This piece was published in Planet Vineyard in September 1998. It was a short-lived magazine. Long on great writing, short on paid advertising. I realized that hardly anyone ever saw this piece. It is based on my interview with Lynn Novick who was the co-producer of “Baseball” with Ken Burns. Since we are watching the series again — for I think the third or fourth time since it premiered on PBS in 1998, I thought … “Gee, why not publish it where someone might actually read it?” And here it is. Because before I was a blogger, I was a writer.
Lynn Novick Profile
by Marilyn Armstrong
Take a passion for American history and mix it with a handful of Hollywood star-dust. Add a generous pinch of altruism. Spice the batter with a measure of luck. Bake for three and a half years in the oven of hard work. Voilà, meet Lynn Novick, co-producer (with Ken Burns of Civil War fame) of the upcoming 18-1/2 hour PBS mini-series, Baseball.
It’s a breezy, crystal clear day on Martha’s Vineyard. As she unwinds with her husband Robert and daughter Eliza in their summer home overlooking the sea, Lynn Novick emits bursts of energy you can virtually see as well as feel. The enthusiasm is contagious, even if you think that baseball has nothing to do with you. Though Baseball is “in the can and ready to go,” she remains a passionate advocate of America’s Pastime and what it means to the people of this nation. Making this mini series was arduous, but it was a labor of love.
It’s difficult to get Lynn to talk about herself. She wants to talk about Baseball. She wants to tell you how the game encapsulates America’s history and cultural development. She wants you to know how well it illustrates our changing values and shows as we really are, both good and bad.
“Baseball,” she says, “is our link to a collective past. It connects all of us, no matter where we come from, to the American experience. It’s our common ground, an historic thread woven into the fabric of our culture. The history of baseball is our history.”
Strong words, you think. She must have grown up a dedicated baseball fan.
“Actually,” confesses Lynn. “I was just a casual fan. My parents enjoyed baseball. My father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan … he never quite got over the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast. I grew up believing that Ebbets Field was sacred ground. My dad taught me to throw and catch, but I wasn’t a little league player or even a committed fan. I started out with an affection for baseball and a belief that the Yankees are the enemy. Everything else I picked up in progress. Now, I could go head-to-head with any baseball expert. Just try me.”
Lynn has had a total immersion baseball experience. Since 1990, she has lived Baseball. She dreamed it, planned it, read about it. She met heroes out of legend. The editing process alone consumed two and a half years. She was the architect of all sixty-five interviews and conducted more than half of these herself. She spent endless days and weeks on research, filming, and organizing every detail of the production.
Baseball has given Lynn Novick an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport.
“It’s had some interesting side effects,” she muses. “Baseball has turned out to be the key to the men’s room, so to speak. I find myself having serious discussions with all kinds of men, all ages, all professions. When they realize that I know my stuff, it’s instant acceptance. It’s a misconception that sports are a ‘guy’ thing, though. I’ve met plenty of women and girls who are serious fans, too.”
Lynn did not grow up yearning to be a film-maker. She never thought of herself as especially visual and had no pretensions of becoming the next John Ford. Until the day she decided she wanted to make documentaries, Lynn Novick never considered film-making as a career. From Manhattan’s upper West Side, where she grew up, she earned a bachelor’s in American Studies at Yale in 1983. The child of two academics, Lynn intended to follow in their footsteps. Her first job was at the Smithsonian Institute. But museum work didn’t “do it” for her.
“I needed something more hands-on, more engaging. Academia was too theoretical, too out of touch. I’m not sure how I decided I wanted to make documentary films. I think it was a combination of things. I’ve always loved the movies. I study history. I need my work to have social value. Making documentary films brings all the strands together. I can bring history to life.“
Once she decided what she wanted, she didn’t waste any time. She moved back to New York, interviewed at PBS. Shortly thereafter she began working on the Joseph Campbell series.
“That’s where I learned the basics of production,” she says. “How did I move on from there? Fate. Luck. Both probably. I knew someone who was working with Ken Burns on the Civil War project. She wanted to quit, but didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. So she introduced me to him, told him she was leaving and said “but look, here’s someone to take my place.” Ken was in the middle of the project. He didn’t have time to go looking for someone else, so he hired me as associate producer.”
Luck may have played a part in her first collaboration with Ken Burns, but talent earned her the co-producer’s slot on Baseball. Tapping into her extraordinarily high energy level, she worked flat-out for the duration of the project. She supervised a million details. She viewed hundreds of hours of film over and over again throughout the seemingly endless editing process.
In the middle of the project, Lynn became pregnant. She continued working throughout her pregnancy. After giving birth to Eliza, she took four months leave.
Her personal choices made the transition from new mother to film producer less stressful. Rather than give Eliza over to caretakers, Lynn chose to bring the little one to work with her. Eliza made a delightful addition to the Baseball staff. If early environment is any indicator of future development, look for Eliza among the next generation of filmdom’s luminaries.
Right now, Lynn Novick and family are enjoying a well-earned time-out on a Chilmark hilltop. The home originally belonged to her husband Robert’s parents and is now owned jointly by Robert and his sister. The two families share the premises with ease.
“I’ve been coming here for eleven summers,” says Lynn. “Even though the place belonged to Robert’s family, it’s a very special place for me. I can’t imagine summer anywhere else. Even more than Robert, this is where I want to be. There’s something about the air here,” she smiles.
What’s next? “I don’t know yet,” says Lynn. “This is my time to get to know my daughter, reconnect with my husband and myself. There’s a kind of ‘post partum’ down period after a production finishes. One day you’re working full tilt, the next day, suddenly, there’s free time. It’s quite a shock.”
You can stream Baseball on Amazon Prime. You can buy the series on DVD from PBS and other places. The Major League Baseball Channel is running it right now and it shows up reasonably often on various cable channels.
If you have not seen it, whether or not you are a baseball fan or any kind of sports fan, this series so beautifully written and produced, it’s worth your time.