Q&A with The Tenth Inning Filmmaker Ken Burns

August 26, 2010
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.