I was over at Balloon Juice the other day, vacationing from outrage on a baseball thread, when someone commenting on why we seem to care so much about Perfectogate offered props to Ken Burns for his baseball series. That show, the writer said, explains why we love baseball so much, or rather, why it appears to be such a good metaphor for America.
Well, as readers of this blog know, I’m not much into sloppy metaphors. Certainly, you can look at the history of the game and at least pull out strands of the great threads of US history — Robinson, Jackie for an obvious example, and more subtly, Curt Flood.
But Burns is an easy sentimentalist, too ready, IMHO, to do that “essence of America” stuff, even as he oh-so-painfully-slowly pans or zooms on another picture of Robinson, or the Babe or whoever. Most of all, just as a story teller, Burns lost something after The Civil War. I’m not a huge fan of that series, though I found it riveting on first viewing. I think it fell too deeply into the Southern sentimentalist trap, though I understand that with the extraordinary performance of Shelby Foote and the narrative power of the marvelously chosen diaries and letters, some of that, at least, was inevitable. I’ve made enough films to know that when you have good stuff, you use it.
But that adulation that followed that series — and more pertinently, the virtual blank check Burns received from his GM contract and the leverage it gave him over PBS mean that he could now do without any kind of critical oversight. No executive producer for him, not really.
Now, I’ve worked with EPs who no doubt made my work worse. Bad ones are out there, no doubt. But it’s still true that no one is their own best editor. You saw the effects in baseball, from the numerology of nine programs (innings) and eighteen hours that felt much longer, to the kind of lazy “seriousness” captured in this, from Burns:
The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has remarked that we suffer today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal and collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else — our bright past and our dim unknown future — what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization — passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity? Baseball provides one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime.
Oh FSM. You see what I mean. Who knew baseball was the DNA of American civilization. Does that make steroids an oncogene? Crappy metaphors, easy equivalences (baseball endures; we endure; therefore baseball explains our endurance to ourselves…or not), and always that weighty, wordy portenteousness, the wrapping of a tired old cliche of a thought in 157 words in the hope that the verbiage would mask the banality of the argument being advanced.
So no: baseball is a metaphor for baseball. Individual aspects of baseball are deeply instructive, often more than metaphors. See Stephen Jay Gould’s classic piece on the lessons to be learned from Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak for the transformation of the mythic appreciation of baseball into something much more useful: baseball can provide models, in the scientific sense of the term, tools to help us better understand what’s going on around us.
Ken Burns? He managed to turn baseball into a dirge.
There, I feel better.
Last, as I added to the comment thread in which the mention of Burns goaded me into screed-dom, I do have an answer as to what to read if you want to engage in the generational significance of baseball, and its role during a certain time in the making of the country in which we now live, I can’t recommend highly enough George Higgins’ wonderful memoir, The Progress of the Seasons.
Yes, I know it’s a Red Sox centered tale, which will make it anathema for many — but at least it was the bad old Sox, which might make it go down better.
But Higgins (of Friends of Eddie Coyle fame and much else besides) is not only one of the great regional writers of the last few decades, but also a wonderfully sentimental-without-being-sloppy observer of how links transfer from fathers to sons to grandsons.
I’m in my early 50s now, roughly the age Higgins was when he published Progress…. I’ve just had to confront athe loss of a beloved uncle, the last of that generation in my immediate family, so his theme holds me strongly. (His is a boy book, I guess, in that it centers on male relationships, but I’d argue it’s a human book more than a gendered one; we all go through these transformations, these sudden shifts in scale, dependence and responsibility.)
Back to the thorn that provoked this post. Given that baseball, like all big time sports, has become a matter of rooting for laundry, Higgins’ account of the way baseball could construct a family story does what great story telling should do, and what Burns, for all the hours and millions he devoted to his telling, did not: Higgins tells a singular story, a glimpse of one family of Boston Irish, a telling centered in space to the evoked memory of old Fenway Park, and in that wholly particular story enables his readers to glimpse something of why the sport used to carry such mythic weight.
Plus, he is (to repeat myself) a really fine writer and this is a great read.
All this apropos of I’m not sure quite what. Friday, I guess.
Image: Thomas Eakins, “Baseball Players Practicing,” 1875-