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Government, Politics & Issues

Baseball, steroids, St. Louis, Prohibition: A conversation with Ken Burns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - Yes, filmmaker Ken Burns did chat with former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire at Busch Stadium the other night, so we'll get that out of the way before we settle in for a discussion with him and co-producer Lynn Novick about the sequel to their 1994 baseball documentary, their take on social media and a coming project that looks at Prohibition, breweries and Anheuser-Busch.

Burns, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Cardinals madcap 6-5 win over Arizona Monday, is on a swing around the country -- and Major League baseball parks -- to pump up interest for "The Tenth Inning," a two-part, four-hour addendum to "Baseball," which was the most-watched program in PBS history.

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The sequel, which airs in September, documents trends and game-changers like new old-look baseball stadiums, the influx of Latino and Asian players, as well as that 1994 baseball strike that didn't doom the national pastime, after all.

Burns, a loyal Red Sox fan, also dissects Boston's World Series sweep over St. Louis in 2004 -- must he keep calling it historic? -- and the excitement surrounding home-run machines McGwire, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Along with reliving the national excitement of the 1998 McGwire-Sosa homerun chase, the documentary addresses the dark side of those times: steroids.

McGwire's very public admission last January that he used performance-enhancing drugs required the filmmakers to go back into their finished film to address his decision to finally talk about the past. Which leads us back to that meeting between Burns and Big Mac, now the Cardinals hitting coach.

"I did chat with him last night. I had a really nice conversation with him," Burns said Tuesday, during a late-afternoon interview in the lobby of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.

"He's a real human being, and I'd interviewed him many years ago for a magazine article on him that I did for the USA Weekend Sunday supplement and found him a really charming and interesting and thoughtful person. And we still feel that way," Burns said. "Our mission was not to have a pile of villains and a pile of heroes that we could contrast, but to try to bring them together and try to understand the complexity of the steroid scandal."

"The Tenth Inning" covers a lot of ground, with that mix of beautiful images, music and insightful interviews that Burns is noted for, whether the subject is the Civil War, World War II or sports. But much of the buzz about this current work is related to how Burns and Novick broached the steroid era. And they seem to accept that for what it is: While steroids are today's water-cooler story, historians take the longer view and see the chapter in the much larger narrative of a resilient game that lives on through good times and bad.

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Part of the Burns interview

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As far as putting asterisks in the history books -- as some have suggested about hitting records claimed during the period -- Burns is in the camp that asks: Where would you stop?

"The historical relationship does have a measure of perspective," he said. "To understand that maybe the greatest tragedy in baseball history was the absence of African Americans in the first four-and-a-half decades of the 20th century and even longer than that. That Babe Ruth should have an equally emphatic asterisk next to his name because he never had to play in a game professionally with Josh Gibson [a Negro League star] or bat against Satchel Paige. When you take a longer view, you can actually find a way in which the steroids become another narrative that needs to be attached to statistics to fully understand those statistics. Just as you need to know in 1919 where it says the Cincinnati Red Stockings won the World Series, that, in fact, it's a little bit more complicated than that."

That infamous turn-of-last century scandal muddied the record books when members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to accepting bribes to throw the series -- a reminder that baseball is not perfect and never has been. Players aren't perfect and never have been. And, well, neither are the rest of us.

"I think the thing is, we so abstract these bold-faced names that we do ourselves and them a disservice. We invest in them a perfection they will never achieve," Burns said.

For Novick, one of the more telling scenes in the film is of Barry Bonds talking about how he was booed a lot during the end of his career.

"And he says, 'Boo me. Cheer me. But you're still going to come and see The Show.' There's something very profound in that, and I think that resonates not just about Barry Bonds but about all of our relationships with the game itself -- how deeply attached we are to it," Novick said.

Also for the record: Put an asterisk behind Burns' and Novick's attendance Monday night because they left before the ninth inning and missed one of the oddest walk-off wins in the history of the game.

"We left at the bottom of the eighth because we hadn't eaten," said Burns, who added that this was all made more difficult because he doesn't believe in leaving before the end of a game. "We'd been on East Coast time. Besides, the Cardinals looked really weak and it was 5-2. And we get back here and we're in the restaurant and I walk by the bar, and oh my god they came back and won."

Too bad.

Because that game pretty well summed up the essence of baseball: You can spend hours strategizing, poring over ERAs, RBIs and VORPs, but you just never know which of today's heroes is going to hit one out of the park -- or drop the ball.

More Excerpts from the Interview

Your "Baseball" series aired during the 1994 strike when fans were angry with both the owners and players. Some people have argued that your series helped to rescue the sport because it reminded people why they so enjoy the game.

Burns: We had some people, tongue-in-cheek, saying that we planned the strike so that we'd be the only baseball on.

To some extent, the end of that season and the elimination of the post-season created so much anger, so much disappointment, so much sadness in the fans. The fact that you look up and the only baseball turned out to be our 18 1/2 hours.

It ameliorated a little bit this sense of frustration and sadness because there were all the reminders of why you like the game. And there were also reminders of why this strike happened.

We were fortunate enough to have 45 million viewers, and I'm sure that it helped the sting of it a little bit. And it was an emotional film, as our films are. It brought people to the game or realization of their relationship to the game.

In "The Tenth Inning" you explain how in recent years baseball has become more internationalized with the inclusion of Latino and Asian players, while at the same time, there has been a decline in the numbers of African-American players. But Gerald Early -- who is in your film -- says that perhaps it's simply because black Americans just don't want to play baseball.

Burns: They don't like the game. The game has not welcomed them socially for a long time. It's only been recently that it seems it has come back to the, quote, inner city.

There were signals that this was a white spectator sport. African Americans, on the positive side, had other possibilities. It wasn't just rejecting baseball. Football was opening up and so was basketball and they had extraordinary dominance in the latter and almost near-dominance in the former. More opportunities for people allows you to go in different directions.

It's now ticked back up in the last couple of years a little bit. But it's also the way the game is going. There aren't really great Irish immigrant stars anymore. Nor are there German stars. And those were all different periods where the game assimilated, just as the country assimilated, great waves of immigrants.

I think that I'd be happy if I looked out on the stands [at Busch] last night and 12 to 13 percent of the fans were African American or whatever the percentage of African Americans is in (the) St. Louis (area).

But we also have that freedom to do what we want to do.

How cool is it to be throwing out the ceremonial pitch at stadiums around the country? When you were playing baseball as a kid, did you ever think, maybe someday, that'll be me down there?

Burns: It's way cool.

Part of the appeal of baseball is you think that you could do that even though you can't.

You're looking at 1,000 people who can do something that the rest of the 6 1/2 billion of us can't do. Yet the difference between the guy who's hitting .363 in July and the guy who's hitting a buck 98 seems like this wide chasm. And what it represents is like 10 hits over the course of that half season.

It's an amazing thing to be able to recapture what your own boyhood interest was and to do it in front of 40,000 people and more importantly not screw up.

Are you "Standing for Stan"? (The Cardinals effort to get Stan Musial a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Click here to see Beacon coverage.)

Burns: Can we just say that he has the greatest statistic in all of baseball: 3,630 hits. 1,815 on the road; 1,815 at home. That is unbelievable.

Novick: And such a great gracious gentleman in the true sense of that word.

Beacon: I have to ask, you are a Red Sox fan ...

Burns: You say that you have to ask -- as if some people have to go to proctologists and take exams ....

And you're a Cardinals fan.

Can I just say that you root for the team where you live. I root for the team where I live. And she [Novick], strangely enough, roots for the team where she lives. So I'm not sure what your question is?

Well, is St. Louis going to get a fair shake in this film?

Burns: We don't count it by time.

Novick: There's a lot of time spent on McGwire ... I think the largest chapter is the summer of '98.

And we celebrate St. Louis as a great baseball town.

Burns: We say that it's got the best fans.

Is your next project a look at Vietnam?

Burns: We're working on a project on Vietnam. But the next one is the history of Prohibition. And after that is the history of the Dust Bowl. After that is the story of the Central Park jogger case. And after that is a history of the Roosevelts, a big series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, all put together. And then, after that, is Vietnam. But, yes, we're working on Vietnam.

Novick: Prohibition is coming out next fall [2011], so that's our most imminent project, and it has a lot to do with St. Louis.

The beer industry is incredibly important to the story, and the Anheuser-Busch company. We make Adolphus Busch into a very important character, which he was in the 19th century. He really led the beer industry in fighting Prohibition.

It's a really fascinating story that culminates with World War I and all the anti-German sentiment that really exploded. The beer industry was a huge collateral damage in that. And so that's a big part of how Prohibition came to pass. It had to do with resentment against immigrants and Protestant small town America resented big city America as the country was really radically changing. It's a big story.

How has changing technology and the rise of social media affected how you do your work?

Burns: In all honesty, I'm not big into social media. I check my email and that's about it. So I know that Public Television maintains various Facebook and Twitter accounts and like that. I'm too busy. We're too busy. We work 24/7 and so it's very difficult for us.

The short answer: It hasn't really changed anything. It's opened up a realm of opportunities and new kinds of ways of communicating. New platforms. But we are still intensely focused on the actual thing that we make by hand, which is a thing called a film. And that's what we're interested in.

We know that film now isn't delivered as a film. That now it can be downloaded and there are DVD extras and we get that and we do all of that, but we're primarily storytellers, and that's a profession that hasn't changed for about 10,000 years. How you actually tell a good story remains essentially the same, just as moving from a paper to online hasn't changed the ultimate place where the rubber meets the road in what you do -- in how you instill information and present it.

Right now, we're sort of dazzled by the fact that the technological tail is wagging the dog. But the job remains the same. We're just trying to be good storytellers, and that's a hard, hard time-consuming thing to do.

Novick: You've got YouTube. There's a million clips. How do you know which one to watch? I think what you're actually seeing on YouTube now is that there is content that's professionally created that's going on, as well.

The democratization is great, but you lose the thread of narrative. So maybe a friend tells you to check out this cat playing a piano, or whatever. My kids always find the funny clip on YouTube, but that doesn't last that long. When you want something you can really sink your teeth into.

Lots of people can tell stories. But I will say there's a lot of craft involved in what we do or what editors do. Or writers.

We really sort of get down into the weeds, frames of film, how tight on this picture do you want to be? Should it be on the wide shot? Or the medium shot? When do you want to cut to footage? What song do you want to use? There are so many decisions that get made, and we agonize over whether to put a comma in the narration or a semicolon, when no one's ever going to see it.

Hopefully when the film is done, you don't notice any of that. I certainly hope that no one is questioning why did they show the close-up and not the wide shot. They're just letting it wash over them and enjoying the experience.

I'd like to think there's going to be a big audience for that level of craft in what you do and what we do. That there are people who want to know what's going on. Some bill was passed -- they want to know why and who and what is in it.

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