The film is from Ken Burns, the man who made The Civil War. It is much longer than that film, which was PBS's biggest hit. Baseball, which sets out to detail the history of the game - and supposedly much more - is almost as long as the Civil War itself.
The film is billed as 18 1/2 hours. The final cut seems longer, unrolling with additional PBS material in a 21-hour marathon over the next two weeks, considerately programmed - before the players' strike - to end just as the major-league playoffs were beginning.
If it is not a completely satisfying substitute for the playoffs and the World Series or for Ken Griffey Jr. or Matt Williams hitting 62 home runs or for Tony Gwynn batting over .400 or for the Cleveland Indians winning the pennant, it is all we have.
And the non-fan should like Baseball much better than baseball. It is filled with historical insights, even if it is not the much-ballyhooed complete cultural history of the United States that its supporters and chief sponsor, General Motors, hoped it would be.
The musical score - which spans 150 years and, unfortunately, includes infinite versions of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the national anthem - is reason enough to tune in.
And there are the poignant stories of immigrants' sons who rose from the coal mines or the sweatshops, and of heroes felled by war, cruel disease, or the excesses opened to them by their heroism.
Baseball, the show, and baseball, the game (Burns would like us to consider them the same, and in some ways they are), teaches that most things don't change.
There are tales of greed and labor unrest dating from the 1870s, though unionism did not become successful in baseball until it was fading in the surrounding world.
When management had complete control, the players exercised their money lust by cheating, as far back as 1877. That summer, the peerless Louisville Grays somehow lost seven in a row. "Afterwards some were seen wearing fancy clothes and diamond stickpins," intones narrator John Chancellor, whose duty in this program rivals Lou Gehrig's iron-man performance of 2,130 consecutive games.
(Pitcher Jim Devlin was among those banished. He wrote for reinstatement
from 908 Atherton St. in Philadelphia, but was ignored. He joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1880 but died three years later.)
And people who decry the low state of style and manners these days might be surprised to see film of Joe DiMaggio's double in the eighth inning of the 38th game of his incredible 56-game hitting streak, June 26, 1941.
There in the stands, 53 years ago, is some yahoo with his shirt on his head giving his buddy a backward high-five.
The old footage and still pictures in Baseball are breathtaking. The assemblage is monumental. Here are pictures of the New York Knickerbockers, who played the first "official" baseball game in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846.
Here is a 1910 photo of a starched gentleman named Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy. Connie Mack stayed starched for 50 years, repeatedly selling off the best of his Philadelphia Athletics. His idea of a great team, says Chancellor, was one that was in contention and drew lots of fans early in the season but finished fourth. Big profits, no player raises necessary.
Here are wonderful films showing how Satchel Paige hid the ball with his high-kicking left foot, a motion so confusing he really didn't need all those different special pitches: Bee Ball, Midnight Rider, Four-Day Creeper, Jump Ball, Long Tom, Hesitation Pitch, Trouble Ball, Hurry-Up Pitch.
You can compare the 1975 Luis Tiant - even more confusing than Paige as he turned completely away from home, hiding his glove, the ball, even his face, before delivering from left field - with the 1910 Walter Johnson.
Films show Johnson's strange, gangly, semi-sidearm motion, and help explain why, as Chancellor says, he may have been the fastest pitcher of all time. ''The thing just hissed with danger," said Ty Cobb.
(Cobb eventually learned that if he stood on the plate, the kindly Johnson would pitch wide, afraid to hurt the batter. Cobb would take a couple of balls, then step back and whack it when Johnson eased up to ensure a strike.)
Here are films of Babe Ruth's powerful swing, Willie Mays' incredible (though no more so than many others shown) 1954 World Series catch, Pete Rose's baserunning, Ted Williams' home run in his last at-bat, Casey Stengel's 1923 game-winning inside-the-park home run, midget Eddie Gaedel (his strike zone was estimated at 1 1/2 inches high) taking four straight balls in 1951.
(St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck Jr., who let fans vote by placard to decree what field moves his hapless team should make, told Gaedel a high- powered rifle was trained on him and would shoot if he swung.)
Here is Jackie Robinson stealing home.
Robinson, and Branch Rickey, the man who hired him and put him on the field April 15, 1947, are the heroes of Baseball, which puts tremendous emphasis on baseball's long exclusion and grudging inclusion of blacks. It is argued that after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson was the most important black American of the century.
Considerable time is spent with the Negro Leagues, with Josh Gibson, who Chancellor says may have been the best hitter in baseball history, and with Paige who may have been the best pitcher. "May have been" abounds in Baseball.
Baseball needs editing. It gets redundant in its preachy moments. There's dead time in almost every one of the nine "innings," as Burns calls them, and the third and fifth drag noticeably. Although seven-eighths of the film is marvelous, there are simply too many opportunities throughout Baseball for people to tune out and never come back.
It also misses things. Burns, a shameless Red Sox fan, devotes far too much time to his favorite team, though it has been at the center of some of baseball's most important moments. As it always has, New York baseball gets too much attention.
Critics in Detroit and Kansas City, Seattle and San Diego will complain their teams have been slighted. Philadelphians will wonder how a history of baseball can never mention the name of Robin Roberts or Steve Carlton, and bring up Richie Ashburn only in connection with those cutup 1962 New York Mets.
There's nothing about high school or college baseball, not even mention of the first intercollegiate game, played by Amherst and Williams under funny rules in 1869.
Baseball examines the Federal League, the House of David, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the beer and whiskey league, but it uses the phrase "little league" only twice and never gets to a game.
But it does show little Mario Cuomo (later New York's governor) chucking that pill in a disorganized sandlot affair, and lets him comment on baseball. (The Yankees would eventually sign Cuomo for a $2,000 bonus, $900 more than they paid Mickey Mantle. But Cuomo couldn't hit the curve.)
Other contemporary interviewees providing a mixed bag of commentary include baseball writers Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Thomas Boswell and the incomparable Shirley Povich, Maury's dad; players Williams, Mantle and Bob Feller; university professors (and diehard fans) Stephen Jay Gould and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Goodwin is one of the stars of Baseball, a woman who has suffered as a child of Flatbush (and later of Fenway), who talks about the continuity of the game across the generations, and who can easily mark "the greatest moment of pure joy" in her life: Oct. 4, 1955, when the Dodgers won the World Series, at last.
But her light is eclipsed by Buck O'Neil, one of the Negro League stars among the interviewees, a first-rank raconteur who casts gentle insight on the proceedings throughout the nine innings. His story of the face-off between Gibson and Paige is magnificent.
And, at the end of the ninth, which closes before the 1993 Philadelphia miracle ever began, he presages this current difficult time with these reassuring words about baseball:
"We've done a whole lot of things to hurt it, but you can't kill it. You just can't kill baseball because when you get ready to kill baseball, something's going to come up, somebody's going to come up, to snatch you away."
Created, produced and directed by Ken Burns; written by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, co-produced by Lynn Novick for Florentine Films and WETA-TV. Narrated by John Chancellor. Airs tonight through Thursday and Sept. 25-28 on PBS, beginning at 8 p.m. on Channels 12 and 39 and at 9 p.m. on Channels 23 and 52.