’s a tribute to their manager and their talent, but they’ve got a roster that’s mostly of guys who started the year in AAA.
LM: The Tenth Inning features some great cliff-hangers. If you had to choose the absolute best game, from the period of ’94 on, what would it be?
KB: I guess for me it would have to be the 4th game in the American League Series where the Yankees had the Red Sox down 3 to nothing, but I am betraying my bias. It is the beginning of the greatest comeback in history in the sport we love, so in some ways, I can hide behind that, and many experts in the film who were unbiased, and my co-director and co-producer and co-writer on this [Lynn Novick] is a Yankee fan. She’s as proud of the Red Sox scenes as I am of the Yankee scenes. But I think that moment when Milar drew a walk in the bottom of the 9th and Roberts ran for him and stole a base on the first pitch, and Bill Miller knocked him in to tie the game, and then Big Poppy ended it with a walk off.
LM: Do you have it written down in front of you?
KB: No, I have it written down in my hard drive. I live that.
LM:How do you survive all day wearing those tight baseball clothes?
KB:I have been wearing tight clothes for sports since a long time especially since prvioiusly I used to go biking a lot.That required me to wear some of the best cycling shorts I could find as not to feel pain when sitting for so long but that is irrelevant.The baseball clothes are pretty comfortable actually except when I sweat then it sucks.
LM: That is understandable.I get sit here in a suit and tie in the A.C. all the day.Moving on.If you asked what happened in the 9th inning of our game last night, I wouldn’t be able to recite it that clearly.
KB: But this is iconic, and I’ve also edited it. But you’d also have to say the 2001 World Series is just as spectacular, with the 7th game. Because of 9/11, the whole country was rooting for the Yankees, but those pesky Diamondbacks came back in the bottom of the 9th when they had mispositioned Jeter and Rivera was going to saw off a left-handed hitter like Gonzalez and he just gets a little bloop, single over the head, and because Jeter is playing in, they score.
LM: Was that the year Gonzalez hit a bunch of home-runs?
KB: Yeah, 57 I think. But none more important than that bloop single.
LM: Should we expect an 11th inning?
KB: God willing.