Friday, September 23, 2011

March of the Steel-Man

After a strong showing against Boston college and Eastern Illinois, the Wildcats ran into trouble at West Point and conceded their first defeat to the Black Knights. The Wildcats had difficulty containing Army's treacherous triple option chicanery led by their quarterback Trent Steelman, who has immediately become part of a secret army cryogenics program that will allow him to run the 2150 Army robot football team as triple-option robot quarterback T.R.E.N.T. Steel-Man.

Robot football is only a small part of Future Congress's robot
sports initiative

The loss was at least timed well, giving the Wildcats an extra week to prepare for an in-state showdown with hated rival Illinois during Hat Week. Northwestern fans can at least take solace in the fact that the 'Cats will not face the triple option again this season, that Dan Persa may return against the Illini to spark the offense, and that it's nearly fox hunting season.


Over the past several months, I've been gradually working through the Ken Burns Baseball documentary. The documentary, which ran in nine two-hour "innings" on PBS in 1994, covers the growth of baseball from its cloudy apocryphal origins to a billion dollar sports empire. In an unfortunate coincidence that veers close to actual irony, Burns's 18-hour paean to the National Pastime began airing four days before Bud Selig announced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, the most damaging blow to baseball in my lifetime with the exception of its development as a platform for red-faced sports columnists to bloviate about steroids and wage a war against empiricism.

The beginnings of Baseball enjoyably captured the anarchy of the early game, where spectators lined the field just over the foul line ready to interfere with games in progress, celebrate victories with riots, and deal with defeats by also rioting (imagine a nineteenth century Billy Crystal wistfully recollecting the first time he got elbowed in the face at the nineteenth century equivalent of Yankee Stadium).

It's hard to go wrong with early baseball. In case you were
wondering, I would classify the mustaches in this picture as
(counterclockwise from top) malevolent, disdainful, resigned,
and despondent

But despite the mayhem of early baseball, the early chapters did not always hold my interest. Part of it, no doubt, came from the difficulty of describing a kinetic game without the use of film, relying instead on still photographs, document readings, and music. Despite this setback, Burns does nothing to enliven the film; he uses a music and actor template as monochromatic as his faded sepia photographs. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of the music of the first four or so hours of Baseball consists of three pieces: a solemn accoustic guitar version of the Star Spangled Banner, a mournful piano rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and Irish ditty The Minstrel Boy, which I actually enjoyed because I associate it with Sean Connery plummeting down a 60,000 foot canyon (Connery's singing the tune to the Minstrel Boy, but the words to the hymn "The Son of God Goes Forth to War"). So the film experience consists mainly of listening to one of those three tunes under the mellifluous voice of inescapable public radio gadfly Garrison Keillor, whom I've always suspected of using his folksiness as a cover for his true nature as a ruthless Midwestern media mogul.

You tell the Williams Sisters Jug Band that
if they want to play the Pella County Jug
Band festival, I'm going to need to see some
Williams Sisters jugs

But if Baseball had merely consisted of repetitive music, photographs, and documents read by people such as Garrison "I own the fucking autoharp circuit" Keillor, it would still be fairly edifying. Instead, Burns pads probably half the film with unnecessary talking head interviews with pointy-headed mythology of baseball folks who drone endlessly about the beauty of the game of baseball and the pace of baseball and the rhythms of baseball and how baseball is a metaphor for doing things in American way with this, our national (American) pastime, baseball. This, in my opinion, is a disastrous choice. With few exceptions (such as Buck O'Neil), most of these people have no connection or insight into baseball beyond their desire to display their bow-tie collections and book-lined studies. At least George Plimpton is there to liven things up with his mystifying quasi-British accent.

"Tally ho, chaps, who is up for a rousing game of foot-ball?" I've
always been curious how Plimpton expected to fit into a group of
Detroit Lions that included Alex Karras (below), who seemed prone to
less literary flights of fancy. In the book, he noted the accent made
him stand out, describing it as "an eastern seaboard cosmopolitan
accent that they thought was 'British.' They delighted in imitating
my quarterback signal-calling. After practice, I'd hear them
yelling the numbers in the shower: '...fawty-foah, fawty tew.'"
The moral of this story is to read Paper Lion if you have not already,
it's a really good book.

UPDATE: Plimpton on Karras's wrestling career (see comments)

The point at which I stopped watching Baseball is in the seventh inning, in which Burns chooses to focus on the rivalry of the New York teams in the early 1950s, which meant that he is responsible for unleashing upon the world Billy Crystal's baseball nostalgia. Crystal is one of an apparently endless army of baby boomers ready to pounce from the shadows at any moment with a disarming array of the same fucking story about Mickey Mantle. This is the point where I realized that, with the exception of the Cardinals' Gashouse Gang and the Kansas City Monarchs, a film whose oft-stated theme is baseball as the national pastime had not covered a team outside of New York or Boston at length for the past several hours.

The talking head segments also date the film as Burns's nostalgia peddlers discourse for hours about aspects of evaluating baseball players that are hilariously anachronistic. This is not Burns's or the commentators' fault-- it is unfair and frankly ludicrous to expect any mainstream baseball person in 1994 to have any doubt in the holy trinity of the Triple Crown statistics. At the same time, it is somewhat amusing for noted baseball expert Mario Cuomo to go off for several minutes about how the essence of the game lies in the sacrifice bunt, which imbues players with the (American) virtue of selflessness, while any knowledgeable baseball fan watching the film now knows that the sacrifice bunt is in most situations an unproductive waste of an out that imbues players with a penchant for making dumb decisions for the sake of hide-bound tradition. The problem comes from interviewing a panel of writers hell-bent on spinning nonsensical narratives about How Baseball Is America instead of focusing on mustaches, cheating, and riots.

As a showcase for Burns's meticulous research and ability to unearth an incredible array of documents, photographs, and rare films about baseball, the film is a an undoubted success. But by strategically luring the likes of Bob Costas, George F. Will, and parade of yammerers into a practice field by sending them a telegram that he had sighted an open microphone but then filming them eluding a series of line drives hit by vengeful fungo enthusiasts and then filming this for my amusement, Ken Burns would have made a far stronger film. Or, he could have dropped the talking heads who did not directly participate in baseball and made an amazing 10 hour series.


It is an unfortunate week for a bye. Not only is it a sudden break in football season just when things are starting to get exciting, it's also an extra week to stew on the Army loss. On the other hand, that is plenty of time to somehow convince yourself that Northwestern has a rivalry with the University of Illinois that anyone cares about. Perhaps Ron Zook can ignite things and give his team a psychological advantage by closing one endzone in order to recall last year's disastrous contest at Wrigley Field. I would not put this past Ron Zook, a master of mind games who always has an extra card up his sleeve, although that card appears to often be enthusiastically yelling a lot (perhaps I'm unfairly mischaracterizing Zook's motivational ploys and he bends spoons with his mind-- if so I apologize, the TV mainly shows the yelling).

Although there's no college football, at least the Bears play the Packers in a historic NFL rivalry game and rematch of last year's NFC Championship game. But, the Bears will start two backup safeties (including Craig Steltz, who I had no idea was still on the team, let alone playing organized football), and are starting an offensive line that is so terrifying even by Chicago Bears standards that there is a decent chance that Sunday's broadcast becomes a Jay Cutler snuff film. Perhaps, however, the Bears will rise to the challenge despite their injuries and defeat the Packers with American pluck and resiliency showcased in this, our national pastime.

1 comment:

BYCTOM said...

The relationship between George Plimpton and Alex Karras is slightly mischaracterized in the article above largely because I wanted to run an animated gif of Alex Karras punching a horse in the face. Karras was suspended from the NFL for gambling the year Plimpton was in Lions camp and therefore Plimpton had little contact with him. Plimpton did get to know him later on spurring this passage on Karras's banishment:

"He had a short career in wrestling, which-- as one might expect from Karras-- was stormy enough to keep the front office on its toes. For one of his matches he was scheduled to fight Richard Aflis, a former lineman on the Green Bay Packers, who had moved on to villainous roles in the morality spectacle of big-time contemporary wrestling. Aflis fought under the name Dick the Bruiser, and his trademark in the ring was a ferocious countenance usually covered with blood, in fact some sort of red liquid, cow's blood, perhaps, which flowed from a reservoir in a large patch he wore up on his forehead.

A week before the fight Aflis turned up in Karras's saloon to shout some obscenities in what was thought to be a publicity stunt to promote the match, and probably was, until things suddenly got out of hand. There was a midget friend of Karras's in the saloon, a forty-three pounder named Major Little, whose return fire of verbal abuse finally ignited Dick the Bruiser, and a brawl erupted. The police were called, and the Bruiser, who was wielding a pool cue, was wrestled into submission by eight policemen, one of whom suffered a fractured wrist. They were able to truss him up, binding his hands and feet, and then they moved him out on to the sidewalk, clumsily, like men carrying a large rolled-up carpet, to await the police wagon."