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Baseball as an American Metaphor

Filmmaker Ken Burns takes on the national sport in a new TV documentary

DOCUMENTARY filmmaker Ken Burns says his films are like children. "I have no favorites," says Mr. Burns, whose projects, after hundreds of hours of research and editing, take final shape inside two antique white colonial houses in this Connecticut River Valley town.

"Certainly, `The Civil War' was an 800-pound gorilla, but I have great affection for every film I make, and I know their strengths and weaknesses," he says.

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The latest Burns creative offspring being "incubated" in Walpole is a 19-hour documentary history of baseball. It is scheduled to air on the Public Broadcasting System in the fall of 1994. Nineteen hours is long even by this filmmaker's standards. `The Civil War' was 11 hours.

"I'm always surprised by how long these things get," Burns says, breaking into a grin. "The Civil War was supposed to be five hours."

Few viewers complained about that film's length, however. It was popular beyond anyone's expectations, including its maker's. Using first-person commentary, music, and contemporary photos, Burns was able to shatter every preconception about viewers' short attention spans and lust for live action. He is confident that the history of baseball will prove similarly compelling.

The basis of that confidence, one senses, is the filmmaker's own thorough engagement with his subject. His goal, he says, is to tell the story well.

"The emotional content - that's what makes it stick," Burns says. And baseball, he explains, is a story rich in emotion, tradition, mythology, and, of course, corruption and scandal.

The game is "a mirror of who we've been and who we've become," Burns says. "It's a precise reflection of an age - for instance, the greed of the '80s - and at the same time we want it to be morally what we'd like to be, the good old days." Of course, baseball and the men who play it have rarely been able to live up to those hopes. The criticism has always been there, he says, mentioning an 1869 quote in which the writer laments that baseball "isn't what it used to be."

The wealth of written and filmed material since the New York Knickerbockers played the first bona fide baseball game on New Jersey's Elysian Fields in 1846 is one reason this documentary has been six years in the making. To that rich vein, Burns has added more than 80 taped interviews of his own. "It's the most complicated thing I've ever done in my life," he says.

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"The Civil War had a beginning and an end. It was four years. Here, there's no obvious beginning and, hopefully, no end," says the filmmaker, analyzing his organizing task. "What we leave out is torturous to us."

Some outstanding players, like first-baseman George Sisler, probably won't make the cut, while some little-known figures, like Fred Snodgrass, who missed an easy fly ball to lose the 1912 World Series, will make it. Burns found Snodgrass's quote after the mishap irresistible: "I just dropped the darned thing." Every Little League right fielder who has ever misjudged a fly can sympathize.

Baseball's multilayered history includes "tremendous humor," comments Burns as he whips off some immortal words from Yogi Berra: "When you get to the fork in the road, take it." He recalls that some historians to whom he gave an early viewing of parts of the film both laughed and cried as the parade of "wonderful characters" associated with the game went by.

"If the Civil War was the American Iliad, a spasmodic battle that defined who we are, then baseball is the Odyssey - it's the returning home," says Burns, carefully choosing his epic metaphors. "Home" refers both to the game's literal purpose - to get the runner home - and to things close to the national heart.

In the spacious old house in downtown Walpole where the editing is done, editors' consoles and racks of film fill former parlors and bedrooms. Boxes of interview footage are stacked in closets and on shelves. Around the upper sections of the walls, taped sheets of paper outline the nine "innings" the documentary will be broken into.

Even with hundreds of clips left on the floor, Burns estimates that viewers will get to know 50 or 60 players "intimately." The greats - Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and others - will be there, with all their marvelous talents and human failings.

Burns also had long conversations with some "legends" who are still around, such as Ted Williams. He found Williams "witheringly honest" and helpful on such subjects as efforts to bring black players into the major leagues.

The game's struggle with the color line will be closely examined, through both Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball and a look at the old Negro leagues. In the world of baseball, Robinson was "a combination of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg," Burns says.

The documentary will also look at what Burns thinks may be the game's biggest scandal: the team owners' long perpetuation of a contract system that held players in what the filmmaker calls "wage slavery" and tended to "fix" pennant outcomes.

Burns, who mixes geniality with a steely sense of purpose, also has strong words for current efforts to speed up baseball and make it more appealing to the modern fan.

"In typical American fashion, we're trying to change the game and make it more like other sports," he says, calling this "an horrendous movement." One of baseball's strengths, he says, is its thoughtful pace, in which clocks are out and "the spaces count," just as in music.

Burns is a firm believer in the therapeutic effects of history. "If you can help baseball know where it has been," he says, "then maybe you can help it decide where it should go."

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