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COVER STORY : He's Rounding Third . . . : Following the wild success of his 'The Civil War,' documentarian Ken Burns is finishing 'Baseball,' a painstaking look at another American institution due on PBS around World Series time--next year

July 11, 1993|ROBERT STRAUSS | Robert Strauss is the television critic for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey

WALPOLE, N.H. — Looking down from the wall to the right as Ken Burns sits at his desk in his converted-barn office is a fine, slightly sepia photo portrait of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball this century. Robinson sits in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform with a bat on his shoulder, appearing at once serene and unflappable and, conversely, intense and passionate.

For Burns, the filmmaker whose epic 11-hour "The Civil War," first shown on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1990, made him an icon among American documentarians, Robinson and his emotions are the focus around which all of baseball spins. And around baseball spins the panoply of American culture.

The spirals and the complexities and, really, the fun of it all are what drive Burns in his latest project, an 18-hour film titled, simply, "Baseball," scheduled to air on PBS in the fall of 1994.

"Truly, baseball mirrors American society in so many ways, be it labor relations, big business, making heroes, language and, of course, race relations," Burns said. "It is a daunting experience to try to capture baseball and its place in American history.

"Baseball films have always had the problem of treacly nostalgia. One of the reasons why is that no one has ever tried to do a narrative history of baseball on film. It is just too complicated," he said. "I can only hope we are successful."


B urns, like his hero Robinson, appears both serene and intense. Fourteen years ago, four years out of college and disenchanted with New York, he chose to live in this one-gas-station, Norman Rockwellesque town along the Connecticut River border with Vermont, far in both distance and spirit from the bustle of the Hollywood and Manhattan filmmaking centers. It was a move calculated to save both money and chaos, and for Burns, at least, it has worked. All of his films have been created here, most to great acclaim.

"The Brooklyn Bridge," his first historical film (1981), won an Academy Award nomination for documentaries. "The Statue of Liberty" (1985) got both Emmy and Oscar nominations. In between, Burns produced "The Shakers" (1984) and "Huey Long" (1985), and since, "Thomas Hart Benton" (1988), "The Congress" (1989) and "Empire of the Air" (1992), about the men who invented radio.

But all of this work was overshadowed--no, overwhelmed--by "The Civil War." It received carloads of awards; its companion coffee-table book sold more than 700,000 copies at $50 a pop; the audio version, narrated by Burns, is still a bestseller. "The Civil War" also catapulted Burns into a strange subset of the famous.

"I've enjoyed a nutritional celebrity," said Burns, a thin fellow of average height whose most distinctive feature is a mop of hair that is a cross between Moe Howard of the Three Stooges and early Beatles. "People don't run after me and try to rip my clothes off and that sort of stuff. They want to talk, and that's great. The most satisfying thing about it is that I can be traveling somewhere, in a diner, and someone recognizes me. Within two seconds, they are talking as if I'm a friend, seemingly continuing a conversation we had just a little while ago. That's how history develops."

"The Civil War" has also given Burns newfound financial comfort. He said he often turns down five-figure speeches ("I feel like a history whore if I do too many," he said). And besides the ancillary profits from "The Civil War," General Motors, which funded "The Civil War," has given Burns grants to do biographical films through the year 2000. He is already starting to plan films on Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

But for now, the consuming passion is "Baseball," a project he began with a long interview with the late broadcaster Red Barber before "The Civil War" ever aired. "Had I known of the success of 'The Civil War,' I certainly would have taken a year off," Burns said. "But, frankly, at the time, I needed the work."


As with all of his projects, Burns has put on film for "Baseball" vastly more than he could ever need. His editing studio, in a fine old white Cape Cod house in what passes for downtown Walpole, is crammed with film boxes and files containing literally hundreds of thousands of shots of some aspect of the game.

He has put thousands of old photographs on film--culled from, among other places, The Sporting News, the Hall of Fame and numerous private collectors--and has done more than 80 interviews with folks from Hall of Famer Ted Williams to New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. People scurry up and down the narrow staircases and hallways past myriad strips of film hanging from seemingly every type of appliance.

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