In 1993, Alex Belth left college and began working on Ken Burns's Baseball documentary, whose coda, The Tenth Inning, is airing now on PBS. Here, Belth recalls his time with Burns, his encounter with Carly Simon, and Roger Angell's clicking lozenge.
I left college one class shy of graduating in December 1993. Three weeks later I caught my first break in the movie business as a production assistant on Ken Burns's Baseball documentary. My old man was pissed that I didn't graduate, but I couldn't believe my luck. Joe Carter's home run, which I saw by accident at a pizzeria in Little Italy, had rekindled my passion for the game. During my college years, I'd been too distracted for baseball, plus the Knicks had my heart as the team to live and die with. But baseball had been my favorite sport growing up. For my birthday, uncles would give me baseball books by John Thorn and Maury Allen. Now I was going to be part of something far cooler than that.
I knew Ken had blown up with his Civil War series. Before that, he was an accomplished documentarian. Now, he was that rarest of things, a public television celebrity. A couple of months into the job, Ken turned to me and said, "So when are we going to get your skinny ass up to Walpole?"
Ken and his crew at Florentine Films had just finished adjusting the sound levels on a reel. Ken lived in and worked in Walpole, N.H., but the final stage of production, the sound mix, took place in the Brill Building, a New York landmark dating back to the days of Tin Pan Alley.
I began as an unpaid intern and made enough of an impression to get on the payroll. Ken saw to that. The supervising editor, Paul Barnes, was the first guy who really took care of me. Paul was revered by his crew — he was a saint to them — and made sure the company paid for my lunch and often joined me for noodles at Sapporo on 49th Street. He would talk about the movies — about Pauline Kael and how he loved the slow pace of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence — as if I were an equal.
I got coffee and made trips to optical houses, film labs, and the negative cutter. One day, I delivered a newsreel to an old photographer who said, "I hate to break it to you kid, but Joe DiMaggio was a Class-A son of a bitch." I also escorted Buck O'Neil, the Negro leagues legend, around town one May afternoon. While I stared at his enormous hands — they looked like Rodin sculptures — he told me about watching Babe Ruth and playing with Satchel Paige. I told him about playing high school ball. He could have made me feel like a fool. Instead, he made me feel like the most important person in the world. "When you stop learning," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder, "you're through."
When I didn't have an errand to run, I sat quietly in a corner of the mixing studio and took it all in, frame by frame, inch by inch. The mix is a vital part of filmmaking, but for Ken, who used sound effects, music and narration over film footage and still photographs, it was especially crucial. Every choice had to serve the story. It was a tedious process, but no detail was too small — the mixer spent hours removing the clicking sound that Roger Angell made in his interviews every time he swirled a lozenge around in his mouth.
One day, a sound effects editor lobbied to increase the volume on some crowd noises in a particular scene. They played the scene back, and Ken considered the suggestion. "No," he said softly, "we've got to lower that. I think it gets in the way." The sound editor argued, but Ken, who encouraged input from his crew, waved him away. "It's a distraction," he said, "it gets in the way of the story." Then he turned to the mixer, the final decision made, and said, "Lower it and let's hear it again."
Baseball was filled with sadness, like Josh Gibson's tragic end and Curt Flood's losing fight against the baseball establishment. When visitors came to the studio to screen a particularly mournful scene, Ken would wait for their reaction like a kid in a roomful of wrapped Christmas presents. More often than not, the viewers were left in tears. Ken would beam triumphantly. "We got another one," he'd say, and then he'd exchange a high-five with the nearest person as he offered tissues to his weeping guests.
Spike Lee, who was working in the building at the time, came in to screen a sequence on the Negro leagues; Roger Angell, a boyhood hero, stopped in, too, and wasn't as friendly as I'd hoped; and one day, after screening a moving sequence about Lou Gehrig, Bob Costas said, in all sincerity, "What a hallowed moment."
I listened and I watched, took notes on a pad and made elaborate doodles. I was sketching the day Carly Simon stopped by. She had contributed a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I remember she wore black leather pants. During a reel change, she came over to where I was sitting, looked at the drawing I was working on, and exclaimed how talented I was loudly enough for everyone to hear. I blushed and looked down at the ground. But in my heart I hoped that my doodles, which may have seemed purposeless to everyone else, would lead to my being noticed.
It wasn't until Ken invited me to Walpole, however, that I knew I was in. It was like getting a call to the big leagues, a place created by and centered on Ken but featuring a wonderful group of talented men and women. Ken himself drove me to his house for the weekend, just the two of us in the car for four hours. I'd been around plenty of celebrities over the years, but I was not beyond being starstruck. As we left Manhattan, Ken talked on his car phone to Carly about Barbara Streisand and Bill Clinton as though they were high school kids talking about the senior prom.
I had only known Ken from what I'd seen on TV, where he seemed like a prisoner of his boyish looks. He was a thin guy with thin lips, sharp, expressive eyes, and his body language exuded confidence. In person, I was struck by his intelligence and charm. He didn't sound lofty, the way he did on TV. He was authentic and a good listener.
Ken got a kick out of turning people on to the things that moved him. When Willie Morris appeared in episode five of Baseball, talking about listening to games on the radio, I asked Ken who he was, and that was my introduction to Morris and his classic memoir, North Toward Home. I found a copy immediately and the book made a lasting impression on me. Ken was an avid music fan and hipped me to Lester Young and Booker T and the M.G.'s. During our car ride north, I tried to get him to dig some rap records — I remember playing him "Passin' Me By" by the Pharcyde — but he couldn't get past the lack of melody. Then, he took out a cassette and played what he called the best version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was Marvin Gaye, singing at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Ken was right.
When we reached Walpole, a sleepy town tucked in the rolling hills of New Hampshire, Ken said, "I want to show you something I came across by accident one day when I first moved here." There were patches of snow on the ground, and the air was crisp and smelled of cow shit. Ken stopped his car at a cemetery and pointed out a headstone with a man's name on it and: "Died 1755. Killed by Indians."
Ken talked a lot about his ex-wife. He was in the middle of a divorce and could not yet accept what had happened. I met his two kids, Sarah, 11, and Lily, 6. Sarah was the same age I'd been when my parents divorced, and I felt an instant affinity for her. She was smart and poised, her sister's keeper and her father's protector, trying so hard to play the grown-up. Lily was a cut-up. "There's a fish eating at the table and he has legs," she said one day, lying on the grass in the backyard and looking up at the clouds. "One time I saw a lamb smoking a cigar."
I slept that weekend beneath a worn patchwork quilt made from cloth and sweaters that Ken's grandmother had sewn. The house was clean and comfortable, tastefully decorated with Shaker furniture. In the downstairs bathroom there were framed pictures of Ken shaking hands with Presidents Reagan and Bush. On Saturday night, he put the top down on his Miata and raced through the hills to a local bar with me riding shotgun. The film crew was already there when we arrived, as was the rest of Walpole. This was a blue-collar bar, filled with tough, wary-looking locals. Burns strutted through them, unaware or uncaring that he was being viewed with suspicion and envy. Personally, I was shitting a brick but that guy was like the King of Siam in there.
The next day, I made a couple of mix tapes from Ken's CD collection — including much of the music that would be featured in the show. Otherwise, I hung out with the crew, Dave Schaye, Yaffa Leara, Mike Levine, Trish Reidy, and Marlena Grzaslewicz, to name just a few, and had a great time. I don't think my feet touched the ground all weekend.
The job lasted six months and did not pave the way for immediate success. At the end of that summer, my girlfriend broke up with me and my old man kicked me out of his apartment. I reluctantly took a job waiting tables, and I wouldn't get a break as an apprentice in an editing room for another year. I had learned that waiting to be discovered was a sucker's bet. But I wasn't going to give easily.
Looking back on it now, I could not have dreamed of a better first job than the one I had with Ken Burns. It was an experience that helped shape the course of my life. Would I have turned to writing about baseball if not for that experience? That's hard to say — the Yankees' great success and the advent of the Internet had a lot to do with it, too. But I know that I would not have written my first book about Curt Flood if I hadn't been so moved by his story as told in Baseball. And I'll never forget the first time I saw Flood, on a large screen in a mixing studio. I was captivated just looking at his worn face, his glazed eyes, a man so clearly wounded.
The baseball world was shattered in the fall of '94 by the strike that canceled the World Series. But it didn't crush me. When Baseball aired on PBS and I saw my first on-screen credit, proof that I had played some small role in what fans of the game would be talking about everywhere, I knew the life I wanted. Anything seemed possible.
After working for Ken Burns, Alex Belth was fortunate enough to work for Woody Allen on Everyone Says I Love You and the Coen Brothers on The Big Lebowski, as well as a handful of forgettable movies, like The Blair Witch Project II and Swimfan. In 2002, Belth started Bronx Banter, an NYC lifestyle site devoted to following the Yankees. A regular contributor to SI.com, Belth has written a biography of Curt Flood and edited The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. His latest book, Bronx Banter Presents Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories, hits the shelves next week.