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Reading Baseball: Celebrating PBS and Ken Burns' 'Baseball'

updated: 12/17/2020 7:07 AM

In recognition of the birth of PBS 50 years ago, the writers and editors of the New York Times put together a list of the 50 greatest PBS programs.

It should come as no surprise that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," described as "empathy and honesty wrapped in a cardigan," topped the New York Times list. No PBS program better expressed the mandate set down by Congress for public television: that it should address "the needs of un-served and under-served audiences, particularly children and minorities."

The goals set for public television by Congress also included giving viewers a better knowledge and understanding of American history and culture. High on the New York Times list in achieving that goal was the Ken Burns 11-hour documentary series on the Civil War. The Times wrote, "It stands as a monument to a cultural moment" when millions of Americans were "willing to sit down in shared contemplation of our history rather than just fighting about it."

After the success of his Civil War documentary, Ken Burns decided that his next project should be a history of baseball. In a "60 Minutes" interview, he claimed that "the first real progress in civil rights after the Civil War takes place when Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, the grandson of a slave, makes his way to first base at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947." He added, "There's no question that the story of baseball is just going to take off from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the failure of Reconstruction to that moment."

Burns' history of baseball, echoing the nine innings of a game, runs for nine episodes, beginning with its "First Inning" on the origins of the game and ending with its "Ninth Inning" on baseball's modern era. The "Second Inning," called "Something Like a War: 1900-1910," begins a decade-by-decade chronology of baseball that concludes with its "Eighth Inning: A Whole New Ball Game: 1960-1970."

While watching the Ken Burns PBS documentary is a joy for baseball fans and essential for an understanding of the intimate relationship between America's game and American history, Ken Burns added to his accomplishment when he co-authored, with renowned historian Geoffrey Ward, "Baseball: An Illustrated History" as a companion for his documentary.

The narrative of the book, supplemented by a wealth of photographs from baseball's past, follows the same nine inning format as the documentary, but it also includes an introduction by Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell and essays from baseball's most distinguished historians for each chapter. The chapter on the 1940s, for example, was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, while the chapter on the 1950s was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will.

"Baseball: An Illustrated History" would make a wonderful Christmas gift for the baseball fan in your life. At a time when a tragic pandemic and a bitter political divide have disrupted our lives and challenged our confidence in the future, Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward, through their illustrated history of baseball, remind us of our capacity to overcome the challenges of history, including world wars and epidemics, and restore our faith in the value and continuity of our lives.

I already have a copy of the Burns/Ward history, so my kids will have to look elsewhere this Christmas for their father. My wife Anita has already fielded some inquiries about a Pirates calendar, but I'm afraid that the Pirates were so awful last season that there aren't 12 Pirates good enough to grace a calendar.

What I'd really like this Christmas is a rain check for a game that hasn't been played yet. Next summer, I want to be sitting in the stands at PNC Park in Pittsburgh with my family at a Pirates and Cardinals game. I can't think of a better gift this Christmas than the promise that our lives will return to normal by then and the only ones wearing masks at ball parks next season will be catchers and home-plate umpires.

• Reading Baseball is a series of stories and commentaries by Richard "Pete" Peterson, author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and co-author with his son, Stephen, of the forthcoming "The Turnpike Rivalry: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns."

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