Current Online

Everything about Baseball says ‘big’
On Sept. 18, the diamond may be PBS's best friend

Originally published in Current, Sept. 5, 1994
By Joseph Flanagan

By now, public TV viewers are familiar with the black-and-white images of long-gone men in baggy woolen trousers and the stark piano version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Few won't know that Ken Burns' Baseball is stepping up to bat.

Big and rangy, the series will occupy PBS weeknight feeds for most of two weeks, Sept. 18-22 and 25-28 [1994]. Everything surrounding Baseball suggests something momentous, sizeable and grand—the understated television teasers, the stylishly formal logo and matte-black press kits, the dimensions of a $7.8 million budget and 18-and-a-half hours of primetime air.

Testimony to the respect for Ken Burns and his product has become an event in itself. Network producers are falling over one another to get him on their morning shows, says Owen Comora, the publicist handling Baseball. "One show," Comora says, "offered us two days if we would put them ahead of a show that approached us a year before." (At this writing, Burns is scheduled for Good Morning America on Sept. 14.) Something on the order of 100 radio talk shows have requested one-on-ones with Burns, and major network TV programs have scheduled features on Baseball. Comora won't say which magazines will feature Burns. "I think it's bad luck to forecast magazine covers," he explains.

Before it all began, Comora expected about the same degree of media interest generated by Burns' Civil War series. It has far exceeded that. "I have never been busier in my life," he says. Co-producer Lynn Novick, editor Paul Barnes and coordinating producer Mike Hill are all giving interviews, as well as Burns.

In a chat before he posed for People magazine, Burns told Current that his two-and-a-half months on the road have made him feel like a rock fan in a mosh pit: "One of those people they just pick up and hand around at concerts." At some point, he says, "you just feel like saying, 'Put me down.' "

He recently completed a month-long promotional tour with Novick, Comora and 82-year-old Negro League veteran Buck O'Neil without a single day off, according to Comora.

The road show hit ballparks in every major market in the country. Burns often threw out the first ball at games. Highlights from Baseball were shown on huge stadium screens. Burns was interviewed by commentators during telecasts, involved in impromptu press conferences, generally mobbed by the media.

At a stop in Alabama, during which the governor came by to have a baseball signed by Burns and O'Neil, Comora realized that it was 11 p.m., and they hadn't stopped to eat since 11 that morning.

Burns even found himself involved in a celebrity home-run-hitting contest, swinging the bat alongside such marquee commodities as Meat Loaf, Michael Keaton and Danny Glover. Burns out-swung them and Tony Danza, but was bested by author John Grisham and athletes Lynn Swann and Dan Marino. The money Burns won (about $3,000) was donated to the Negro League Museum.

The producer hits the road again this week for appearances in Washington, New York, Nashville and elsewhere.

A big check payable to NEH

To make the series, Burns put together grants from seven major sources: the National Endowment for the Humanities, $2.2 million; General Motors, $2.1 million; PBS and CPB, $1 million each; the Pew Charitable Trusts, $978,000; and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, $550,000.

For most public TV producers, those transactions would have been one-way grants, but Burns expects to repay the public agency grants. The terms of some grants require payback if a production has big earnings from ancillary sales, and that's a reasonable expectation for this one.

While grantees sometimes partially repay grants to NEH, The Civil War was the first production that has fully repaid its grant, according to Gary Krull, director of communications policy at the endowment. So the endowment was $1.39 million richer when Burns went back to it for Baseball. He competed again in NEH's usual review process and came away with $1.5 million, followed later by a $500,000 supplement, Krull says.

Revenues from the accompanying Baseball book, soundtrack and videotapes will go to Burns after he repays the NEH, CPB and PBS grants.

Baseball is likely to give birth to a mini-industry of other merchandise and memorabilia, as The Civil War did. This time, though, Burns is determined to keep control over what is produced and the profits it generates. After broadcast of The Civil War, entrepreneurs capitalized on its popularity by producing various unlicensed goods. "There were a lot of rip-offs," says Burns, "and a lot of them really violated the spirit of the film, which was emancipation, and they'd use the Dixie flag. I hated it."

To prevent a similar exploitation of Baseball, Burns has founded Baseball Licensing International. Headed by Sheryl Shade, a former licensing agent for Walt Disney, BLI is the exclusive owner of all Baseball trademarks, logos and designs. Most of its licensees also have licenses to make products with Major League Baseball logos. Any profits Burns gets from BLI, will go to his newly formed Florentine Films Foundation.

Initially, the foundation will support the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, the interpretation of baseball history at the Hall of Fame library, and assistance programs for indigent players. If BLI continues to be successful, Burns would like to expand his support to history education and young documentary filmmakers.

"When I first made my film on the Brooklyn Bridge 15 years ago," he says, "People looked at me like I was insane. People would joke, 'This kid's trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.' I would have killed to have $5,000 to start up. So if this BLI makes any money, I'd like to be able to provide [funds] for other filmmakers."

Burns says he hopes that stations will honor his request not to pledge during Baseball's initial airing. "I am in public TV because there are no commercials. I can direct my own work and control it. If they disrupt that principal thing, I'll go somewhere else . . . I work under really shoestring budgets for the amount of film I turn out and the labor-intensity involved."

Trimming "like sawing off an arm"

Burns originally planned for Baseball to appear in nine one-hour "innings." But he found that he would need twice the time to treat each episode with the thoroughness and detail that characterized The Civil War. The budget meanwhile grew from $5 million to about $7.8 million.

"In the immortal words of Yogi Berra," Burns remarks, "it ain't over til it's over."

He says that many, himself included, were skeptical about the series' length, but after seeing the footage, there weren't many skeptics left. "We don't make the decision to expand unless the material supports it," he says. In fact, he has claimed that cutting out parts to arrive at the 18-and-a-half-hour total was "like sawing off an arm."

Programmers say they welcome the series even with its extraordinary length. "For me, the issue isn't whether Baseball is too long," says Michael Flaster, program manager at KPBS in San Diego, "it's why there isn't more good-quality programming on the PBS system. I'm glad that there are that many hours of Ken Burns, frankly." Flaster suggests a parallel between Burns' documentaries and Garrison Keillor's unhurried radio style. Keillor, he says, will "talk for 40 minutes and that's exactly what people are tuning in for."

Says another programmer, "There are precious few hours of well-conceived, well-researched, well-executed programming. I would rather have another hour of Ken Burns' documentary than, for instance, another two hours of Clive James."

Only a smattering of skepticism has come out in the many prebroadcast articles in periodicals. On the basis of the half-hour "Making of Baseball" preview of the series, Washington Post critic at-large Jonathan Yardley opined in a recent column that Burns "has allowed self-infatuation to cloud his judgment" by making such a long series, and that adoring PBS executives likewise had lost their minds.

Burns' premise that supports such a great devotion of airtime is that baseball is a microcosm of the American experience, reflecting the sweep of the nation's history. He cites (among other things) the rise and decay of cities, racism and integration, the relationship between labor and management, all echoed in the story of the sport.

The series also deals with various cultural and psychological links between this peculiarly American game and who we are as a people.

"If you're not a fan," says Burns, "it's the story of people, of life-lessons, of emotions, of the collisions of personalities and social forces in this country that animated The Civil War, that I think animated Brooklyn Bridge, that I think animated all the films."

Burns maintains that, in his mind, Baseball is the logical sequel to The Civil War. "It's a description of the country we've become," he says. "It's not the only way to describe it. It just happens to be the way I chose."

The Post critic, Yardley, implied that Burns may overstate the importance of race in the history of the sport. Burns calls race one of the film's "major faultlines," a significant subplot, as it has been in American history.

Early doubters are handicapped by not having seen what the filmmakers have made. Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal Constitution recalls his reaction when he first found out about the first Burns blockbuster: "When I heard that PBS was going to do an 11-and-a-half-hour series on the Civil War, and was going to send me the tape, I said, 'Oh, well. Sorry, I've got root canal.' I popped it into my machine and knew within 20 minutes I was in the presence of something spectacular."


. To Current's home page
. Later news: Six years later, Burns rolls out Jazz.

Web page posted Jan. 21, 2001
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000