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Q&A with The Tenth Inning Filmmaker Ken Burns

By Michelle Michalos
Thursday, August 26th, 2010
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Ken Burns

When Ken Burns’s landmark Baseball miniseries premiered on THIRTEEN in 1994, it attracted more than 45 million viewers, becoming the most-watched program in public television history. His new two-part series, The Tenth Inning (Tuesday, September 28th and Wednesday, September 29th, 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN; 10 p.m. on WLIW21), picks up where the original series left off, recalling the crippling 1994 strike, the steroid scandals, the rise of Asian and Latino players, the new Yankee dynasty, and more.

Burns spoke with THIRTEEN about this tumultuous chapter in baseball history.

Q: Why did you decide to do a follow-up to the original Baseball series?

A: The last two decades in the history of the sport have been among the most consequential in the story of our national pastime. And since the story of baseball is a precise mirror of the country that gave birth to it, we felt compelled to try to make sense of what has happened with the game – the devastating strike of 1994 and the ongoing steroid scandal, but also some amazing achievements that have reminded us why this has always been and will always be our national pastime.

Q: Have Americans become cynical about baseball — and baseball heroes — as a result of the greed, scandals, and celebrity culture that have dominated the sport for the past 15 years?

A: We’re living in a cynical age, and baseball reflects that. But we’ve been recording the same sort of harrumph about how the game is changing — and not for the better — since the 1850s. Somehow the play on the field is only temporarily overshadowed by belligerent owners, greedy players, obstinate players’ associations, and insensitive media, and we get to enjoy the best game that has ever been invented. The love of the game is the perfect antidote for the cynicism that corrupts the sport we love and our society.

Q: What role does New York play in The Tenth Inning?

A: You can’t talk about baseball without talking about New York City and specifically the New York Yankees, the most important and dominant team in the history of the sport. When we did our first Baseball series, we focused on an American League team and a National League team — the Red Sox and the Dodgers — knowing that the Yankees would quite correctly be the central story of our narrative. And they are. So much has happened with this storied franchise that they are literally impossible to ignore. And The Tenth Inning is no different. We have the story of Joe Torre, a losing player and a losing manager, transforming “The Bronx Zoo” into the most formidable baseball dynasty of the last 15 years. New York baseball also played a huge role in our recovery from the events of September 11th, and we try to detail the way baseball helped the country endure and get back to the business of life after those tragedies. And of course, the last bit of action we describe is the Yankees’ World Series victory in 2009.

Q: Baseball has probably inspired more movies and works of literature than any other sport, from the Bernard Malamud novel The Natural to the films Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Why has this sport inspired so many writers?

A: Baseball is the only sport that has accompanied every decade of our national narrative, so it’s a wonderful prism that refracts the experiences of America. We also find in baseball a connection to our past. A 300-hitter means the same thing to my three daughters that it does to me, as it did to my Dad, and as it did to my great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War. There is no other American sport quite as powerful in that respect. But more significantly, baseball teaches us about loss, just as great literature does. I once asked the novelist Walker Percy why the South produced so many great writers and he said, referring to the Civil War, “Because we lost.” In baseball, if you fail seven times out of ten at the plate you’re still a 300-hitter, and if you do that for 20 years, you’re in the Hall of Fame. Every baseball game has a little life lesson embedded in it.

Q: What’s your favorite moment in The Tenth Inning?

A: This will not come as a great comfort to those readers who are Yankees fans, but having lived in New England for the last 40 years, I have to say that my favorite moment in the film is the Red Sox World Series victory in 2004. And their defeat of the Yankees in the American League Championship Series that same year is the greatest comeback in the history of baseball.

Q: How would your career be different if you didn’t have a relationship with public television?

A: I cannot imagine my professional life unfolding except in public television. There’s no other place that would have given me the chance to tackle in 11 hours the most important event in American history — the Civil War — or explore all the subjects that we’ve done. Public television exists outside the marketplace, and my interests and the way I approach films do too. I am thrilled and proud and honored that they would allow me to be part of this very complicated, utterly American family.

  • Saundra Curry

    I’m a Mets fan. Yes, know that’s difficult these days, but true fandom has no rhyme or reason. My greatest sports moment was in 1986, The Mets had made it into the World Series and won that unbelievable Game 6 against the Red Sox. I had an off-day on Game 7 day and asked afriend who knew someone…who knew someone…if we could get into the game. She did and we did and we found ourselves at the Press gate, then inside the stadium, with no tickets. My friend clearly knew what was what. We scouted around, “green” exchanged hands at the field level gate and we found ourselves standing in the left field concession area of Shea with about 60 other people. The Red Sox drew first blood, but when we scored in the sixth I knew we would win. I was in seventh heaven for months afterward.
    My worst moment was in 2000. I live in a house divided. My husbnd is a Yankee fan, though not as fanatical as I am. I recall going to work on Thursday morning, the Mets down 3 games to 1 and realizing things might not go my way. It was going to be doubly difficult with my husband at home and 99% of my coleagues at work Yankee fans. I made a plan. Sure enough we lost that night. I shook my husband’s hand and disappeared. He has no idea what part of the house I slept in that night. Friday I kept an extremely low profile. I kept being called by Yankee fans celebrating and wanting me to appear to cheer with them. I never showed my face. They even saved me cake, which I threw out – a big deal for a cakaholic like me. By Saturday I was better. Early in the morning my then six year old son knocked on my door and tentatively asked “Mom is it OK if I wear my Yankee sweat shirt?” “Of course”, I answered. He opened he door and stood clothed head to toe in everything METS that he owned. I was so touched I burst out in tears. Who says kids don’t have insight?

  • Charles Richards

    Mr. Burns’ 94 series was so very moving. Many of the episodes brought me to tears. It is with much anticpation and excitement that i await his new installment.
    If he likes the Red Sox world series win, that’s o.k. Even though I am aYankee fan, I am a fan of the game first.
    I definetly will have the popcorn ready.

  • Jeremiah Sullivan

    I also am looking forward to “The Tenth Inning” by Ken Burns. My 95-year old mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, grew up near The Polo Grounds and saw the Yankees play in The Polo Grounds before Yankee Stadium opened up in 1923, and then would walk across the Macombs Dam Bridge to the new Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play in their new ballpark. She remembers seeing Babe Ruth when he was skinny and hitting triples and stealing home. She remembers seeing Lou Gehrig play and Earle Combe and Tony Lazzeri and Bill Dickey, to name a few. She forgets alot of things now but we still have baseball to talk about and reminisce and she also wants to know how her Yankees are doing to this day. Baseball provides that connection to the past that we so deeply crave, and the connection to each other .Winning or losing isn’t that important to me, but what is important to me is that baseball is played every day and I don’t mind watching or listening to other teams play since I love the game of baseball first and foremost.,as one other reader put it so nicely. Baseball helped me to connect with my father and my mother and brothers and sister and my friends and total strangers, and will always connect me to everyone I come into contact with. Think of how often you go to a game by yourself or with friends or family and how you start up conversations with those sitting near you at the ballgame and I have always enjoyed that sharing aspect of the game of baseball.As a 57-year old Yankee fan, I have seen my share of baseball games over the years and still get excited every time I go to a game to watch a game in person, win or lose, and expect that I will always feel the same way for another 57 years.