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Home Run for Burns, PBS

October 10, 1994|ELF GIBBONS | Elf Gibbons, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, is a 1993 graduate of UCLA, an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. and

The problem, perhaps, with Saul Halpert's dislike of "Baseball" is that he spent 40 years working for TV news. Considering the lack of time historically afforded television news coverage, Halpert might be forgiven his lack of appreciation for a serious production that dares take the time necessary to tell a story, especially a story as deep and rich as the history of baseball (" 'Baseball' Ran on Interminably, Illustrating Why PBS Falls Short," Calendar, Oct. 3).

In his meticulously researched project, Ken Burns brought America's pastime to life with a thoroughness rarely found in television. PBS should be applauded for giving creative rein to such a deserving filmmaker. Ratings are nice but art is timeless. And since time is the enemy in network programming, how refreshing that PBS proved, once again, that Burns is worth spending time on.

However, if "interminable scenes of grainy, scratchy black-and-white old film" bored Halpert, if documentary footage of America's dusty side streets and ballparks and playing fields held no value for him, then viewers like him might be better off with a sitcom or aHollywood film in which everything is neatly wrapped both in color and 22 or 90 minutes. But if someone is genuinely interested in the history and impact of baseball in America, then he or she could do no better than to settle back and luxuriate in Burns' loving tribute.

The painstaking care that Burns and his editors took in assembling this project makes the fact that it ever found its way to home plate all the more astonishing. "Baseball" flies in the face of what we've come to know and expect from television. And that is, for the most part, homogenized, tasteless, artless, humorless offerings that sell advertisements instead of entertainment, that numb our spirits instead of enlightening our minds, that simply waste our time.

Halpert argues that Burns could have produced a program "with greater economy, skill and dramatic impact" that would then have "drawn a bigger audience." In ridiculing Burns' method of storytelling, the former TV reporter misses the ball, and the point, by miles. What Burns did was allow the story of baseball to unfold before our eyes. In doing so, he enabled us to grasp not only the historical importance of our cherished national pastime but also the power of baseball as metaphor for life itself.

Using the inning format was hardly "too-cutesy" as Halpert suggests. In dividing the program into nine two-hour segments, Burns presented baseball as the constant backdrop for a changing nation. The end results were both fascinating and surprising, the lessons learned sad yet inspirational.

I'm sure other viewers found themselves wishing for extra innings when the game finally ended. I came away from this extraordinary experience a more informed American--and not just about baseball. With this magnificent effort, Burns underscored the undeniable connection between baseball and life in a country still struggling to reach home.


'BASEBALL' FANS: A number of Counterpunch readers wrote impassioned defenses of the "Baseball" series and PBS in general. Gibbons' response is representative of their comments.

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