Ken Burns taxpayer-supported PBS documentaries are shown in public schools across the U.S., presented to students as unvarnished fact. But are they? Today we are going to look at the historical inaccuracies of Burns critically acclaimed Baseball mini-series.
Mistakes in Ken Burns Baseball Documentary
I wonder if Burns just thought no one would actually notice what they were showing or saying, like showing Jackie Robinson playing 2nd base during his rookie year (he only played 1st that year) or saying that Brooklyn lost their last home game before going to LA (they won 2-0). Now I know footage from this era can be scarce, I get that, so, to make it more pleasing to the eye, Burns fabricates and lies. The problem is that it creates inaccuracies in people’s minds. Many people think he played 2nd base in his rookie year, and I think this is partially why. Everything that Burns does is taken as Gospel but unfortunately, he leaves out the facts at times.
Yaz and the 1967 World Series
The truth is Burns is a great filmmaker and a great storyteller, but he is not a historian. In all his work (not just baseball), he takes multiple liberties with music, images, and narration to make good stories while sacrificing historical accuracy.
People should watch his work knowing that it blurs fact and fiction (but they won’t). I mean you can only laugh when they show Yaz batting in the 1967 World Series and then it switches to the pitcher, and it’s the Orioles’ Dave McNally (who didn’t pitch in the ’67 Series; he pitched in the ’69 Series (a series Yaz didn’t play in)).
The Characterization of Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson resented being called “terrifying” and “scary” and “never pleasant”. After Burns’ Baseball aired, people started to come up to him and ask him about how mean he had been as a player. One time, a guy introduced Gibson to his wife. “This is the meanest player to ever play the game,” the guy said. Gibson was stunned and very hurt.
Gibson began doing interviews after Burns’ documentary refuting these claims. He said he was no more aggressive against hitters than anyone else in his era. Gibson said that most pitchers didn’t say hello to the opposing team. He didn’t pitch inside more than Drysdale or Koufax. But Koufax was called an artist, while Gibson was called terrifying. Why is that? Roger Angell referred to Gibson as “Dark and forbidding” and Gibson felt that was racist because it was.
By the way, Gibson did not hit Bill White the first time they faced each other. The HBP appeared the 30th time White faced Gibson. You mean to tell me Gibson waited three seasons to finally “give a message” to Bill that “we’re not roommates anymore”. Burns’ documentary also claims that Gibson never gave out autographs, which is a complete and utter lie. Also, Gibson never said, “The middle 13 inches of the plate belonged to the hitters, and the inside two inches and outside two inches were mine.” Burns basically made Gibson look like a psychotic pitcher who was willing to hurt people to win and that is just not the case.
Was Ty Cobb an Embarrassment? No, but Ken Burns is!
This is where it’s obvious that Burns does not do any research whatsoever, he just repeated the lies that were perpetrated by a drunken sportswriter named Al Stump.
In Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, Cobb is vilified as “an embarrassment to the game.” According to legend, the player with the all-time highest batting average (.366) stabbed and killed a black waiter in Cleveland for being what he called “uppity.” It just wasn’t true, Burns was just regurgitating the story.
Burns also painted Cobb as a racist, which once again if Burns had done some research, he would have found that it simply was not true. When Cobb was asked about Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball in 1952, Cobb actually told the Sporting News that “the negro has the right to compete in sports and who’s to say they have not?”
Cobb also told a newspaper in the 1950’s that Willie Mays was “the only player I’d pay money to see”. Cobb also would befriend Negro League players, often sitting in the dugout with them during games after throwing out the first pitch when he played exhibition games against them in the 1920’s.
A New York Post article (‘How Ty Cobb was framed as a racist’ by Kyle Smith, May 31, 2015) states that Negro League ballplayer Bobby Robinson of the Detroit Stars said “there wasn’t a hint of prejudice in Cobb’s attitude.”
So what we have is a man in Ken Burns who takes taxpayer monies and does absolutely no research on his own. He just takes the stories we were all told as kids and reuses them. So, in the end, Burns’ “Baseball” documentary really does more harm than good.