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Ken Burns on Baseball

Filmmaker goes into 'Tenth Inning' 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.

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