Ken Burns Classroom

Baseball Heroes

Lesson Overview:

Why do human beings always seem to need heroes? American history was built on them and we find examples in all aspects of our culture. Some heroes are well known to all of us, while others do their work in obscurity. All genuine heroes achieve life-changing results.

Athletes, especially famous athletes, are often revered as heroes. But are they truly heroic? Like most professional sports, baseball has a long list of larger-than-life personalities who have been seen as heroes.

Some have overcome tremendous obstacles – poverty, racism, discrimination, or injuries. Some have made a real difference in the lives of others, and have dedicated their lives to being positive examples, always trying to do their best. Others achieved one-time performances that surpassed all human expectations. But when does this make them heroes? Have fame and celebrity become conflated with heroism in contemporary American life?

In this lesson, students will explore what it means to be a hero and discuss contemporary conceptualizations of heroism. They will research one of the major characters presented in the “Baseball” series or other athletes. Then students will develop a presentation chronicling the person’s life and actions, and analyze whether or not this person deserves being called a hero.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Explore the concept of heroism and develop descriptors to characterize this human quality
  • Research an athlete and develop a presentation analyzing his or her heroic qualities.

Materials Needed:

Lesson Procedure:

Opening Activity:

  1. Provide students with some background on the concepts of heroes. Tell them that this archetype is found in numerous literary works, from Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” to many of Shakespeare’s plays to the movie “Star Wars.” And in the Harry Potter series and in The Hunger Games trilogy. You might want to cover various aspects of the hero concept, explaining the classic hero and the tragic hero in Greek and Roman literature, and the mythic hero as popularized by Joseph Campbell.
  2. Have students think about and discuss contemporary conceptualizations of heroism. For example, ordinary people who do good deeds, improve others’ lives, overcome obstacles and/or change for the better what it is they do.
  3. Have students form small groups of three or four. Ask them to take out a sheet of paper and draw an oval in the middle. Have them write the word “hero” in the oval. Give each group two minutes to brainstorm one-word descriptors they feel characterize a hero and build a word web. They should also provide examples of characters they are familiar with in literature and/or life that display these characteristics. Ask then to share their top five descriptors for each category, and make a summary list of all the groups’ responses on the front board.
  4. Then ask them to discuss in their small group the nature of heroism (you might put these questions on the front board for easy reference):
    • What makes a hero? Is it an action a person takes, or is it how they live their lives? Are heroes without imperfections?
    • Do people need to be famous to be heroes? Do their actions need to be well known for them to be considered heroes?
    • What about ordinary people who do good work: are they heroes? Why or why not?
    • Can athletes be heroes? What is heroic about what they do?
    • Provide examples of how athletes represent heroes in the modern world.
  5. Have several groups report their discussion to the class.

Activity: Heroes Multimedia Project

In this activity, students will research the life of an athlete below and create a multimedia presentation. Students may work individually or in small groups.

  1. Pass out copies of the Heroes Multimedia Project handout to students.
  2. Either assign or have students select one of the personalities from one of the following:
  3. Allow time for students to conduct research and construct their presentations.
  4. Have students present their projects either online or in class. Students may develop a social networking site or Web page that presents all projects in a digital format. As an alternative, students can present their research on a poster board.


Students can be assessed on their participation in class discussions and according to the following rubric for their presentations.

Category 4 3 2 1
Content (all required points from assignment are included) Content covers topic in depth with details and examples. Student’s knowledge of subject is excellent. Content includes essential knowledge the topic. Student’s knowledge of subject appears to be good. Content essential information about the but there are or two factual Errors Content is minimal OR there are several factual errors.
Presentation (appropriate use of text, images, and special effects) Presentation makes excellent use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc., to enhance the presentation. Presentation makes good use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc., to enhance the presentation. Presentation makes use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc., to enhance the presentation. Presentation’s use of font, graphics, etc., distracts from the presentation.
Organization Content is well organized using headings or bulleted lists. Content is logically organized overall. Uses of headings or bulleted lists to help organize the presentation, but the organization appears flawed. There is no clear or logical organizational structure, just information.

Extension Activities:

  • Have students interview a person in their family who they consider to be a hero. What obstacles have they overcome in life? How do they inspire others? Students should use the information to write an essay about this personal hero in their life.
  • Have students consider the tragic hero who, because of an error in judgment or a tragic flaw, loses his or her way, with tragic results. Conversely students can explore the nature of the anti-hero who lacks the traditional traits of heroes—trustworthiness, courage, and honesty. Have students look at some of the baseball players who could be considered tragic heroes or antiheroes: Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds, and have them develop reports following the Heroes Multimedia Project guide adopted for antiheroes.

Academic Standards:

This lesson fits the following academic standards as set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) ( benchmarks)

Historical Understanding

Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

Level III (Grades 6–8)

    • Understands that historical accounts are subject to change on the basis of newly uncovered records and interpretations

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

    • Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history
    • Understands how past events are affected by the irrational and the accidental
    • Understands that change and continuity are equally probable and natural
    • Understands how the past affects our private lives and society in general
    • Knows how to perceive past events with historical empathy
    • Evaluates the validity and credibility of different historical interpretations

Behavioral Studies

Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

    • Understands that heredity, culture and personal experience interact in shaping human behavior, and that the relative importance of these influences is not clear in most circumstances
    • Understands that family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, institutional affiliations,

socioeconomic status, and other group and cultural influences contribute to shaping a person’s identity

Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands that being a member of a group can increase an individual’s social power and also can increase hostile actions toward or from other groups or individuals
  • Understands how various institutions influence people, events and elements of culture, and how people interact with different institutions
  • Understands how tensions might arise between expressions of individuality and group or institutional efforts to promote social conformity

Level IV: (Grades 9–12)

  • Understands that intergroup conflict does not necessarily end when one segment of society gets a decision in its favor, because the “losers” may then work even harder to reverse, modify or circumvent the change
  • Understands that the decisions of one generation both provide and limit the range of possibilities open to the next generation

Language Arts, Writing

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Uses a variety of resource materials to gather information for research topics (e.g., magazines, newspapers, dictionaries, schedules, journals, surveys, globes, atlases, almanacs, Web sites, databases, podcasts)
  • Organizes information and ideas from multiple sources in systematic ways (e.g., time lines, outlines, notes, graphic representations)

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

    • Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics (e.g., news sources such as magazines, radio, television and newspapers; government publications and microfiche; databases; field studies; speeches; technical documents; periodicals; Internet sources, such as Web sites, podcasts, blogs and electronic bulletin boards)
    • Uses a variety of primary sources to gather information for research topics
    • Synthesizes information from multiple research studies to draw conclusions that go beyond those found in any of the individual studies

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Baseball Heroes Multimedia Project


Part of the appeal of baseball is the multitude of larger-than-life personalities who have been a part of the sport from the beginning. Many of these people are considered heroes and at some point in their career exemplify heroic characteristics. In this activity, you will examine the life of one of these people and evaluate whether you think he or she is a hero.


  1. You may work individually or with a partner on this project. After you have identified or been assigned one of the individuals from the “Baseball” series, you can conduct your own research.
  2. Follow this guide in your research and project construction:
    • Provide a brief introduction highlighting your subject and something noteworthy about his or her career and private life.
    • Describe an early event that had a significant impression on the subject. This might have been values and principles they acquired while young or a significant event that made a lifelong impression.
    • Identify a test or challenge that the subject faced and describe how they met this challenge. Explain whether or not he or she meets the test. Use the guide below to assist your analysis:
      • Do you consider this person a hero?
      • What aspects of your understanding of heroism contribute to this conclusion?
      • What supporting evidence on the subject’s life and career can you produce that supports your conclusion?
      • Do you think the subject became enlightened in some way through the experience? Does this enlightenment transcend normal human experience and set your subject apart from all the rest of society? If so, how? What can others learn from the subject’s experience to enhance their own lives.
  3. After you’ve gathered your research in the above areas, develop a presentation for class, or a Website with space for comments from viewers.