TV Article

The filmmaker behind PBS' 'Civil War' Steps Up to the Plate With His Epic 'Baseball'

The origins of baseball are shrouded in lore and controversy. The origins of Baseball, filmmaker Ken Burns' colossal 181 2-hour PBS documentary, are a bit clearer. ''I was in a bar in Georgetown in 1985 with a friend and (coordinating) producer, Mike Hill. He mentioned baseball and all the bells went off inside,'' says Burns, who had just begun shaping his Civil War series. ''The whole time I was working on The Civil War, I knew I'd do (Baseball).''

The 11-hour Civil War aired in 1990 to the highest ratings for a series in PBS history, ensuring that Baseball (debuting Sept. 18; see review on page 96) would become one of public TV's most anticipated events. What do you need to know about this monumental program before tuning in? Here's a scorecard.

*The Stats: Baseball will be PBS' longest single-subject program ever. Spending four years and just over $7.6 million on the project (Civil War cost about $3 million), Burns and his team shot 32,000 feet of footage, screened 6.4 million feet of archival film, examined thousands of still photos, interviewed more than 65 subjects, and recorded 250 versions of ''Take Me Out to the Ball Game.''

*The Opposition: The Civil War mesmerized 38.9 million viewers, upsetting the networks' fall premieres. Baseball could do the same; it opens against the debut of CBS' highly touted hospital drama Chicago Hope. Here's the scouting report from Hope executive producer David E. Kelley: ''I'm really looking forward to seeing Ken Burns' Baseball. I'm an admirer of his work. I'll be taping it, and I would encourage the rest of America to tape it as well.''

*The Strike: A continuing players' strike would likely benefit Baseball, making it literally the only major-league game in town. But Burns is saddened by the dispute. ''I'm a passionate fan and I would have been more than happy to coexist with the national pastime,'' he says. As for which camp he favors, labor or management: ''A pox on both their houses.'' *The Error: In July, PBS aired The Making of Baseball, designed to pique viewer curiosity, but the preview struck out. The Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote: ''From where I sat, (Baseball looks) about as enticing as a striptease by the circus fat lady.'' Even Burns is critical, calling the teaser ''a very poor half-hour film. It gave the impression I didn't follow my consultants.'' As for Yardley, Burns points out, ''He didn't see one second of my film.''

*The Postgame Report: Burns shrugs off suggestions that lofty expectations could doom his series. ''I'm done with Baseball,'' he says. ''I'm worried about Thomas Jefferson,'' his next subject. He's also interested in making a feature film on Jackie Robinson, possibly with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. But as far as Baseball goes, the season's over. ''These projects are like children,'' says Burns. ''I give them all the attention I can, and then send them off and hope for the best.''

Originally posted Sep 16, 1994 Published in issue #240 Sep 16, 1994 Order article reprints