TV Documentary/Blu-ray Box Set Review: ‘Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns – The Definitive History of America’s Pastime, 1840s-2009’

You can also watch the restored version of Baseball on MLB Network if you have that channel in your cable TV package!

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns – The Definitive History of America’s Pastime, 1840s-2009  (1994, 2010)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward (Episodes 1-9), Ken Burns (Episodes 1-11), David McMahon (Episodes 10-11), and Lynn Novick (Episodes 10 and 11).

Directed by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick

Starring: John Chancellor (Narrator, 1994 Series), Keith David (Narrator, 2010 Series), Daniel Okrent, Billy Crystal, Doris Kearns Goodwin, George F. Will, George Plimpton, Bob Costas, Roger Angell, Mike Barnicle, Gregory Peck, Arthur Miller, Philip Bosco, John Turturro, Curt Flood, Ted Williams, Joe Torre, Mario Cuomo, Felipe  Alou, Marcos Breton, Keith Olbermann, Pedro Martinez, Amy Madigan, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Newman, Mickey Mantle, Ossie Davis

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
(C) 2021 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films/Baseball Film Project

Narrator: It is played everywhere. In parks and playgrounds and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers’ fields. By small children and old men. Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness. Speed and grace. Failure and loss. Imperishable hope. And coming home. – from Inning One: Our Game (1840s-1900)

On Tuesday, June 8, PBS Distribution released Florentine Films’ Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns – The Definitive History of America’s Pastime, 1840s-2009, an 11-disc Blu-ray box set with “fully-restored in high definition” editions of 1994’s Baseball and 2010’s Baseball: The 10th Inning, Burns’ immersive and exhaustive documentary miniseries about, naturally, America’s national pastime and its long, storied history.


An epic overflowing with heroes and hopefuls, scoundrels and screwballs. 



  • Babe Ruth
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Satchel Paige
  • Pete Rose
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Casey Stengel
  • Hank Aaron
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Barry Bonds
  • Pedro Martinez

It is a saga spanning the quest for racial justice, the clash of labor and management, the immigrant experience, the transformation of popular culture, and the enduring appeal of the national pastime.–  from Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. 

This wasn’t the first home media release of Baseball; back in the 1994s, when videotape was the dominant home media format, PBS Home Video released the original version of Ken Burns’ Emmy Award-winning miniseries in a 9-tape box set; in the fall of 2010 PBS Distribution released Baseball and its 2010 update, The Tenth Inning, in an 11-DVD box set.

The Series

On September 18, 1994, the 300 or so member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired Our Game, the first episode (or “inning”) of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. Co-written by Burns with historian (and frequent collaborator) Geoffrey C. Ward, the 112-minute long episode explores the beginning of America’s national pastime and explodes various myths, including the story that General Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero, invented the game that eventually became America’s pastime.

The series’ original broadcast run ended 10 days later with Inning 9: Home (1970-1992), an examination of such topics as free agency, the designated hitter, multi-million-dollar salaries, and a gambling scandal that shook the sport to its very core. But as they do throughout the previous eight “innings,” Burns and Ward also reflect about the timelessness of baseball – the very quality that is at the heart of the sport’s lasting appeal.

Well — it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.— Walt Whitman

The series aired – sadly – when much of the 1994 Major League Baseball season (and the World Series) were canceled on account of a players’ strike which lasted into 1995.   Perhaps because Baseball aired when no Major League Baseball games could be seen, the documentary earned good ratings (not as high as Burns’ The Civil War, but still better than average for a PBS series) and an Emmy Award for best documentary.

And even though it has been criticized for focusing too much on New York and Boston teams and perpetuating negative accounts of Ty Cobb’s life, Baseball performed well enough to not only merit re-airings on PBS and elsewhere, but a rare follow-up by Ken Burns in 2010’s Baseball: The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.

Fast forward to October 5, 2010: 16 years after Baseball’s original broadcast run, PBS Distribution released Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (Includes the Tenth Inning), a 11-disc DVD box set that includes Burns’ original 1994 documentary and Baseball: The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, a two-part follow-up that consists of Top of the Tenth (1992-1999) and Bottom of the Tenth (1999-2009).   

The New (High) Definition Standards

Of course, all of the home media releases made prior to 2021 were in standard definition and shot/aired in the old aspect ratio of 1.33:1 that was used in the analog TV broadcast era. However, in the decade since The Tenth Inning originally aired, most people have widescreen digital TVs with either high definition (HD) or ultra-high definition (UHD) video, and streaming services now tend to favor the widescreen  1.78:1 aspect ratio.

To meet the expectations of modern viewers and to attract more “eyeballs” to PBS’ streaming app, Ken Burns and his team at Florentine Films to alter Baseball’s aspect ratio from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1 so that the image could fit the wider screens of modern HD and UHD screens and thus avoid the vertical letterboxing effect that would have resulted if Baseball had been restored and remastered in its original version.

The Episodes

(All summaries are from the Blu-ray packaging labels)

Disc One (Inning One):

  • Our Game (1840s-1900) (1:53:54): By 1856, the game of baseball is already being called “the national pastime.” But the nation is about to be torn apart. During the Civil War, there is one thing that Americans North and South have in common: baseball.

    Disc Two (Inning Two):
  • Something Like a War (1900-1910) (1:44:55): The 1900s are a decade of revolution. Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson takes over a struggling minor league and turns it into a financial success. In 1903, the first World Series is played between the Boston Pilgrims and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Disc Three (Inning Three):
  • The Faith of Fifty Million People (1910-1920) (1:58:34): A steady stream of immigrants land in America — and find playing and following the National Pastime a path to becoming American. Even as the country endures a world war, baseball is trying to endure a decade that includes the angriest player to ever step foot on the field.

  • Disc Four (Inning Four):
  • A National Heirloom (1920-1930) (1:55:00): The 1920s begin with America trying to recover from the war and baseball trying to recover from the scandal of the 1919 World Series. America finds relief in the Jazz Age. George Herman “Babe” Ruth is one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    Disc Five (Inning Five):

  • Shadow Ball (1930-1940) (2:04:01): In the midst of all the suffering of the Great Depression, baseball offers a welcome distraction — and heroes. But the heroes do not come only from the Major Leagues. The Negro Leagues bring baseball to towns the Major Leagues ignore.

    Disc Six (Inning Six):
  • The National Pastime (1940-1950) (2:26:16): At the beginning of the decade, Jackie Robinson’s debut is still years away. Joe DiMaggio sets a consecutive game-hitting streak that still stands. Ted Williams becomes the last man to hit .400. The Brookly Dodgers win their frist pennant.

    Disc Seven (Inning Seven):
  • The Capital of Baseball (1950-1960) (2:12:14): Year after year, the Yankees are on top of the American League. Year after year, the Giants and Dodgers fight for the National League crown. Starting in 1949, there is a New York team in the World Series for 10 straight years.

    Disc Eight (Inning Eight):
  • A Whole New Ballgame (1960-1970) (1:54:48): The 1960s are a turbulent decade for America. It is also a turbulent decade for baseball. It starts with Bill Mazeroski bringing down the Yankees with one dramatic home run, and in 1961, Roger Maris pursues Babe Ruth’s “untouchable” record.



Disc Nine (Inning Nine):

  • Home (1970-1980) (2:26:19): America and the world are seeing more changes than ever. And so is baseball. Free agency, multimillion-dollar salaries, the designated hitter, a shocking gambling scandal, a new home run champion, and a World Series victory for Canada.



Disc Ten (Inning Ten):

  • Top of the Tenth (1992-1999) (1:57:33): In the age of globalization and deregulation, a cataclysmic strike over money and power brings baseball to the brink. Cal Ripken becomes baseball’s new Iron Man, sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smash records, and The Braves dominate the National League while the Yankees build a new dynasty. Meanwhile, players must make decisions about how far they are willing to go to succeed.



Disc Eleven (Inning Ten):

  • Bottom of the Tenth (1999-2009) (2:05:10): In the fall of 2001, when a badly frightened country yearns for normalcy, baseball helps provide it. In an epic battle with the Yankees, the benighted Boston Red Sox stage the greatest comeback in history. Baseball is more popular and profitable than ever, but suspicions and revelations about performance enhancing drugs keep surfacing, calling the integrity of the game itself into question.

The original nine innings are narrated by former NBC News anchor John Chancellor.

The 2010 update The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, which covers the years 1992-2009, was co-written by Burns, Novick, and David McMahon.  Because Baseball’s  original narrator died in 1996, actor Keith David, who had worked with Florentine Films on the seven part documentary The War (2007), was hired to take his place.

Baseball and The Tenth Inning rely on the visual techniques used by Ken Burns in all of his major documentaries, including slow pans over still art (photos and paintings) of the 19th Century and the use of black-and-white and color footage from newsreels and contemporary TV/film coverage of games and other public events that take place in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Adding to the visuals in Baseball and the fine writing by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Lynn Novick is the wide array of on-screen interviews with players, sportswriters, and baseball fans, as well as the galaxy of stars who provided voice acting talents to “perform” quotes from long-dead legends such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Gregory Peck, John Cusack, Philip Bosco, Amy Madigan, Michael Moriarty, Jason Robards, Anthony Hopkins, and Keith Carradine give voices to various historical characters in dramatized excerpts from letters, diaries, and other contemporary sources, such as newspaper articles of the periods covered.

Of course, Baseball also has interviews with baseball’s living legends – at least those who were around when the 1994 and 2010 installments were filmed, Ted Williams, Curt Flood, Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, and Pedro Martinez give candid accounts about their careers to Burns and his crew, and prominent baseball fans, including columnists Mike Barnicle and George F. Will, historians Stephen Jay Gould and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and actor Billy Crystal weigh in on their love of the game and its role as America’s pastime.

Interestingly, Burns (in his executive producer gig) not only uses music from the specific eras covered in the 10 innings, but he also recycles cues that were used in other Florentine Films productions. In Our Game, for example, I heard songs and melodies that I had heard when I watched The Civil War and The West (which was produced concurrently with Baseball and was thus directed by Stephen Ives). It’s kind of a cheat, some people might think, but it makes sense, both aesthetically and financially. 

My Take

To be honest, I am not particularly enamored with the sport of baseball. I have no athletic aptitude, so I can’t play the sport. My dad, who loved the game, died before my second birthday. My mom was not a baseball fan, so I had nobody in my family from which I could catch baseball fever.

Oh, I’ve gone to a few games, including a New York Yankees spring training game at the now closed Bobby Maduro Stadium and a Florida Marlins game against Cincinnati during its first championship season in 1993. I am familiar with baseball, but not enough to know when a player steals a base, or a pitcher makes a save. 

By the same token, I wasn’t a Civil War buff before The Civil War aired in the fall of 1990, nor was I fascinated by the issue of Prohibition before I saw Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s eponymous three-part series back in 2011. But I love my country, the United States of America, and these two events, plus the other topics that Florentine Films’ crew has chronicled, are tiles in the mosaic that tells the history of us, as it were.

I already owned the standard definition version of Baseball on DVD – I bought it back in 2017 because I had not watched either the original 1994 nine-part series or The Tenth Inning. And as I said earlier, Ken Burns and his team can take topics that I am not well-versed in and make them incredibly riveting to watch.

Did I need the Fully Restored in High Definition Blu-ray set? Objectively, no. I did not need it, just as I probably don’t need multiple releases of Indiana Jones, Star Trek, or Star Wars films.[1]

Subjectively? That’s another ball game altogether.

I have to really love a TV show or feature film to try and own it in the best home media presentation available, and I obviously have an affinity for Baseball or almost any Ken Burns/Florentine Films documentary that I’ve seen. So, I pre-ordered Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns on Blu-ray well before the June 8 drop date, even though it was pricey and coincided with Paramount’s Indiana Jones: 4-Movie Collection 4K UHD set.

As was the case with the World at War Blu-ray set that I bought during my last years in Miami, I was disappointed that Ken Burns decided to cater to modern audiences’ desire to watch old content that was filmed for “square” analog era TVs (1.33:1 aspect ratio) in widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). This involves painstaking and (yes) expensive editing methods that involve careful frame-by-frame manual rejiggering (usually cropping images) of the footage shot in one format so it will fill the screen of the more rectangular widescreens TV that are in use today.

I don’t mind watching shows and movies that have the black bars at the top or bottom of the image so that a widescreen image can fit in a square screen, or the vertical bars that are needed to make a 1.33:1 image fit naturally on a 16×9 screen. But millions of viewers do mind; they think they are somehow “missing” video data because the image does not fill their TV screens.

In many instances, you won’t notice too many distracting effects when you watch Baseball in its restored version, especially if this is your first time viewing it either on Blu-ray or streaming It on PBS.org on your computer or Internet-connected smart TV.

The problem of “cropped” images is acutely evident when you see the “modern day” interviews with “talking heads” such as Billy Crystal, Mario Cuomo, or George Plimpton.

As was the case with Fremantle Media’s revised version of the 1970s’ classic World at War, the cropping does not affect most of a person’s facial features, but it usually “lops off” the tops of heads and the tips of the interviewees’ chins, especially in close-up shots.

Burns and his restoration/remastering team did a good job overall as far as kicking up the clarity and sharpness of the images in Baseball, and luckily the aspect ratio change does not have such a detrimental effect that I don’t want to watch it. It is what it is, and once you start watching Baseball and lose yourself in the narrative of the miniseries, you probably won’t notice the cropping…too much, anyway.

PBS Distribution has given Baseball several audio tracks, including two English-language tracks (5.1 multi-channel mix for home theater systems and a 2.0 stereo mix for TV speakers. There’s also a Spanish audio track, but only in 2.0 stereo. Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also available in both languages.

Baseball  packs its 11 discs in three standard plastic Blu-ray cases: Discs One through Six in the first case, Discs Seven through Nine in the second, and Discs 10 and 11 in the third. The cases are ensconced in a non-embossed slip box; on the front cover, you see Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform circa 1947. On the back cover you see an action shot from the 2004 World Series. No DVD or digital copies are included, though.

This box set from PBS Distribution is worth getting, as is the series itself, even though some baseball fanatics have told me that Burns and his collaborators got some facts about Ty Cobb wrong. (To wit, the documentary tends to highlight Cobb’s alleged racism and anger issues, traits which some of the players’ early biographers attributed to him but are probably either exaggerated or totally bogus. I don’t know who is right, but I mention the discrepancy in the interests of fairness.)

Extra Features

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns does not have a plethora of extra features. There are no audio commentary tracks in any of the episodes or Innings, and none of the first nine discs come with any featurettes, outtakes, or behind-the-scenes stuff. What few extras are to be had are found in the discs devoted to The Tenth Inning, and they were originally made for the 2010 DVD. Here is what you’ll get in the 2021 Blu-ray set if you’re a die-hard extra features fan:

Disc Ten:

  • Back to the Ballpark: An Interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2010) (1080i, 17:19).
  • Additional Scenes (1080i, 35:27 total runtime): Included are Full of Knowledge, Dodgertown, A Tour of Fenway, A Night at Fenway, and Central Park .
  • Interview Outtakes About the Era’s Stars (1080i, 30:39 total runtime): Included are Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Ichiro, David Ortiz, Barry Bonds, and Joe Torre.

Disc Eleven:

  • Interview Outtakes: About the Era’s Stars (1080i, 1:05:40 total runtime): Included are Hitting and Hitters, Pitching and Pitchers, Fielding, Red Sox and Yankees, Cubs, Giants, Affirmative Action Home Runs, Late 90s Power Surge, Home Run Chase of 1998, Asterisks and the Hall of Fame, Fame, The Flip, 9/11, Coming to America, Globalization, Ichiro on the WBC, Rotisserie, and Why We Love the Game.

Conclusion

It’s fair to say now that I have seen two different edits of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, I think that America’s best-known documentary filmmaker has hit another home run out of the ballpark. Whether you are a lifelong baseball fan or just a casual one, go ahead and get a set from Amazon or directly from the PBS Store. And don’t forget to get some peanuts and Cracker Jack! 

Technical Specifications

Video

  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • Resolution: 1080p
  • Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
  • Original aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Audio

  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
  • Spanish: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Subtitles

  • English, Spanish

Runtime

  • 22 hours 30 minutes

Discs

  • Blu-ray Disc
  • Eleven-disc set (11 BD-50)

Packaging

  • Slipbox

Playback

  • 2K Blu-ray: Region A (locked)

[1] These franchises, as well as the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World series and a few selected films by Steven Spielberg and other directors, are ones that I own or will own in three disc formats: DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD Blu-ray.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

4 thoughts on “TV Documentary/Blu-ray Box Set Review: ‘Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns – The Definitive History of America’s Pastime, 1840s-2009’

      1. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my “Ken Burns Cup of Tea,” but I decided to buy the DVD set in ’17….and I’m glad I did. “Baseball” is definitely among my Top Five faves of Burns’ filmography.

        Like

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