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THE GAMES BEHIND THE GAME

If major-league baseball players and owners want to know what's good for them--they remain stubbornly in the dark about that--both sides would do well to lay down their golf clubs and set aside their disputes this month to finish school.

The professor will be Ken Burns, the ground-breaking documentary filmmaker who changed television forever four years ago with The Civil War. That series examined the pivotal trauma of this land's history in unprecedented detail and transformed Burns into a kind of national hero. His ambitious new project, as you may have heard by now, is called Baseball, and those assorted millionaires glaring at each other across the bargaining table in New York have even more to gain from it than the mass of unwashed Americans who actually work for a living.

The nine-part public-TV series, eighteen and a half hours long, starts at 7 p.m. September 18 on KRMA-TV/Channel 6. The first five two-hour episodes, or innings, as Burns has dubbed them, will run nightly through September 22. After a couple of "travel days," the remaining four innings will air September 25-28. The series covers the game from the 1840s to the present day.

If you can't catch the whole thing, crank up the VCR. Judging by an advance viewing of the first inning, about the origins and early years of the game, this is great stuff--not just an exhaustive history of baseball, but of ourselves. Ironically, Baseball will likely play even more poignant and revealing now that the millionaires have erased one of the most scintillating seasons of all time.

As a species, baseball romantics have multiplied handsomely in recent years. From the one-shot prose poets who rhapsodize about opening day for country newspapers to the beer-sodden nutjobs weeping in the bleachers over the remembered feats of Ted Williams and Hank Aaron, baseball fever has taken on a contemplative, appreciative tone it didn't have when most people took the game for granted. In the headier climes, it even came to be seen as a metaphor for the American experience. And not even Joe Six-Pack, bellowing in the cheap seats, could argue with that.

But until now, moviemakers have largely sentimentalized the game. Despite their sundry virtues, almost every Hollywood picture from Pride of the Yankees to Bull Durham contains more schmaltz than Gaylord Perry's gym bag. Burns loves baseball, too, but as a self-described "emotional archaeologist," he's after more than romantic fantasy, just as he's after more than balls and strikes and lists of statistics. As in all his work, he's trying to capture the national character.

"The story of baseball is the story of America," says the 41-year-old filmmaker and long-suffering Red Sox fan. "Of the clash of labor and management; the ever-present tension between people based on race; immigration and assimilation; the nature of heroes; popular culture and advertising; the role of women; the nature of democracy itself."

Burns, who appeared in Denver last week, says that when he was casting around for a new subject after making The Civil War, baseball "set off alarms" in his head. Four years later, they're still ringing.

The epic tapestry of Baseball encompasses a huge range of personalities and anecdotes--the memories and mythmaking of the national pastime.

Burns traces the game's labor traumas back to the nineteenth century and finds the crucial crossroads of racial exclusion. He has reconstructed Fred Merkle's "boner," the infamous base-running error that lost the pennant for the 1908 New York Giants and haunted the perpetrator for the rest of his days, through a brilliantly edited series of forty still photographs. He examines the glory and the greedy appetites of Babe Ruth, the best-known athlete of this century and America's first celebrity sports star. He follows Casey Stengel into that now-famous Washington hearing room, where the Ol' Perfessor bewilders congressmen with his surreal stream of testimony about the merits of baseball's antitrust exemption.

"Even his hair had muscles," one player says about slugger Jimmy Foxx. Foxx "wasn't scouted," says another, "he was trapped." Burns relives the follies of the 1962 Mets, the worst team in the history of the game. He delves into the mystery of Ty Cobb, the great Hall of Famer whose violence and bigotry alienated everyone around him. He shows us the huge hands of the great Honus Wagner wrapped around a bat, like the soul of legend itself.

Playfully, Burns re-creates the sour Chicago Cubs infield of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers (teammates called him "the human crab") and Frank Chance ("the greatest amateur brawler in the world"). And he reveals that hard-bitten manager John McGraw, a bigot to the marrow, carried as his good-luck charm a piece of rope from a lynching.

"Yet when he died," Burns says, "they discovered among his belongings a list of Negro League players he would have liked to have had playing for him on the New York Giants."

That brings us to the emotional center of the entire eighteen and a half hours--the shame of racism.

Former NBC newsman John Chancellor is the narrator of the series, but those who've seen most of it say its commanding onscreen presence is John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, the 82-year-old veteran of twelve seasons in the Negro Leagues. O'Neil's recollections of the game--and the exclusion it inflicted on African-Americans--are neither rancorous nor angry, but they make up the soul and conscience of Baseball. Historian Shelby Foote quickly became the audience favorite among the assembled pundits of The Civil War; O'Neil is destined to finally get his due here.

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