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On Leadership publishes a weekly video series with prominent national and international leaders. Complete archives available here.

Ken Burns on the great leaders of baseball

Ken Burns
WATCH THE VIDEO: On Leadership: Ken Burns on baseball's great leaders

Marc Fisher: I'm Marc Fisher, enterprise editor at The Washington Post, I am here today talking On Leadership with Ken Burns, filmmaker, who has a sequel to his classic 1994 baseball documentary coming this fall on PBS in September called "The Tenth Inning."

Ken Burns:Thank you.

Fisher: As you look over the history of baseball and what it's meant to America, one theme that you come back to again and again is this sense of e pluribus unum, out of many one, and in baseball there has been over time a move to players who stand out, not because they are part of a team. What has been the impact on the sport, and on the ability of managers and owners to control the sport when you have cocky guys out there, big showmen who seem to be the center of the team?

Burns: it does seem like that, but unlike any other sport, when you can always inbound the pass to Michael Jordan, or you can always have Joe Montana throw the ball to Jerry Rice, Babe Ruth only comes up once in every nine times at bat.

And inevitably baseball will throw you a curve, a situation like life, where the scrawny second baseman is the guy who comes up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the home team behind, and he has to do something. So I think there is a humbling nature to this sport to begin with: Remember you fail seven times out of ten and if you do that for 20 years, you go to the Hall of Fame. It teaches loss in almost every breath. That humbles even the most arrogant person -- Alex Rodriguez goes into a slump, doesn't perform in the postseason, this is a leveling thing that returns you to that glorious 'unum' of team, which baseball more than any other sport necessitates because of this strange thing of being up to bat.

In baseball the focus of everything goes from one person, pitcher, to the next person, the batter, to the next person, the fielder, with an absolute spotlight on them with other people doing supporting choreography, but in the end everybody has some role to play, and I think it represents a great leveler, and people who rise to the top actually understand that basic submission to a larger order, to the common wealth.

We know what it is like to have an overpaid Yankees team not do anything, and we know what it's like to have an overpaid Yankees team succeed, and the difference is the willingness to sublimate your own personal desires for something larger than yourself, and that is the kind of collective will of the team.

Fisher: Has the culture of celebrity and celebrity worship altered that calculus in the way that the public perceives players and teams -- if you think about that dynamic, A-Rod and Derek Jeter; the consummate team player versus the guy who is in it for himself. Are we now more tolerant of those [Barry] Bonds-like characters than we used to be?

Burns: I don't know if we are more tolerant. We have become more judgmental as we become more fractured as a media culture, where we are watching not just two or three channels but 500, and we have a blogosphere where we didn't have it before.

I think it's much easier to come down, it's much easier to be dialectically occupied: red state or blue state; right or wrong; male or female; black or white; young or old; hip or square; west or east, north or south, and we forget to select for that mitigating wisdom that sees something else.

Alex Rodriguez may have more team attributes than we actually know. Derek Jeter may have an incredibly selfish side to him. The thing that mitigates it is less about ego -- because you actually need a tremendous amount of ego to get where you are; there are only about a thousand people as we talk about baseball who "get there." The difference between the best hitter and the worst looks like the greatest gulf in humanity, but the worst hitter can do something the rest of us couldn't even imagine approaching.

I think the big factor, as it is in most everything today, is money. And I don't think we factor greed in. We just to toss it off and say that's what it was about in a baseball strike or that's what's going on on Wall Street, but [there is] a constant preoccupation on the part of everyone -- newspaper reporters, documentary filmmakers, wives, husbands, children -- about money. The acquisition of it, the loss of it, the spending of it, the things that it does, the things that it doesn't do, and that's what separates us.

Money was never a prominent factor when it was sometimes possible to see a Brooklyn Dodger holding onto the subway strap handle on the way to Ebbets's Field with you. That doesn't happen anymore. There's no way any of those players are going to take the subway.

Fisher: And has that changed the kind of leader who succeeds in baseball? If you think about politics, Lincoln, who you could see riding his horse to the White House, is a different kind of person from the Obama who you know basically from TV. Does the same thing happen in baseball?

Burns: The question of leadership is so funny. If you were taking the example of Abraham Lincoln, you'd say: What were those aspects of leadership -- forget about "the bubble" for a second -- what were those aspects of leadership that made him so great?

I had the great privilege of listening to my friend Doris Kearns Goodwin expound on Abraham Lincoln the other night, and she is so right when she speaks about his willingness to share credit and to take blame, and to essentially lead by example, to have a good humor, to be self-deprecating at all times.

I have just described Joe Torre, who was able to take this insane circumstance, which was the Bronx Zoo that Steinbrenner had made, and transform it into a working machine that had very much to do with the fact that he had never won before. He had been a mediocre player, he had won MVP once but as a manger he had losing seasons, he had never been to the World Series. All of a sudden he was able to go into this situation, as Tom Boswell says, an "inherently insane situation," and be the epitome of sanity, and bring those same self-effacing characteristics -- the willingness to give all the credit to other people, to take all the blame when things went wrong, and so it's so strange that the hallmark of leadership should, through various media, politics and baseball stay the same, and through such extraordinary time.

We do have always have always the toxicity of the bubble, the isolation that that represents. It's not necessarily an affliction of Obama, though he is susceptible to it. It wasn't necessarily an affliction of Abraham Lincoln, because it was the sort of thing where Walt Whitman, a nurse in the appalling Union hospitals, could tip his cap to the president and make observations daily about [the president's] mood and his character and his feelings. You and I don't have that unfettered access, and so we have to factor in a little bit what that bubble does. But it doesn't necessarily change somebody. Some people can be isolated and still have an idea of what's going on.

Fisher: In any field there are always multiple models that work. In baseball you have two opposite, almost juxtaposed models, where you have the George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Donald Trump bully-tyrant model, versus something we'd associate with the business world, a Tony Larussa, a Joe Torre -- a more tempered, intellectual approach. Do they work equally well?

Burns: I think that, for all the bluster, the Martin-Steinbrenner axis didn't really produce that great Yankees teams. The Joe Torre model did, lots of them. And I think as bitter a pill as it is for Tom Boswell -- as he says in our film -- to swallow, that was probably the greatest teams that he watched. And as this lifelong Red Sox fan, I take my cap off to what Torre was able to do and the kind of unbelievable production he got out of those guys, not just in the bludgeon ball, but in that intimate 'small ball' world that they also played in those glory years in the late '90s.

Fisher: Is it possible, as fans try so hard to do, to let their love of the purity of the game rise above all these interfering circumstances of money and greed and all of that? Yankee fans talk about being a Yankee fan in spite of Steinbrenner. Is there a larger lesson in that for people working in companies where they may not like the leadership, or they may think the leadership may have the wrong motives at heart? Is there a way for people to rise above bad leadership, a lesson that baseball teaches?

Burns: I think it's harder in the more real-world examples of business than it is in baseball. Let's face it, there's nothing intrinsically valuable in being able to hit a ball with a bat. And so there's a great deal of abstraction, a great deal of transference in baseball, a great deal of projection that often occurs.

I think what's great about the game, and I think why it is the best game, is because it does transcend almost all of the aspects that threaten at every moment to derail it. Whether it's the money-grubbing owners, these monumental ticket prices, the mausoleums that they built to themselves and their own vanity at public expense, the exorbitant salaries that they pay, and the price of a hot dog. And people love it. And the thing is, Alex Rodriguez is still in a contract that was worth a quarter-of-a-billion dollars -- that's a quarter-of-a-billion dollars -- and he's not that good to rate that amount of money.

But you can still see when he gets on the field, it's not the paycheck that he's playing for, there's something else going on. And I think for those of us who watch the game, we're able to suspend and transcend all of those other distractions and something else takes place, which is baseball's power.

Fisher: We're now, in this country, in our fifth decade of hearing that soccer is just about to happen in America, and it's still not quite here. And yet baseball, we're now probably many decades into hearing that it's dead and done, and it hasn't gone away. What is there that's uniquely American about the game that also makes us reluctant to embrace soccer in the way the rest of the world has?

Burns: I don't necessarily think there's a connection other than the fact we have developed three fantastically great sports, baseball being by far the best, but football and basketball also being wonderful. There's not really that much room for soccer to get the same kind of hold the other sports have.

Baseball is such a perfect example of this American tension between the collective and the individual. The idea that it's the only sport where the defense has the ball -- that makes a huge difference. It's the only sport in which there's no clock that really matters; I suppose golf does but it's not really that kind of team sport. And that you have all of these intricacies, these intimate, chess-like combinations of possibilities, that I think are so fascinating. Perhaps just our love of those, our involvement with those, and in some respects the equally complex aspects of football and basketball, have just drowned out the possibilities [for soccer.]

It's so interesting that people are always writing baseball's death sentence. But I noticed that when Armando Galarraga was denied, outrageously, a perfect game, and it will never get back as it should be, it was the front page of the New York Times. It was the front page of many newspapers around the country. And that wouldn't have happened if there had been a blown call in a football game.

Baseball is just a sport where the things that take place seem to lead and reflect us in such precise ways that it is us. And I can't say it's more democratic than other sports, but it happens to have accompanied most of the decades of our national narrative, and therefore, has come to, in big ways and small, represent us and stand in for us. Whether it's blocking out all the light of soccer, who knows.

Baseball at one time was baseball, and then there was this little yapping dog at its heels called college football. Well, now we know we've got football, we've got basketball, we have hockey, and we have other forms of entertainment. Why shouldn't soccer be able to move in and set up camp? It doesn't seem to be able to.

I read a quote from [inaudible] in 1858, who lamented, "We don't play baseball the same way we used to when I was a kid. I don't mean they don't play it with the same rules, but the spirit has gone out of it." So in every single generation, somebody's been saying, "It's done. Steroids, no way they're coming back. Strike, I'm not going back. Amphetamines, cocaine, I'm not doing this."

Fisher: In the new film, you bring the baseball story up to date and take on some of the tough issues that baseball has had to deal with: crises around steroids, other scandals. How has baseball dealt with that kind of crisis, and is it in an effective way as far as breeding the next generation of fans is concerned?

Burns: That's a good question. I don't know about the future. Historians, and amateur historians, make such lousy prognosticators.

It has been a difficult thing to overcome, all of these various scandals, and how we deal with it is an ongoing question. But we have dealt with it in some way. We did deal with these very difficult questions of the steroids, and other scandals, and the strike, which was debilitating in every form, yet something always sprouts up, something always comes back, and you find a new attachment to the game just as it becomes more complicated and filled with much more interesting undertones.

I think that's a good question: how is it that we make new fans. I'm a storyteller, I really don't want to oversell this, I'm just interested in telling a good story. I think that there are good stories in baseball, and I hope that I've told a good story. What's so clear is that this sport, which is so reliant on statistics -- they mean things much more than any other sport -- nevertheless requires narrative to accompany it.

We're going to have to sit down with our kids and our grandkids and say, "There was this time when a 50-home-run season was a rarity. And then, all of a sudden, middle infielders were hitting 50 home runs, and that was because, little Johnny, they were taking performance-enhancing drugs." And they got discovered and then, all of a sudden, as it is now, a 50-home-run season is back to being a rarity. And there's a kind of collective sigh of relief.

There's also not a small amount of ambivalence because it was so exciting to follow McGwire and Sosa, it was so exciting to love and hate Barry Bonds, it was so exciting to think that your middle infielder could hit 50 home runs. But there's all that complicated stuff that's going on. Baseball will continue to mint fans because there's something about the experience of the game, and everyone knows what that's like.

To leave the grid of the city and to come through a tunnel and see that green under that strange light. To have [your] geographical orientation disoriented for a while, and to watch men playing a little boy's game for a while, and 50,000 of your closest friends doing the same thing with you, is a pretty interesting cultural phenomenon that I don't think we're going to too easily lose.

Fisher: So the power and the poetry of the game transcends even the worst management and leadership?

Burns: I think so. I've watched that bottom-scraping division, bad-boy player suddenly shine in a game and do something with true instinct. Flip the ball with the glove hand, or not look and put the ball between their legs, or make a diving, body-sacrificing catch, or come through in the clutch. And you go, "It's all about possibility."

You don't find that in the other sports, where you can basically predict what's going to happen with some degree of certainty. There's always surprises in those games, but I think baseball is the one that holds the most surprises because you can be down 15-0 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and if you're at home, you can still win that game. And there's no other sport where that can take place. If you're down by 21 points, you've given up if there's only a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter. But [in baseball] you can actually play until you win.

I was in Paris, France, missing baseball, and I watched online -- meaning I just had to watch little dots move around a diamond -- the Boston Red Sox come back from an impossibly great deficit against the Baltimore Orioles and win a game. I'm sitting there, it's the middle of the night, three in the morning, whooping and yelling in Paris, France, and they don't give a damn about it. But I did.

Fisher: Is there someone in your study of baseball who stands out as a leader? Someone who, without necessarily much physical or intellectual power of their own, managed to show leadership skills that changed the course of a team or a season?

Burns: I don't know. To me, maybe not changed the course of a team or a season, but I met, in the course of producing our first series, an old Negro Leaguer named Buck O'Neil. It's said, glibly, that human beings are made in God's image. Any accounting of human behavior over the last few thousand years would suggest that the exact opposite is true, except as it comes to a few individuals who you're sometimes very lucky to meet.

And it was my great, good fortune to meet Buck O'Neil, who was the star player for the Kansas City Monarchs, who later became the first African-American coach, not manager, for the Chicago Cubs, who was passed over for a general manager position because he had had a secondary education denied to him by Jim Crowe America. But, who became an ambassador, not so much of the Negro leagues as for the kind of heroic, Gandhi-like, Jackie Robinson-like, Martin Luther King-like forbearance and affirmation in the face of adversity. And for me, his leadership, his humanity, his heart, trumped just about anything I know.

Transcribed by Ian Saleh.

By On Leadership video transcripts

 |  June 16, 2010; 2:08 PM ET
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Yep,I stopped reading when he called Torre mediocre.

Posted by: rfsjms | June 18, 2010 7:34 PM
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Ken Burns said in reference to Joe Torre ->

"He had been a mediocre player, he had won MVP once..."

According to www.baseball-reference.com Joe Torre was in 9 all star games, had 5 seasons with more than 100 RBI's, 5 seasons with an average over .300, career BA of .297, was in the top 15 for MVP voting three seasons, over 2000 career hits and over 1000 career RBI's, along with being the MVP once as Ken Burns states. That is a mediocre player? Mediocre players don't make 9 all-star teams. Either Ken Burns has never looked at his stats, has a distorted meaning for mediocre or he just wants to create a narrative without a basis in fact.

Posted by: david78 | June 18, 2010 4:20 PM
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Thanks for providing the transcript. I refuse to watch news videos that begin with an ad.

Posted by: rebecca81 | June 18, 2010 1:23 PM
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Uh, Joe Torre, mediocre?? Hardly. Weird how Burns, so steeped in history and knowledge of baseball would say this.

Joe Torre:

Finished second to Billy Williams in the 1961 Rookie of the Year voting...

was a nine-time All-Star...

In 1965, won a Gold Glove as a catcher, and led National League catchers in fielding percentage in 1964 and 1968...

In 1971, he won the Batting Championship hitting .363 and led the league with 137 runs batted in, enroute to the National League Most Valuable Player award

Torre closed out his 18-year playing career with a .297 batting average, 252 home runs, 1,185 RBIs and 2,342 hits

Posted by: chutney28 | June 18, 2010 11:27 AM
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Ken Burns says,"What's so clear is that this sport, which is so reliant on statistics -- they mean things much more than any other sport -- nevertheless requires narrative to accompany it." Though perhaps he meant it in a slightly different context, truer words were never spoken. Think about the blend of sabremetrics and able scouts (providing the essential narrative) that now forms the integrated basis for the evaluation of players.

Posted by: jwerthan | June 17, 2010 10:57 AM
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