In Baseball: The Tenth Inning, Ken Burns updates his nine-part 1994 opus with a chapter on the sport’s past fifteen years. We chatted with Burns as he anticipated the four-hour documentary’s debut (it’ll air in two parts tonight and tomorrow on PBS) from his New Hampshire headquarters.
What do you think will happen as the great players from this recent era — and we’ve already seen the beginning of it, with McGwire — become eligible for Cooperstown?
I think you’re going to see an interesting sort of case-by-case punishment system. Some people like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, despite how angry we are with them, deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and I think will get in eventually, even if the baseball writers torture them a little bit. But someone like McGwire or Sosa who is sort of a one-note Charlie, I think will have a very hard time getting in. There will always be a handful of reporters saying, “they were hitting it out of the park and we don’t know exactly what steroids do.” And we can’t really predict what will happen way down the line when they get reconsidered by the Veterans Committee, whether they’ve been contrite, whether there is forgiveness.
Is there a single most important issue facing the game today?
I think it’s maintaining the integrity that they’ve started on the road towards. The drug testing program now is the best in professional sports. Demonstrating to the fans and the media that they are serious about cleaning up the game is an important thing to continue and we know it’s improved at least in the minor leagues, where you can do this by executive order, moving to intercept HGH and hoping that the Players Association will [come around] on the major league level. But I also think that in the coming years, baseball’s going to have to once again modify its revenue sharing scheme. It’s not as balanced as in other sports and that means the smaller clubs have legitimate complaints that they are not really competitive. Although when you look at a Tampa Bay, one of the smaller-market clubs, which has been competitive for the last several years, you realize it’s not just money but often leadership that matters, and evaluation of talent, and development of players.
Another trend in the game over past 15 years has been the construction of new stadiums. As a member of Red Sox nation, what are your thoughts on tearing down the old parks?
Mostly positive. We’ve built 18 stadiums in the last 19 years. They’re remarkable architectural acts of faith that have not only helped to revitalize the teams and their fans but also the inner cities in which they are now built. They are not the cookie-cutter stadiums that we decried being built in the ‘60’s and 70’s, like Three Rivers Stadium. They are really beautiful, single-use parks. [But] all but one of them has been publicly financed and that has put a huge burden on taxpayers, particularly in tough economic times.
I would imagine you would never want Fenway touched.
We were sort of worried when the new ownership came in in 2003 that they were going to tear the park down. When John Henry and Tom Warner, geniuses both, and Larry Lucchino decided to remodel Fenway and did it so tastefully and so carefully, incrementally, it just made us burst with the pride that the oldest stadium in the majors still feels new and the experience is as cherished as ever.
What do you think distinguishes baseball emotionally from the other team sports?
Football stories start describing the action: “Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.” Basketball stories begin: “He threw the ball to Michael Jordan, who hit the three-pointer at the buzzer.” Talk to most baseball fans and their stories begin: “I went with my dad.” Or “my mom.” Or “I took my son” or daughter, my uncle. “My best friend and I.” It matters very much who you see these games with.
What is, personally, your single favorite baseball-related experience?
It’s getting to know Buck O’Neil, who was a Negro League first baseman and manager and who was one of the talking heads in our [original] film. He was one of the most advanced and complicated human beings I’ve ever met; a generous, warm-hearted soul who passed away just a few days short of his 95th birthday, after he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame under the veteran’s rule, as everyone expected. Instead he magnanimously went to Cooperstown to sing in the class he should have been at the head of. He was as close to me as a father and he considered my children to be his grandchildren, and even when he was on his deathbed, my daughter detoured on her honeymoon to visit him and he was admonishing my son-in-law to “take good care of my granddaughter.”
What’s your earliest memory of the game?
My earliest memory as a human being is a memory of baseball. I was 3 or 4 years old and I had a mitt on my hand.
What’s next for you? You’ve said you work on three projects at once.
I’ll give you the next five: the history of Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Central Park jogger case, the Roosevelts - Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor - and the major theories on the Vietnam War.