Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Pulitzer Prize-winning
Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sportswriter and National
Baseball Hall of Fame honoree, Peter Gammons and moderator Robert Behn
of the Harvard Kennedy School address a packed
Three prominent Boston Red Sox fans discussed the role of baseball in American culture in front of a standing-room only crowd that turned out to the Institute of Politics’ “Take Me Out to the Ballgame!” forum on Friday afternoon.
The discussion, which featured Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and baseball television analyst Peter Gammons, focused on the game’s impact on race and family life. They addressed the question of how the sport has taken on a singularly influential place in the American consciousness.
Robert Behn, senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, directed the proceedings which at times mimicked the atmosphere one might find in a ballpark—audience members wearing baseball jerseys and munching on Cracker Jacks occasionally called out with a boo or hiss.
Gammons reflected on the extent to which baseball, whose prominence on the international stage has increased substantially in the past decade, mirrors the melting-pot composition of American culture. He recalled the words of Major League Baseball pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who fled Cuba to play in the United States and later acknowledged of his fellow ballplayers: “We all came over by boat.”
“In that way, baseball reflects us.” Gammons said, pointing to the parallel between Hernandez’s characterization and the United States’ immigrant tradition.
Burns, the documentarian, said that he hoped that his Emmy Award-winning film “Baseball” gave viewers “an opportunity to think about race,” citing the development of the Negro Leagues and the debut of Jackie Robinson—who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947—as events whose significance exceeded the narrow confines of sport.
Discussing baseball’s uniquely pervasive standing in American culture, Goodwin and Burns emphasized that the familiar, generational aspect of baseball is key to the game’s appeal. Goodwin recalled her childhood habit of filling out box scores and recreating the game for her father, while Burns argued that stories about baseball, unlike those of other sports, “always begin ‘my mom’ or ‘my dad.’”
“My favorite was probably a tie between [Burns] and [Goodwin],” Tyler R. Goin ’09 said of the panelists after Friday’s event. “It was interesting to hear about baseball from them because they’re historians from other fields.”
The group spoke relatively little about the numerous revelations of illegal steroid usage that have wracked baseball in the last decade. But Gammons addressed the government’s role in tackling these issues in an interview before the forum.
“I don’t think government can regulate sports, but I think they can go after the heart of the underworld issues,” he said, citing the prevalence of steroid use in high school and college athletics. “If they can get to that heart and clean things up...it’s a good thing.”
Rose Styron, a resident fellow at the IOP who offers a weekly study group entitled “Art and Politics,” was involved in organizing the event said she considers both Goodwin and Burns longtime friends.
Styron hosted Burns at a special study group that preceded the forum.
“His eyes are open all the time,” Styron said of Burns. “The world is his oyster, and he makes it delicious for all of us. He’s dealing with all the issues of our time.”
—Crimson staff writer Emily W. Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.