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Ken Burns on Baseball

Filmmaker goes into <i>Tenth Inning</i> on America's sport

AARP spoke with Burns, 57, about his new documentary, and how he developed his deep love for both storytelling and America’s game. 

Q: You already did a massive miniseries on baseball. Why do a sequel?

A: We realized that many of us hadn’t figured out how to digest what had gone on — like the strike, or steroids — and that it was really important to put these in perspective. The last two decades in baseball have been among the most consequential, with new teams, rule changes — like interleague play and wild cards. Then we had the strike, which, believe it or not, had positive consequences. There hasn’t been a labor dispute since, while every previous labor agreement was met with a work stoppage or a strike or a walkout. The real star of the game is its resiliency.

Q: What role did your parents play in instilling your intellectual curiosity?

A: My father was a cultural anthropologist, but he was also an amateur still photographer, so I got my love and respect for the power of individual images to convey complex information from him. My mother was sick [with cancer] my whole life and died when I was 11. So in some ways, my love of history and story … if you think in the most basic, elemental ways, history is waking the dead. There’s this powerful, emotional person who wants to wake the dead — to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong and Babe Ruth come alive. This is what we do in history.

Q: That’s pretty profound. No matter what direction we go, somehow there is an origin in childhood.

A: I think it’s true of everyone. Sometimes we block that off and protect ourselves from the pain of these things, which is OK, but I feel that real progress as a person involves being brutally honest about yourself to other people, and I try to do that. I think it helps me be a good filmmaker, and helps me talk to people about the things I’m interested in, and the things we all share in common.

Q:  What role did baseball play in your childhood?

A: Because my mom was sick and we were poverty stricken as a result, despite some insurance, baseball was a refuge for me — it was this thing I did to escape the tragedy that was enveloping my family. By the time I was 3 years old, I knew there was something really, really wrong. She didn’t die until a few months short of my 12th birthday. That’s a really long time in childhood to be beset by that.

For me, the bright moment was baseball games. I remember once, I took my now-grown daughters — when they were around 7 and 11 — to the baseball diamonds where I had played my pony and little league games, and I acted out all these things I had done. I could remember this play, and the time I had done this, and made a diving catch, and did a quick double play. And they sat and just beamed with excitement. I think if you got any one of them in a room and asked them, “What do you remember about your father growing up,” even today they would say that moment when we relived those memories. I didn’t have a bat or a ball. I just pantomimed the action for them. They were the greatest delighted audience I ever had, and it was hugely important for me to do that.

Q: How many children do you have?

A: I now have three girls, with one new one on the way within the next few weeks, and my oldest girl — that then-11-year-old I was just describing to you — is going to make me a grandfather in three months.

Q: Congratulations on all. Is this your first grandchild?

A: This is my first grandchild. I’m very excited. My wife and I don’t know what we’re getting, but my daughter knows she’s having a girl.

Q: How are you preparing for life as a grandfather?

A: I love it. Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how kids are here to replace us. I would add the corollary that grandchildren are here to give us a kind of immortality. I’m as excited about this little one of mine as I am about my grandchild, and I don’t feel old. I feel like this is what makes you young, and I think that’s very much part of our generation. I’m 57, and I feel as young as you can possibly imagine. I’ve thrown out the first pitch at a dozen major league parks. I’m talking to you from Boston, where I’m about to throw out another one. It’s very exciting.