Top of the Docs #9 – Baseball and the Documentary Epic

There is perhaps no sports documentary quite as ambitious as Ken Burns’ Baseball. The documentary, which runs at just under 19 hours, was first screened over the course of 10 days in 1994. Baseball shows the history of America’s favourite pastime, from its conception in the 19th century, all the way up until 1994. As a Brit, I originally had no interest in baseball at all before embarking on this epic viewing journey, however, by the end of the film I felt incredibly invested in the sport and shocked by how much it plays a part in American culture.

The documentary is split into nine “innings” (reflecting the setup of a baseball game) with each section dedicated to a specific period in time. Burns’ visual style, though understated, is distinct in its use of archive footage, recitals of important documents, and period appropriate music which gives a real flavour to the history you’re learning about. The key woes is learning. Baseball  is an education in the game, its traditions, myths, and events. Burns educates the viewer on all of this, with the length of the documentary giving you time to absorb the information, as well as allowing Burns the time to explore every possible avenue.

One important thing the documentary points out is the racism and discrimination in the game, and how this has played an integral part in the history of baseball, to its shame. Burns is quick to point out when a player was famous for such deplorable views, as well as highlight important moments in terms of the game’s relationship with race, both positive and negative.

Though daunting, it is the epic nature of Baseball’s length that makes it so impressive. It’s simple, but the runtime allows Burns to pack in so much information that would be impossible to contain within a shorter runtime. To skip out on even a moment of baseball’s history would defeat the entire purpose of this documentary. Baseball tracks the evolution of the game in tandem with America’s own development throughout the 20th century. As society changes, so does baseball, and it is impossible to separate the two.

Baseball is more than a sport, and Baseball is more than a sports documentary. Burns takes a game and manages to convince the viewer that is perhaps, the most reflective part of American culture. Whether or not this is true is debatable, however, it is hard to argue against Burns’ convincing argument. Baseball has become tied up in issues of race, business, labour relations, and much more. It’s not just a reflection of society but an integral part of it. If only we had such epic and informative subjects about all aspects of our culture. Until then, we can continue to look up to Baseball.

Baseball is currently available to stream for free on the PBS website.