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Sports Then and Now

Missing Major League Baseball? Ken Burns’ Baseball Documentary Never Gets Old

Posted on March 29, 2020 by Dean Hybl

This was supposed to be opening weekend for the 2020 Major League Baseball season, but instead, our favorite baseball players are joining most other Americans on the sidelines as we recognize the great heroism of our medical workers, teachers, grocery clerks and others who are helping to keep our country moving during this pandemic.

ESPN, MLB Network and other channels have taken to showing some old baseball broadcasts this week and that has been great.

However, I have found myself re-captivated by MLB Networks showing of a 26-year-old documentary series on baseball created by Ken Burns.

For those too young to remember, the documentary originally aired in September 1994 on PBS. As timing would have it, that happened to be the first time in 90 years that the baseball season would end without a World Series.

The documentary, which chronicled the history of the game through nine broadcasts (for nine innings), was the most comprehensive look at the history of the great American game.

Through a combination of narration by veteran news anchor John Chancellor, interviews with many historians and former players and archived video, the documentary captured the magic of the game at a time when baseball fans were in a state of shock that there would be no post season.

Each chapter looked at a different stage of baseball history and Burns did a great job showing both the positive elements of baseball history as well as the warts.

He made a folk hero out of Buck O’Neil, who had been a player and manager in the Negro Leagues and later became the first African American coach in MLB. Born in 1911 in Florida, O’Neil’s slow Southern drawl was busting with a love for the game. Though O’Neil and others had been denied the opportunity to play at the major league level for many years, he vividly described players and moments throughout baseball history with passion and color.

Another breakout star of the series was author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She described growing up going to see the Brooklyn Dodgers with great reverence and nostalgia. She later wrote a book called “Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir” about growing up a baseball fan in New York during the 1950s.

Though the documentary is now over a quarter of a century old, the story is not dated. In fact, with the passing of every year and generation, you could argue that the series, especially the early episodes chronicling baseball prior to 1950, becomes more important to America as most people who lived that era of the game are no longer with us.

Because the story of baseball is continuing to be written, in 2010 Burns completed the 10th Inning, chronicling baseball from the early 1990s through the late 2000s. He has indicated that additional innings will likely be added over time.

Much as it served as a way to deal with the absence of live baseball in 1994, the Baseball documentary is again serving as a way for baseball fans to deal with the lack of the live game during this health crisis. The MLB Network has been showing installments of the series and you can stream the entire series for free through PBS.


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