May 2012

Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion

I delivered this keynote speech yesterday morning at the 24th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. I am honored to address such a passionate and learned gathering. The title of this keynote speech—Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion—evokes not only our oddly hallowed location, this lovely place where baseball was not invented, but also America’s enduring fascination with its national game, always changing in ways so minute that it seems to remain, comfortingly, the same.

Kierkegaard has written that life may only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. For the duration of this conference at least, we will do our best to reverse that dictum. Hoping to grasp what happened in baseball and the larger culture—and why—we will plant our feet in the sands of the past and wiggle our toes a bit, just to see what it felt like to be alive then. The overlay of modern analytic constructs will not be worth much until we do that.

Baseball’s popularity is primarily about the present, but its charm, its essential appeal, is about the past. A proud and vibrant anachronism, baseball is determinedly out of fashion—slow to move with the times, yet always in fashion, always our game. A museum of America’s original democratic values and ideals about the player and the team, baseball serves as a monument to who we once were … and might be again. It is our Eden, our Garden, its gates long since closed yet to which we might enter once again.

Baseball’s Eden is located, of course, not here in Cooperstown, or New York City, or Hoboken, or Pittsfield—or England or Egypt. It is no place—the literal meaning of utopia—but between our ears, where it has always has been, from the game’s very beginning.

In preparing this speech it occurred to me, truly for the first time, that thirty years ago, when I commenced the research for my most recent book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I was also completing the manuscript, with Pete Palmer, of The Hidden Game of Baseball. I wondered back then why so many people had expended so much energy in trying to shape and control the creation myth of baseball; to return to an Edenic past, real or imagined; to create the legend of a fall from grace, instigated by gamblers and drunkards, baseball’s stand-ins for the Serpent. I was also wondering at that time what role baseball metrics played in supporting that vision of Paradise, an age when giants walked the earth, or at least routinely hit .400 and won 30 games. So, to prepare for today’s address, I have had cause to revisit the germinal thoughts that precipitated those two books.

***

As individuals,we embrace the notion of a historical Baseball Eden because we sense that we catch a glimpse of it during any particular baseball game. Played or watched, our national pastime moves us past time itself, recalling youth and deferring death. It is a fine trick we play upon ourselves, and no other American institution makes for as artful a magician’s assistant.

As we grow older, we bear less and less outward resemblance to the child left behind at adulthood’s door, yet that child lives on within us, remaining an essential part of our identity, if not the essential part. Life’s cares make it more and more difficult to touch base with the child within, which needs a regular dose of attention if it is to sustain us. Thinking about baseball—steady, comfortable, unchanging baseball—brings us into a unifying relationship with the child, the part of us that loves the game, even if it is the adult that comes to understand it. Because the game is so evocative, on the deepest level, of our childhood, it is not surprising that the impressions of the game sharply formed during that period are the ones that stay with us for all time, forming a personal, if not overly factual, Eden. 

The game moves along slowly, seamlessly, from inning to inning, game to game, season to season, giving a special poignancy to the passage of time when change becomes all too visible. The heroes of our youth grow old—“the boys of summer in their ruin,” emphasizing the key part of Dylan Thomas’s verse—yet to ourselves we seem the same … forever young. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, undiminished.

If historic America survives anywhere as more than a roadside marker, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium, open-air ballpark, or Little League diamond. Even those whose entire lives have been spent in big cities feel the call of the grass, the undertow of the past.

Hindsight improves upon reality—we might call that phenomenon, more simply, illusion—so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of agrarian life before the Revolution were soon thought quite romantic and morally superior. This strange longing only accelerated as young bachelors fled the countryside for employment in the burgeoning cities. For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the base paths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it.

Although the contestants of today are very different in their abilities, physiologies, attitudes, and training, in a quick glance the game on the field looks the same as that of 1896 or 1956: the rules are pretty much the same; game scores are about the same; and individual performances are about the same. The seamless web of baseball is an illusion, the seams smoothed over by statistics. In the Olympics of 1896, the winning time in the 1500–meter run was 4:33.2; in 2008 it was 3:33.9, a clear statement that in this event, the top runner of today is capable of performances 20 percent better than his counterpart of 1896.

Baseball in 1896, however, saw four men hit over .390, a level of performance seemingly unattainable today. If Jesse Burkett hit .410 to lead the National League in that year—he was one of four men to hit over .390—why does no one today bat 20 percent higher, approaching .500? Or if Burkett was a superman, look at the league average of .290: Why would today’s league averages be lower rather than higher? Was the average player better a century ago? In unmediated sporting competitions, times improve with each generation. In baseball, we move the finish line ever so slightly, with a predictable stabilizing effect on statistics.

Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1896 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the nearly spherical shape of the leather-covered pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the scoring values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like nothing so much as football without the padding.

Yet baseball was always baseball. The early game, however you define or demarcate it, was indeed different from the one we see on the field today. Yet players in big-league parks at the turn of the century, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew that they were taking part in the very same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken only fifty years before. As Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:

“The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.”

Baseball permits its revelers to defy not only time but also reason. One of the first lessons a fan learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen. Every year something happens that never happened in baseball before. I could point you to David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But I prefer to cite a lesser known, relatively recent singularity: In the deciding game of the 2004 Northern League championship series, the St. Paul Saints, trailing 6–3 with two outs and one on in the bottom of the ninth and twice down to their last strike, proceeded to score seven runs, climaxed by a walk-off grand slam, to defeat the Schaumberg Flyers 10–6. In 160 years of recorded baseball history, no team had ever won a championship this way.

Through baseball we sublimate our martial instincts; we emulate our heroes, whom we appoint as champions or surrogates for our hopes and fears; we experience thrills and agonies vicariously, and, in a magical act of transference, we become more truly ourselves—more primal, less inhibited … more like, say, Adam, or Eve. At the ballpark or even in front of the television, fans are, for the interlude of a few hours, different from whom they are in everyday life—masquerading no less than people do at Mardi Gras or Carnivale to revel in life and taunt death. In the drama that is a baseball game the fan imagines himself not a spectator but a participant, as if the fervor of his rooting will have a bearing on the outcome. Like Walter Mitty, he becomes in his mind a player.

When did this illusion of transference and time travel begin? Certainly before the Knickerbockers, Gothams, and Eagles of New York City relocated their home grounds to Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1840s. It was at this time that newly arrived urbanites first began to imbue rural life with a romanticized nostalgia—a Greek compound that literally means “the ache of not being able, ever, to go home again” [nostos, homecoming + algia, pain].

Idyllic America had not disappeared, for in fact it had never existed. The young men who now streamed into the cities ached for their backwoods Paradise Lost, and regained it, however briefly, through play at the Elysian Fields. In the park within the city, they could go home again.

For two decades before baseball games began to be played there, the Elysian Fields had been New York’s favorite “place of general resort for citizens, as well as strangers, for health and recreation,” wrote its proprietor, John Stevens, in 1824. “So easily accessible, and where in a few minutes the dust, noise, and bad smells of the city may be exchanged for the pure air, delightful shades, and completely rural scenery. . . .”

The urban malaise to which Stevens contrasted his sylvan settings was not mere rhetoric. Thousands of New Yorkers had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822.  Ten summers later, cholera would kill another 3,500, representing one death for every 65 inhabitants at a time when the city’s population was 230,000 (of whom fully a third fled the city that summer). An equivalent mortality in today’s New York of 8 million would be more than 123,000. Because the folk wisdom was that pestilential vapors returned every twelve years, one might well imagine the dread overhanging New York in the mid-1840s.

In these years there were many testaments to baseball’s hygienic properties (“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms . . . the game of ball is glorious,” Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 3, 1846). Might the generalized fear of disease, and cholera in particular with its cycle of return—rather than the march of industry upon the former playgrounds of Manhattan—have been the impetus to ballplayers’ flight to the Elysian Fields in the mid–’40s? It is pleasing to think that baseball, as a safe-haven game, would have come to the fore at this perilous time. 

Late in life, Henry Chadwick—pioneer writer, consummate moralist, and architect of baseball as a national game—wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, “I am thankful to say of the great National field games of England and America, the grand old game of cricket and the comparatively new game of baseball, there is not a brutal feature connected with either of them, and yet both develop the highest qualities of true manhood, courage, endurance, pluck, nerve, honorable competition, and”—here I emphasize his last itemized attribute—“the chivalry of sport.” Yet it had been in some measure the very brutality of early baseball, when brave men donned neither glove nor mask and wore their bruises, shiners, and shinplasters as badges of honor, which attracted devotees and left the lemonade drinkers aghast. And, as I have argued in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, gambling was a necessary prime mover in the progress of baseball toward becoming “America’s cricket.”

As baseball had drawn a newly urban America back to its pseudo-Edenic past, it now helped to carry forward, into a new and increasingly corrupt body politic, the hypothetical democratic values of a bygone age. The newly organized and systematized game, built upon baseball prototypes that had been played in America long before the Revolution, now took on the purity that came with posterity. As more and more baseball clubs organized in the 1850s, the idea of a distant Eden—set not in Revolutionary America but in Medieval England—was in full flower. Courtly rites ripped from the pages of Ivanhoe rendered Walter Scott, even more than Henry Chadwick, the architect of the gentlemanly game favored by the Knickerbockers of New York and the Putnams and Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Early on, the new game of baseball resembled not the raucous old one, of stinging throws and side bets, but the game of England’s stately mansions, cricket.

It was as if, having turned our backs on the Mother Country, we might have been feeling a bit lonely and having second thoughts. In our land of immigrants, united not by class or creed or culture, the ties that bind were those of family, ethnic heritage, faith, and community—all of them local rather than national. Baseball gave promise, early on, of serving as America’s de facto religion, connecting us across all divides of time and space, while rejuvenating the national heritage. “It’s our game,” wrote Whitman, “America’s game . . . it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

***

In today’s technological, impersonal, and brittle age, baseball is, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, “an oasis of the uncontrived.” It is also our national theater, but with unscripted outcomes. New records are added every day, stretching limitlessly to the horizon line, yet it is the game’s past, appearing to extend equally far in reverse, that binds. Early on, records transformed a boyhood game into a sport, thus “modernizing” it. Yet records also link each present achievement to a prior, sometimes unapproachable, standard. (Think, for example, of Cy Young’s 511 wins, or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.) Indeed, the early years of major league play provide records that, to one not familiar with the prevailing rules and conditions, are unfathomable: pitchers Jim Devlin of Louisville, Bobby Mathews of New York, and George Bradley of St. Louis each accounting for all his team’s victories in 1876; Will White completing all 75 of his starts in 1879 while pitching 680 innings; Hoss Radbourn winning 59 games in 1884; Tip O’Neill batting .485 in 1887. Were these men of iron, compared to the namby-pambies of today? Of course not.

We cannot come to this conclusion by using conventional statistics and simple comparisons, for the rules tinkerers have flattened out the differences that otherwise would have shown in the averages. We may employ relativist approaches, such as the now classic one first offered in The Hidden Game that equates Carl Yastrzemski’s league-leading .301 of 1968 with Bill Terry’s .401 of 1930—both were some 32 percent beyond league average. Even after this illumination, however, we are still left with the conundrum of assessing the meaning of the league averages themselves.

But these gremlins in the baseball engine have done nothing to inhibit fielding, which has enjoyed a steady ascent since 1876, as measured by the ratio of earned runs to total runs. Anyone who has been watching the game for 30 or 40 years and is of an unbiased cast of mind will tell you that the best fielders of all time, at almost any position you can think of, entered the game after World War II.  Old-timers will tell you stories about Hal Chase or George Sisler, but were they better than Wes Parker or Keith Hernandez? Did Rabbit Maranville range farther and wider than Ozzie Guillen? Did Tris Speaker cover more ground than Willie Mays?

In 1952 Ty Cobb wrote an article for Life magazine in which he declared that the only ballplayers of the modem era that could be compared with those of his day were Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto. Where today is a man like Cobb, who won twelve batting titles in thirteen years? Where is a Rogers Hornsby, who averaged over .400 for a five-year period? A Babe Ruth, who in 1920 hit more homers than fourteen of the fifteen other big-league teams? A Jack Taylor, who over five years completed 187 consecutive starts? Why were so many all-time pitching records set between 1900 and 1919 and so many batting records over the next two decades? These heroes of yore were great players, certainly … yet men of the same ability, or greater, are among us today, their feats camouflaged by the heightened expertise of those around them.

In football, no one imagines that Red Grange would star in today’s NFL. In basketball, who thinks that George Mikan, the greatest player of the 1940s, would even start for an NBA team in 2012? Yet nearly everyone believes that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, if teleported to the present day, would dominate the game as they did in the days of yore. Why do so many of us continue to buy this notion?

In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history, like history in general, is a moated activity, in which “what happened” is what matters. Permit me to make a perhaps old-fashioned distinction between History and The Past, the former being rooted in what happened, the latter best described as “what binds and sustains,” or what is useful.

In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb described this earlier model for history as the establishment of “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” Baseball provides us with such a mythology, replete with unmatchable feats, admirable heroes, and awe-inspiring legends. By presenting us with an age of wonders, an Edenic past, baseball equips us to have dreams, to take risks, and to be good Americans.

Baseball Film to 1920, Part 3

[This is the third and final part of Rob Edelman's article, commenced in this space two days ago.] By the mid-1910s, feature-length narrative films were dominating the marketplace. The stars of most of the earliest baseball-related features were not actors playing ballplayers but real-life major leaguers who in this era could be credibly cast as sanitized, fictionalized versions of themselves. Such baseball stars were ideal marquee names to lure in potential audiences. The first of the lot was Right Off the Bat (1915, Arrow), a five-reeler starring the recently retired Mike Donlin, who had appeared in vaudeville with, among others, his actress wife, Mabel Hite, and Marty McHale. Right Off the Bat purportedly charts Donlin’s ascent to major league stardom. Though devoted to baseball, he toils as a machinist because of his shaky financial situation. Even though he has saved his beloved Viola Bradley (Claire Mersereau) from drowning, Donlin is considered a poor marital prospect by her mother. He becomes a bush-league star; refuses to take a bribe to throw the championship game; is assaulted and locked in a room; arrives (with the aid of Viola) at the ballpark in time to score the winning run; and signs a New York Giants contract. Finally, he has earned the right to wed Viola.     

Given his theatrical background, Donlin was a natural for the movies. While he never became a star, he appeared in dozens of films—including a few that spotlighted baseball—until his death in 1933. But his celluloid “biography” is more melodramatic fiction than fact. Right Off the Bat is set, and filmed on location, in Winstead, Connecticut, with The New York Times reporting that the “championship Winstead baseball nine appears in the picture.” While Winstead is presented as Donlin’s hometown, the ballplayer actually hailed from Peoria, Illinois. Mabel Hite, Donlin’s first wife, was nothing like the Viola Bradley character. She died in 1912. His second wife, Rita Ross Donlin, appears in a supporting role, as Viola’s friend.     

Playing himself in Right Off the Bat is John McGraw, Donlin’s major league skipper. McGraw also appeared as himself in One Touch of Nature (1917, Edison), a five-reel comedy–drama based on a Peter B. Kyne baseball story with scenes filmed on location at the Polo Grounds. McGraw is depicted as being not only a fine manager but a fine man, with nary a hint of the legendary toughness that earned him the nickname Little Napoleon. The hero is William Vandervoort Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett, an actor who looks a bit long in the tooth to be playing a college boy “in the midst of his third year at Yale, where he is known by the vulgar appellation of ‘Battling Bill’…”). Cosgrove falls for Leonora O’Brien (Viola Cain), a plumber’s daughter who heads up a vaudeville dog act. This displeases his father, E. P. Cosgrove, an eminent pork packer, and his snooty mother. But Battling Bill’s dad is a baseball nut at heart, and he is delighted when his son is signed to play second base for the Giants. The story involves his reluctantly attending the World Series, where he is seated next to Leonora and her father. At the finale, “Battling Bill” crashes a home run—and everyone lives happily ever after.

In Somewhere in Georgia (1916, Sunbeam), based on a story by Grantland Rice and running six reels, Ty Cobb stars as a bank clerk who vies with a sniveling cashier for the love of their boss’s daughter. In typical fashion, he is scouted for the Detroit Tigers, makes the major leagues, is temporarily thwarted by some hooligans hired by his rival, and wins both the climactic game and the girl. According to Variety, the film features “the usual excitement [that] attends the baseball game in which Cobb cops the climax with his playing and wins the girl in the end. There’s a deep-dyed villain and the subsequent denouement at the finale, with Cobb stealing a kiss from his prospective wife behind a baseball glove.” The paper further noted that the film “has a good wholesome atmosphere and a real, live-blooded, cleanlimbed athlete for a hero.”

The Variety reviewer summed up the purpose of casting real-life ballplayers in movies by noting, “inasmuch as …Cobb is considered about the greatest ballplayer in the world, it goes without saying that [the film] is going to make a ten-strike with Young America. As expected, it is a production that aimed at one thing and that was to present the celebrated Ty Cobb in camera action and give the smalltown boys a chance to see ‘more of him’ … and save them the long Sunday excursion trips to some of the big league towns to see him play.”

Another period baseball legend, Babe Ruth, played a character simply known as “Babe” in Headin’ Home (1920, Yankee Photo Corp./States Rights), a five-reel comedy–drama. [ThisSeven years later his film name was lengthened to “Babe Dugan” for his part in the comedy Babe Comes Home (1927, First National). By the time the latter was released, Ruth’s off-the-field carousing had become such public knowledge that New York Times sportswriter/columnist John Kieran could casually refer to him as the “Playboy of Baseball” in a piece written the day after the Bambino hit his record-breaking 60th home run. Indeed, in Babe Comes Home, Ruth’s Babe Dugan is more reflective of the real Bambino: a baseball star with an affinity for dirtying his uniform with tobacco stains. But back in 1920, Ruth still could be cast as a clean-living, mother-loving all-American boy. In Headin’ Home he is a humble chap who resides with his mother and kid sister in the small town of Haverlock. This Babe passes his spare time by chopping down trees and fashioning them into baseball bats. He prefers quiet evenings enjoying his mother’s home cooking to attending town socials; his shyness prevents him from expressing his feelings to the girl he loves, Mildred Tobin (Ruth Taylor), a banker’s daughter. Along the way, he rescues Mildred from the clutches of a crook, becomes a home run–hitting baseball hero, sets Mildred’s playboy brother straight after he is suckered  by a vamp, and, at the finale, returns home a hero and belts a home run in front of the Haverlock population.

In other words, outside of his propensity for smashing four-baggers, the character played by the Babe in Headin’ Home is the polar opposite of the real Babe Ruth. And who was to question this depiction? The Los Angeles Times described the film as “a simple story of simple people and dealing with Ruth’s rise to fame as a baseball player…. The story is a happy blending of small-town lives and people and the big leagues [with Ruth playing] the overgrown country boy who has the habit of doing the wrong thing in the right way at the wrong time….” Noted Alva Taylor, reviewing the film in the Chicago Tribune, “For there must be countless boys, large as well as small, to whom Babe Ruth, master batsman, famous home run hitter, must be a wonderful man, encompassed by the aura of romance. It is for these hero worshippers that the biographical film, ‘Headin’ Home,’ was made, and they will love it.”

Just as Babe Ruth was becoming the ballplayer who defined the 1920s, Headin’ Home was the one baseball feature that, albeit modest in production, came to represent the mass-marketing of the sport. No mere movie theater could house it during its New York premiere. Fight promoter Tex Rickard reportedly paid $35,000 to book the film into Madison Square Garden, where it was shown for the week of September 19 to 26, 1920. Of an early screening, Variety reported, “Just as the crowds get up and leave the Polo Grounds [this was before the Babe “built” Yankee Stadium] satisfied, after watching the big slugger bury one in the top of the grandstand, just so they were satisfied at the Garden when Babe won the game for the home club after wandering through countless scenes dressed in street attire and toting a piece of hickory from which he was supposedly fashioning the bat that later on was to make him famous. There is a story running through the picture and so many minor characters that it would take a computing machine to record them all without the aid of a program. None of the latter were on sale, but everything else was, from Babe Ruth phonographic records to the Babe Ruth song, ‘Oh You Babe Ruth,’ which was sung and played by Lieut. J. Tim Bryan’s Black Devil Band, which accompanied the picture.”

The Variety scribe—unlike the Chicago Tribune’s Alva Taylor—may have turned thumbs down on Headin’ Home, but at least he understood the Babe’s appeal: “The picture has been thrown together to capitalize [on] Ruth’s tremendous popularity and as such it will do a success. The thousand people sat patiently through the dreary preliminary scenes waiting for their idol to reach his specialty which is the promulgation of home runs. This is an age of specialists and as a picture star Ruth qualifies as the greatest batsman that baseball has ever developed.”        

 *     *     *

Easily the best of the early baseball features spotlights nary a real ballplayer. Additionally, it serves as a textbook reflection of its era. The Busher (1919, Famous Players-Lasky), a five-reel comedy–drama, stars Charles Ray, then at his peak playing country bumpkins who, at the finale, transcend their oafishness, earn admiration from their peers, and win the heroine.  Prior to The Busher, Ray starred in The Pinch Hitter (1917, Triangle). Despite its title, however, this five-reel comedy is devoid of baseball until its second half. Ray plays Joel Parker, a gawky Vermont farm boy who enrolls in Williamson College. With his ill-fitting clothes and thrown-together suitcase, the droopy and forlorn Parker is mercilessly chided by his fellow students. He tries out for the school baseball team, but is athletically inept. The coach notes that “he is such a boob that he ought to bring us luck”—and so Parker is named to the team, but as its mascot. During an important game against Bensonhurst College, the Williamson pitcher injures his hand and is unable to come to bat in the ninth inning. Wouldn’t you know that the Williamson bench is depleted? Wouldn’t you know that the tying run leads off third base? Wouldn’t you know that Parker is ordered to grab a bat? Wouldn’t you know that, incredibly, he wallops the game-winning homer? Joel Parker, campus fool, is now Joel Parker, campus hero.             

In The Busher, Ray is appealing as Ben Harding, the “baseball pride of Brownsville,” a fireballing hurler who, when he pitches, has “got more curves than a stovepipe.” Harding soon is called to the major leagues. After being exposed to big-city life, he is transformed from rube to dandy. He becomes involved with a gold-digger and even snubs his neighbors and his girl, Mazie Palmer (Colleen Moore), when they come to see him play. Harding’s high living soon adversely affects his pitching, and he is released. The now penniless hurler returns to Brownsville and proclaims that he will never toss a baseball again. But when Brownsville is set to play Centerville in a game that “means everything to local pride,” Harding relents. He pitches his team to victory and hits the game-winning home run. His rehabilitation is complete. He no longer is the conceited, self-pitying jerk who has been tainted by the urban metropolis. More important, he has come to appreciate the love and dedication of Mazie and the simple, real, lasting values she represents; no amount of fame or money can replace love.

The New York Times described The Busher as “a baseball story that the small boy will rise up from his seat and shout about. So will his father and his sister, too. Also his mother, if she knows anything about bush leagues and big leagues and what it means for a wonderful pitcher to jump from one to the other, fall down in the big test, and then come back again for glory.” An ad for the film described it as “a baseball scream” in which “Charlie bats 1,000 and puts laugh after laugh right over the home plate.”

Whether these early baseball features centered on clearly fictional characters or purported to tell the stories of big-league luminaries, they were united by the same message: Baseball stars are honed from country boys. If a country boy was a clean-living youngster, he will be destined to win the Big Game with bottom-of-the-ninth heroics.

Within a decade after they were made, when America was well into the Roaring Twenties, films like The Busher, Headin’ Home, Right Off the Bat, and Somewhere in Georgia were considered laughably outdated—not so much for their clichéd ballfield heroics as for their small-town values. Nonetheless, a film like Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927, MGM), featuring William Haines as a boastful, Ruthian New York Yankees pitcher– slugger, is respectfully dedicated to “the great American game—Baseball—and to the memory of Frank Chance … Eddie Plank … Christy Mathewson, and their immortal legion.” [A snip is viewable at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzY9nwODfh0.]

[SIDEBAR]

A majority of the motion pictures produced during the silent-film era no longer exist. Today, films are recycled for screening on television and released on DVD; decades ago, once a film completed its theatrical run and no longer was making money for its distributor, it was discarded—much like yesterday’s newspaper.

Some of the early films cited in this essay do survive. For example, prints of The Ball Game (1898), One Touch of Nature (1917), and Casey at the Bat (1922) are preserved at the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of The Library of Congress. Over the Fence (1917), The Pinch Hitter (1917), and The Busher (1919), along with Hearst newsreel footage of an investigation involving New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton (1917), Captain Christy Mathewson arriving on board the SS Rotterdam (1918), Nick Altrock doing comedy skits (1919), and scenes with Babe Ruth (1920) and Chicago White Sox players (1920), are preserved at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Prints of Over the Fence may be found at the Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Archive of the British Film Institute.

Film archivists Ted Larson and Rusty Casselton completed a 16mm restoration of Headin’ Home (1920) in the mid-1990s. A 35mm restoration by the Museum ofModern Art was made available in 2006.

Film collectors own 16mm prints of some of these titles, a number of which are available on VHS or DVD; in April 2007, Kino-on-Video released a DVD package that included the Larson-Casselton Headin’ Home restoration, The Busher, and a variety of baseball shorts. Additional baseball images exist on-line on the Prelinger Archives website, which features ephemeral (educational, industrial, advertising, and amateur) films.

Most of the other early baseball films are lost—more than likely forever.

— Rob Edelman

Baseball Film to 1920, Part 2

[This essay by film historian Rob Edelman continues from Part 1, which appeared in this space yesterday.] In the first motion pictures, the leading actors were not identified. However, audiences soon began demanding information about these performers—starting with their names. The studios initially refused to publicize them for fear that they would demand higher wages, but relented upon realizing their commercial potential. And so the star system was born. In 1910, Florence Lawrence, formerly known as the “Biograph Girl,” became the first American screen luminary to be known by name.

But before there were screenland celebrities, there were star major leaguers. Early on, motion-picture production companies figured they could attract audiences by filming real ballplayers in action. On September 15, 1902, the Washington Post reported: “‘Rube’ Waddell is to be perpetuated in the moving picture machine. The camera was focused upon him while in the act of pitching Thursday’s game, while Howell of the Baltimore team was at bat.” Waddell was not filmed to record his moving image for posterity. The account continued, “The pictures will be sent all over the country for the edification of the admirers of this great slant artist.”

Waddell’s two screen credits are Rube Waddell and the Champions Playing Ball with the Boston Team (1902, Lubin) and Game of Base Ball (1903, Lubin). In 1902, Waddell pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics. The “Howell” referred to in the Washington Post report likely is Harry Howell, who played for the Baltimore Orioles, the precursor of the New York Highlanders/Yankees. So the footage described in the report likely was included in Game of Base Ball, which, according to Lubin, “shows a game of Base Ball held between the victorious Athletic Club, of Philadelphia, the Champions of the season 1902–1903[,] and the Baltimore Club. The individual players are shown in their respective positions, principally the great ‘Rube’ Waddell, the famous pitcher.” Game of Base Ball was released in conjunction with Crowd Leaving Athletic Base Ball Grounds (1903, Lubin). It was noted in the Lubin film summary, “In order to make the foregoing picture [Game of Base Ball] complete, it is necessary to join the two, when you will not alone have a game of Base Ball played but will also have the crowd leaving the grounds and seeking the different conveyances to take them home.” The distributor closed the synopsis with the kind of spin that exists to this day in the motion-picture industry: “These two films are full of life and animation.”   

Christy Mathewson and the New York National League Team (1907, Winthrop) features a repeated sequence of Matty winding up and firing the ball. “Play Ball”—Opening Game, National League, N.Y. City, 1905—New York vs. Boston (1905, Edison) was produced, according to anEdison summary, “through the courtesy of Manager John McGraw of the New York Baseball Club….” The film consists of “a most interesting set of pictures of this noteworthy event.” These include a panoramic shot of the fans in attendance; the players arriving on the field in automobiles; the raising of the National League Pennant (the Giants were the NL champs the previous season, but refused to meet their American League counterparts, the Boston Pilgrims, in the World Series); a view of Mathewson first warming up and then retiring the first three Boston batters; and Mike Donlin, leading off for the Giants, belting a double and summarily scoring. The synopsis concluded, “We offer this picture as the finest ever taken of a similar subject.”

Enterprising major league executives also saw potential profits from filming their teams and players. A September 25, 1906, news item in the Washington Post reported, “President [Charles W.] Murphy, of the Cubs, is thinking of having moving pictures made of one of the world series games, and showing with [sic] the pictures around the country during the winter season. ‘I am looking up some of these concerns about taking such a picture,’ said he to-day. ‘For I believe there would be as much interest in such a show as there is in a prize-fight picture.’”

Murphy’s notion was transformed into reality in The World Series Baseball Games—White Sox and Cubs (1906, Selig Polyscope). Two years later, Essanay began filming the World Series and condensing its highlights into one- (and, later, two-) reelers that were advertised as the one and only “authorized” World Series films. A typical title is Pittsburgh-Detroit Ball Game (1909, Essanay), also known as The World’s Champions Baseball Series and World’s Championship Series at End of Series. [View a snip at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ld3LxjpJ1Pw]

According to the October 4, 1913, New York Times, “Within three hours after the last man is out each game in New York next week in the world’s baseball series between the Giants and the Athletics the fans who failed to see the battles on the diamond will be able to take in the game on the moving picture screens of Marcus Loew’s nineteen theaters in New York and Brooklyn. By an arrangement completed yesterday with Manager McGraw, Manager [Connie] Mack, and the National Commission, Loew obtained the rights to the films, paying $8,000 into the fund which will go to the players for the privilege. This sum was paid for theNew York City rights alone. The moving pictures will pay many times that amount for their rights. The cameras in the Polo Grounds will begin to take pictures early each afternoon, and just as soon as each 200 feet is reeled off it will be rushed to the developing and printing room. In this manner as early as 7 o’clock each evening after the game there will be a supply of films ready for showing at the theaters, and by the time the early reels have been thrown upon the screens the late films will have come out of the dark room.”

During World War I, the Chicago Tribune and Selig-Polyscope linked up to produce and release a “semi-weekly news pictorial service.” According to a December 26, 1915, Tribune article, the paper’s correspondents and war photographers had been “instructed to bend their energies toward securing news pictures first; so they may be presented in the Selig-Tribune first.” The resulting newsreels were not just battlefield-related. Amid the coverage of politicians inspecting troops, Sinn Fein riots in Dublin, and boy scouts building bridges, quite a few baseball-related newsreels, both staged and unstaged, were filmed. Throughout the following year, the Tribune hyped upcoming programs by printing their descriptions, accompanied by still photos. OnMarch 12, 1916, under the initially puzzling subheading “Mordecai Brown Nurse To Engine,” the paper described the content of an upcoming segment: “The ‘Cub’ stars are not missing anything en route toTampa where they are going into spring training quarters. The photograph shows young Mr. Brown pouring oil on the troubled [train] wheels….” In another spring-training newsreel, printed on March 29, “Cubs and Phillies Practice” spotlighted an exhibition game inSt. Petersburg. An April 9 edition, “‘Alexander the Great’ in the Air,” highlighted Grover Cleveland Alexander in a small airplane. “Presidential ‘Newlyweds’ at Ball Game,” from April 26, consisted of President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson at the season opener in Washington, DC.

Back on March 14, the Tribune had run an article which described the filming of a newsreel made while the Chicago White Sox were traveling by train to their Mineral Springs, Kansas, spring-training site. “This was ‘movie day’ on the Sox special,” the paper reported. “The Selig-Tribune operator took a long series of poses atTopeka and at McFarland. He lined up the Sox in uniform on top of the coaches and they threw the ball back and forth while the train was moving. [Manager Clarence ‘Pants’] Rowland acted as fireman, shoveling the coal. It all went great until the Sox were supposed to miss their train and then run to get it. This picture will be natural, for the boys had to go at full speed. Their uniforms were soaking wet when they finished and it took a good share of the afternoon to cool off.”

By this time major leaguers were no longer confined to newsreels. They became on-screen actors in Hal Chase’s Home Run (1911, Kalem); the aforementioned His First Game, featuring Wally Pipp, and The Baseball Bug, with Chief Bender, Jack Coombs, Cy Morgan, and Rube Oldring; Baseball’s Peerless Leader (1913, Pathé), starring Frank Chance; Home Run Baker’s Double (1914, Kalem); and Love and Baseball (1914, Universal) and Matty’s Decision (1915, Universal), both featuring Christy Mathewson. At this time, one- and two-reel baseball films rarely were noted in the press or cited in advertising. The exceptions primarily were when a celebrated ballplayer might be hyped. For example, playing at the Panorama Theater on Chicago’s South Side on June 17, 1914, “in conjunction with an All Feature program,” was the “Kalem Sensational 2 Reel Baseball Drama Home Run Baker’s Double.” Mathewson’s Love and Baseball was described in an October 3, 1914, Chicago Tribune ad as being “In a Class by Itself.”

One early film that garnered a fair amount of press coverage was Breaking Into the Big League (1913, Kalem), partially shot at the New York Giants’ Marlin, Texas, spring-training camp, with the articles centering on the presence of John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and other Giants. The Los Angeles Times described the film as “a drama with an intense appeal to lovers of baseball. Big-league players are shown in games and practice. The story concerns a young ballplayer, who makes a costly error that loses the pennant for his team. It also loses him his sweetheart. He goes into a troubled sleep and dreams of breaking into the big league….”

The first notable feature-length baseball films spotlighted real-life ballplayers. The economically named The Giants-White Sox World Tour (1914, Eclectic Film Co.), running six reels (approximately 60–75 minutes) is little more than a glorified travelogue. Variety described it as a “long reeled picture of the baseball players’ trip around the world the past winter … with here and there snatches of a baseball game played between the natives and the teams in foreign countries. The well-known ballplayers who went along are shown individually at different times, with Germany Schaefer always in the foreground whenever the camera was working…. A sort of story is attempted through ‘The greatest bug in the world,’ a baseball fan who is broke [and decides] to travel with the teams, upon reading the announcement of their going…. ‘Matty’ [Christy Mathewson] is there with his young son, and there are other famous players. The scenic and action views are interesting in a way….”

The fact that filmmakers were beginning to expand the cinematic language may be detected in the descriptions of two baseball actualities (factual films). A five-reeler titled 1915 World’s Championship Series was released through the States Rights protocol, common during the pre–Hollywood studio era, by which copyright holders sold prints of their films on a territorial basis to individuals who rented them to theaters. Describing this particular film of the 1915 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, the American Film Institute Catalog, Feature Films, 1911-1920, notes that “Close-ups of all the players were taken [during the filming], and for the first time a camera was placed behind home plate in order to obtain good shots of the playing action, which included four home runs.” The AFI Catalog further reports that, in the four-reel-long World Series Games 1916, Boston vs. Brooklyn (1916, Selig Polyscope), “eight cameras captured plays from a number of angles, including views from the grandstands, the dugouts and the base lines, as well as presenting panoramic shots of the stadium and close-ups of the ball players. Also included are shots ofBoston fans parading after the game as disappointed Dodger rooters playfully throw cushions at them.”

The Baseball Revue of 1917 (1917, States Rights) is another important baseball actuality. This five-reel film was conceived by Marty McHale, a major league pitcher/vaudeville performer, and was produced by Athletic Feature Films, of which McHale was president and Tris Speaker vice president. McHale photographed all the major league teams, but almost half of the release print spotlighted the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants, who faced off in the 1917 World Series. The AFI Catalog lists the baseball personalities who appeared, many of whom were shown in close-up. They included many future Hall of Famers (from Home Run Baker to Honus Wagner) and such period figures as Benny Kauff, Eddie Cicotte, Smoky Joe Wood, Larry Doyle, Fielder Jones, Heinie Zimmerman, Buck Herzog, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. {View snips from the 1919 World Series at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJNbO1Mbl2w.]

None of these early films were made to preserve history. They were instead motion-picture “product”—commodities to be marketed to the movie-going public. In fact, The Baseball Revue of 1917 was edited in a manner that allowed it to be released as one-reel shorts, as a series, or as a complete feature, contingent upon the priorities of individual exhibitors.

Tomorrow, Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, and more, in the third and concluding part.

Baseball Film to 1920

This week I am pleased to give Our Game over to one of my friends and esteemed colleagues, Rob Edelman. In three parts, this accomplished film historian will share with the readers of Our Game a splendid essay he contributed to the debut edition of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, back in Spring 2007. Edelman is the author of Great Baseball Films and Baseball on the Web. His film/television-related books include Meet the Mertzes, a double-biography of I Love Lucy’s Vivian Vance and fabled baseball fan William Frawley, and Matthau: A Life—both co-authored with his wife, Audrey Kupferberg. He is a film commentator on WAMC (Northeast) Public Radio and a Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. His byline has appeared in Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond, Total Baseball, The Total Baseball Catalog, Baseball in the Classroom: Teaching America’s National Pastime, The Political Companion to American Film, and dozens of other books. He authored an essay on early baseball films for the DVD Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era, 1899-1926, and has been a juror at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual film festival. He is a lecturer at the University at Albany, where he teaches courses in film history.

With the kind permission of the journal’s publisher, McFarland, I will occasionally bring to your attention other outstanding works that heretofore have been unavailable to the broad readership interested in baseball history. 

Baseball Film to 1920

Rob Edelman 

Every motion picture is a time capsule, a moment in the life of a culture. But unless it is two minutes or ten hours long and non-narrative—in other words, decidedly non-commercial—a film is usually produced for one purpose: to make money. In this regard, a motion picture is no different from an automobile, a roll of bathroom tissue, or a can of beer. This profit motive also explains why, in the parlance of the business, individual films are referred to as “product.”

Motion pictures that feature baseball-related settings have been produced since the late 1890s and early 1900s, when movie-going was as novel as watching television was in 1950 or renting movies on videotape was in 1985. From the very beginning, baseball was depicted in motion pictures primarily because of the burgeoning popularity of the sport. It made sense to filmmakers that fans of the game would fork over their hard-earned nickels to gaze at comedies or dramas depicting speedballing hurlers, ninth-inning heroics, and likable underdogs triumphing against the odds. In particular, in this era before the advent of radio and television, motion pictures allowed moviegoers—especially those who lived outside the major league cities—to see and admire the baseball stars they only could read about in newspapers or hear about while chatting with their cronies at the corner barbershop. Such films generally were newsreels spotlighting major leaguers, or one- and two-reelers featuring ballplayers in what were little more than cameo appearances, or highly fictionalized “biographical” features in which scenarists transformed ballplayers into fairy-tale heroes. Whether in a story that was fact or fiction, however, seeing Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth up-close on a movie screen in 1917 or 1920 must have been a transcendent experience for the average baseball fan.

Despite their growing popularity, motion pictures still were dwarfed by vaudeville as the most popular form of mass entertainment. On November 8, 1908, the Washington Post described a “polite vaudeville” program, to be presented at “Chase’s theater.” The bill included “Lasky’s Viennese production, ‘The Love Waltz,’ with Alfred Kappeler and Audrey Maple…. Laddie Cliff, the English boy comedian…. Will H. Fox, fresh fromLondon triumphs, in his new single piano act; the Young American Five; the Five Jordans,” and so on. The final entertainment cited was a film: “‘The Baseball Fan’ by the American vitagraph.”

Yet the storylines found in the earliest baseball films, and the manner in which they portray ballplayers and fans, serve to mirror the now long-extinct American culture before 1920: a time of innocence, a pre–Jazz Age America that was a nation of small towns and small-town types. The prevailing view was that the simplicity of rural life was preferable to the corrupting ways of the metropolis. It was an era when filmmakers could celebrate a pastoral Americawhose foundation was Victorian morality, while emphasizing the notion that leaving the farm for the city meant going off in search of sin.

Whether on purpose or by accident, baseball-playing characters were depicted in such milieus—and their on-field exploits were blended into standard plotlines featuring plainspoken Good Guys who win their true love while fending off one-dimensionally evil villains. If baseball truly was America’s national pastime, such baseball players were ideal all-American heroes. Their honesty and good intentions aside, however, it was their on-field exploits that made them lastingly heroic. Before a new reality set in, that of flaming youth and bathtub gin, the Black Sox Scandal and the Roaring Twenties, baseball movies could lovingly—and believably—chart the comic antics of fans attempting to enjoy ballgames despite their bullying bosses or unsympathetic wives, or weave the stories of rural whammers or flamethrowers who overcome obstacles, perform storybook heroics, and win the love of the demure, true-blue heroine while spurning the entreaties of villains to cheat on the field.

*     *     *

 The earliest motion pictures, made before the turn of the century, were plotless. Audiences, fascinated by this new moving imagery, were satisfied to see representations of a train pulling into a railway station, a man and woman sharing a kiss—and an athlete running, jumping, boxing, or swinging a baseball bat.

Baseball on celluloid dates as far back as The Ball Game (1898, Edison), running 50 feet (approximately 35–40 seconds) and consisting of shots of an amateur team from Newark, New Jersey, battling a rival nine. [View at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/papr:@field(NUMBER+@band(awal+1317}))] That same year, American cavalrymen who soon were fighting in the Spanish–American War were captured on film playing baseball at a training base. The 50-foot-long Casey at the Bat (1899, Edison) was shot on the lawn of Thomas Edison’s estate in West Orange, New Jersey, and opens with a batter swinging wildly at a pitch and striking out. He and the other players and umpires brawl, with a jumble of bodies piling up at home plate. [View at http://www.fandor.com/films/casey_at_the_bat_1899.] (The early motion-picture companies were not based in Hollywood. For example, Edison’s motion-picture production and distribution arm—whose full name was the Edison Manufacturing Company before it was reorganized as Thomas A. Edison, Inc., in 1910—was located in New Jersey. This explains why Edison’s The Ball Game and Casey at the Bat were shot in the state.)

With the popularity of such landmark films as Life of an American Fireman (1903, Edison) and The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edison), audiences wanted to see films that featured narratives, however rudimentary or genre-driven. In Play Ball on the Beach (1906, Biograph), a typical early story-oriented baseball film, a bunch of ballplayers become angered at an umpire’s call.  Baseball blended with the Wild West in His Last Game (1909, Independent Motion Picture Company), about a baseball star on an all-Indian team who spurns a bribe from a pair of cowboy gamblers. [View at: http://www.fandor.com/films/his_last_game.]

Baseball and comedy were happily linked in a range of one- and two-reelers. Hearts and Diamonds (1914, Vitagraph) stars John Bunny, a corpulent comic actor who predates Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd as the cinema’s foremost silent comedian. Bunny plays the Widower Tupper, who starts his own ball team in order to impress the wealthy, baseball-loving Rachel Whipple (Flora Finch). [A snip of this may be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnGyY6PavOw.] In Spit-Ball Sadie (1915, Pathé) , also known as Lonesome Luke Becomes a Pitcher, Harold Lloyd, playing a character who was a variation of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, dresses in drag and joins an all-female team. In Over the Fence (1917, Pathé), Lloyd and Snub Pollard play rival tailors who plan to attend a game. In 1916–1917, Universal released a series of “Baseball Bill” one-reelers directed, written, and/or produced by and starring the comic Smilin’ Billy Mason, who previously had perfected a vaudeville routine as a one-person ball club. Not to be outdone, Selig (the early motion picture production company, and no relation to the current baseball commissioner) marketed the “Mudville” baseball comedy shorts in 1917.

Because youngsters are a fertile audience demographic, producers have fashioned movies for children since the industry’s infancy. And so baseball and boyhood come together in Shut Out in the 9th (1917, Edison), in which a pair of prepubescent lads laugh at the town sheriff after being ordered to cease their game of catch. They chide one of their contemporaries, a “sissy” who wouldn’t know a baseball bat from a tennis racket. After their team, the Greenpoint Giants, loses a spirited game to their rivals from Johnsville, the boys discover the opposite sex and compete for the affection of a pretty young miss from the big city.

The unabashed union of movies and commerce is reflected in Homerun Hawkins (circa 1920), one of the oddest silent-era baseball films. This filmed-in-Milwaukee kiddie pic charts the antics of Seckatary Hawkins, the star of a boys’ team scheduled to play the Pelhams in a championship fray—and it is loaded with pitches that have nothing to do with baseball. Local merchants sponsored the film’s production and their wares and emporiums are prominently displayed throughout, among them Gridley Ice Cream, the E.M. Jordan Buick Company, and Schusters Department Store, where Seckatary and his teammates purchase the “Schuster Home Run Special” that Sec will use to smack the game-winning round-tripper.

Not all early baseball films centered on ballplayers; quite a few portrayed the shenanigans of fans attempting to enjoy a ballgame. In How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906, Edison), the title character maneuvers to duck out of work for an afternoon at the ballpark, only to discover his boss occupying the adjoining seat. [View at: http://www.fandor.com/films/how_the_office_boy_saw_the_ball_game.] How Jones Saw the Baseball Game (1907, Lubin), also known as How Brown Saw the Baseball Game, features a similar storyline—only here, the main character imbibes a couple of highballs and, through trick photography, sees the players running the bases backwards. The Baseball Fan (1908, Essanay), written and directed by G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, one of the movies’ first cowboy heroes, charts the comic escapades of a rabid fan who attempts to see the Chicago White Sox take on the New York Highlanders at Comiskey Park. Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1910, Essanay), also made by Anderson, tells of a baseball nut who manages to forget his wife at the ballpark. In Baseball, That’s All! (1910, Méliès), a fan lies to his boss so that he can attend a game. The Baseball Bug (1911, Thanhouser) is the story of a clerk who fantasizes that he’s a star hurler. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew—he was the uncle of Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore—are featured in His First Game (1917, Metro), in which they go to a ballgame at New York’s Polo Grounds.

Given its popularity, Casey at the Bat was a natural for the movies. The 1899 Edison film borrowed the title, without any of the story elements, of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s celebrated poem, which first was printed in the San Francisco Examiner on August 13, 1888. A more literal Casey at the Bat (1913, Vitagraph) featured the long-forgotten Harry T. Morey as Casey.

For 45 years beginning in 1889, DeWolf Hopper recited Casey at the Bat perhaps 10,000 times. The actor appeared in two very different Casey films. The second, produced in 1922, consists of Hopper floridly reciting the poem. It is a DeForest Phonofilm, which utilized the sound-on-film technology developed by Theodore Case and Lee DeForest. The earlier Casey at the Bat (1916, Triangle), is a dramatic expansion of the poem. Hopper, who then was in his fifties, played a grocery clerk who is devoted to his niece. This “baseball hero of Mudville” refuses to play in an important game against Frogtown because the girl has injured herself while climbing a tree. The yells of the fans convince Casey to relent. He strikes out in the ninth inning because he is distracted by a messenger, whom he thinks has arrived with bad tidings about the child.

Hopper’s age and oversized ego were sarcastically cited in a Los Angeles Times article written during the film’s production. “Hopper’s make-up as Casey is said to be attracting a great deal of attention and admiration…,” wrote Grace Kingsley. “He is practicing sincere baseball every morning, and says that if he gets tired of acting he may try for the big leagues.” The New York Times reported: “The comedian is enthusiastic about the possibilities of preserving Casey in cans which can be shipped to any part of the world on demand. It will save him a lot of traveling and enable him to enjoy his dinner more. Since he joined the Triangle forces last Fall he has been the champion diner-out of the studios, and rarely has returned to hisHollywood bungalow without describing the downfall of the mighty Casey.” [For Hopper reciting the ballad in 1922, see: http://www.fandor.com/films/casey_at_the_bat_1922.]

End of Part 1. Part 2 commences tomorrow, with Rube Waddell taking part in a film in 1902, World Series films hitting neighborhood screens  in 1906, and stars such as Christy Mathewson leaping from the newsreels to feature films.

Three Finger Brown’s Greatest Day

In the previous post I featured a mid-1940s recollection of Casey Stengel’s self-identified greatest day in baseball, as told to Chicago Daily News reporter John Carmichael. Here is another from that wonderful series, as told to Jack Ryan by Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three-Finger” Brown. He was a seven-year-old Indiana farmboy when he accidentally put his right hand into his uncle’s corn grinder. His index finger was so badly damaged that it was amputated just below the knuckle. Because his index finger was barely a stub, he was forced to exert extra pressure on the ball with his mangled middle finger. Because of Brown’s unique grip, his curve dropped like a modern forkball, and it was his signature delivery.

He named his greatest day as the 1908 National League playoff contest dictated when the Giants and Brown’s Cubs concluded the regular season in a tie for the top spot, because the “Merkle Boner” game of September 23 could not be played to a conclusion. That game was tied 1–1 in the last of the ninth. With the Giants’ Moose McCormick on first and one out, rookie Fred Merkle shot a single to right that moved the runner to third. After another out, Al Bridwell singled to center, the winning run crossed the plate, and the Giants had extended their slim lead in the pennant race. Or had they?

Merkle, in the excitement, never bothered to touch second, instead running off the field to avoid the rush of fans storming out to celebrate. Somehow Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers got the ball (or some ball, at any rate) and stepped on second, showing the ump he had forced Merkle and the run didn’t count. Less than three weeks earlier the Cubs had tried to win a ruling on a similar force-out against the Pirates and were overruled.

Not this time. The umpires, Hank O’Day and Bob Emslie, declared the game a tie, as there was no way to clear the joyously cascading fans from the field. League president Harry Pulliam backed them up. The game was to be replayed if necessary to determine a pennant winner.

Now let Three Finger Brown tell the rest of the story.

When manager Frank “Husk” Chance led the Chicago Cubs team into New York the morning of October 8, 1908, to meet the Giants that afternoon to settle a tie for the National League pennant, I had a half-dozen “black hand” letters in my coat pocket. “We’ll kill you,” these letters said, “if you pitch and beat the Giants.”

Those letters and other threats had been reaching me ever since we had closed our regular season two days before in Pittsburgh. We’d beaten the Pirates in that final game for our 98th win of the year, and we had waited around for two days to see what the Giants would do in their last two games with Boston. They had to win ‘em to tie us for the National championship.

Well, the Giants did win those two to match our record of 98 wins and 55 losses, so a playoff was in order. I always thought that John McGraw used his great influence in National League affairs to dictate that the playoff  must be held on the Giants’ home field, the Polo Grounds.

I’d shown the “black hand” letters to manager Chance and to the Cubs owner, Charley Murphy. “Let me pitch,” I’d asked ‘em, “just to show those so-and-sos they can’t win with threats.”

Chance picked Jack Pfiester instead. Two weeks before, Pfiester had tangled with Christy Mathewson, McGraw’s great pitcher, and had beaten him on the play where young Fred Merkle, in failing to touch second on a hit, had made himself immortal for the “boner” play. Since Mathewson had been rested through the series with Boston and would go against us in the playoff, Chance decided to follow the Pfiester–Mathewson pitching pattern of the “boner” game. I had pitched just two days before as we won our final game of the schedule from Pittsburgh.

Matter of fact, I had started or relieved in eleven of our last fourteen games. Beyond that, I’d been in fourteen of the last nineteen games as we came roaring down the stretch, hot after the championship.

In our clubhouse meeting before the game, when Chance announced that Pfiester would pitch, we each picked out a New York player to work on. “Call ’em everything in the book,” Chance told us. We didn’t need much encouragement either.

My pet target, you might say, was McGraw. I’d been clouding up on him ever since I had come across his sly trick of taking rival pitchers aside and sort of softening them up by hinting that he had cooked up a deal to get that fellow with the Giants. He’d taken me aside for a little chat to that effect one time, hoping, I suppose, that in a tight spot against the Giants I’d figure I might as well go easy since I’d soon be over on McGraw’s side.

Sure, it was a cunning trick he had and I didn’t like it. So the day after he’d given me that line of talk, I walked up to him and said, “Skipper, I’m pitching for the Cubs this afternoon and I’m going to show you just what a helluva pitcher you’re trying to make a deal for.” I beat his Giants good  that afternoon. [The film underlying the 1907 flip book below may be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzkyW7WcybU.]

But that was early in the season, and I want to tell you about this playoff game. It was played before what everybody said was the biggest crowd that had ever seen a baseball game. The whole city of New York, it seemed to us, was clear crazy with disappointment because we had taken that “Merkle boner” game from the Giants. The Polo Grounds quit selling tickets about one o’clock, and thousands who held tickets couldn’t force their way through the street mobs to the entrances. The umpires were an hour getting into the park. By game time there were thousands on the field in front of the bleachers, the stands were jammed with people standing and sitting in the aisles, and there were always little fights going on as ticket-holders tried to get to their seats.

The bluffs overhanging the Polo Grounds were black with people, as were the housetops and the telegraph poles. The elevated lines couldn’t run because of people who had climbed up and were sitting on the tracks.

The police couldn’t move them, and so the fire department came and tried driving them off with the hose, but they’d come back. Then the fire department had other work to do, for the mob outside the park set fire to the left field fence and was all set to come bursting through as soon as the flames weakened the boards enough.

Just before the game started, the crowd did break down another part of the fence, and the mounted police had to quit trampling the mob out in front of the park and come riding in to turn back this new drive. The crowds fought the police all the time, it seemed to us as we sat in our dugout. From the stands there was a steady roar of abuse. I never heard anybody or any set of men called as many foul names as the Giants’ fans called us that day, from the time we showed up till it was over.

We had just come out onto the field and were getting settled when Tom Needham, one of our utility men, came running up with the news that back in the clubhouse he’d overheard Muggsy McGraw laying a plot to beat us. He said the plot was for McGraw to cut our batting practice to about four minutes instead of the regular ten, and then, if we protested, to send his three toughest players, Turkey Mike Donlin, Iron Man McGinnity, and Cy Seymour, charging out to pick a fight. The wild-eyed fans would riot, and the blame would be put on us for starting it, so the game would be forfeited to the Giants.

Chance said to us, “Cross ‘em up. No matter when the bell rings to end practice, come right off the field. Don’t give any excuse to quarrel.”

We followed orders, but McGinnity tried to pick a fight with Chance anyway, and made a pass at him, but Husk stepped back, grinned, and wouldn’t fall for their little game.

I can still see Christy Mathewson making his lordly entrance. He’d always wait until about ten minutes before game time. Then he’d come from the clubhouse across the field in a long linen duster, like auto drivers wore in those days, and at every step the crowd would yell louder and louder. This day they split the air. I watched him enter as I went out to the bullpen, where I was to keep ready. Chance still insisted on starting Pfiester.

Mathewson put us down quick in our first time at bat, but when the Giants came up with the sky splitting as the crowd screamed, Pfiester hit Fred Tenney, walked Buck Herzog, fanned Roger Bresnahan, but Johnny Kling dropped the third strike and when Herzog broke for second, he nailed him. Then Turkey Mike Donlin doubled, scoring Tenney, and out beyond center field a fireman fell off a telegraph pole and broke his neck. Pfiester walked Cy Seymour, and then Chance motioned for me to come in. Two on base, two out.

Our warmup pen was out in right-center field, so I had to push and shove my way through the crowd on the outfield grass.

“Get the hell out of the way,” I bawled at ‘em as I plowed through. “Here’s where you ‘black hand’ guys get your chance. If I’m going to get killed, I sure know that I’ll die before a capacity crowd.”

Arthur Devlin was up—a low-average hitter, great fielder, but tough in the pinches. But I fanned him, and then you should have heard the names that flew around me as I walked to the bench.

I was about as good that day as I ever was in my life. That year I had won 29 and, what with relief work, had been in forty-three winning ballgames.

But in a way it was Husk Chance’s day.

That Chance had a stout heart in him. His first time at bat, it was in the second. The fans met him with a storm of hisses—not “boos” like you hear in modern baseball—but the old, vicious hiss that comes from real hatred.

Chance choked the hisses back down New York’s throat by singling with a loud crack of the bat. The ball came back to Mathewson. He looked at Bresnahan behind the bat, then wheeled and threw to first, catching Chance off guard. Chance slid. Tenney came down with the ball. Umpire Bill Klem threw up his arm. Husk was out!

Chance ripped and raved around, protesting. Most of us Cubs rushed out of the dugout. Solly Hofman called Klem so many names that Bill threw him out of the game.

The stands behind us went into panic, they were so tickled, and the roar was the wildest I ever heard when Matty went on to strike out Harry Steinfeldt and Del Howard.

Chance was grim when he came up again in the third. Joe Tinker had led off the inning by tripling over Cy Seymour’s head. We heard afterward that McGraw had warned Seymour that Tinker was apt to hit Mathewson hard, and to play way back. But Seymour didn’t. Kling singled Tinker home. I sacrificed Johnny to second. Jimmy Sheckard flied out, Johnny Evers walked, and Frank Schulte doubled. We had Matty wabbling, and then up came Chance, with the crowd howling. He answered them again with a double, and made it to second with a great slide that beat a great throw by Mike Donlin.

Four runs.

The Giants made their bid in the seventh. Art Devlin singled off me, and so did Moose McCormick. I tried to pitch too carefully to Bidwell and walked him. There was sure bedlam in the air as McGraw took out Mathewson and sent up the kid, Larry Doyle, to hit. Doyle hit a high foul close to the stand and as Kling went to catch it, the fans sailed derby hats—and bottles,    papers, everything to confuse him. But Kling had nerve and he caught it.

Every play, as I look back on it, was crucial. In the seventh after Tenney’s fly had scored Devlin, Buck Herzog rifled one on the ground to left, but Joe Tinker got one hand and one shin in front of it, blocked it, picked it up, and just by a flash caught Herzog, who made a wicked slide into first.

In the ninth a big fight broke out in the stands, and the game was held up until the police could throw in a cordon of bluecoats and stop it. It was as near to a lunatic asylum as I ever saw. As a matter of fact, the newspapers next day said seven men had been carted away, raving mad, from the park during the day. This was maybe exaggerated, but it doesn’t sound impossible to anyone who was there that day.

As the ninth ended with the Giants going out, one–two–three, we all ran for our lives, straight for the clubhouse with the pack at our heels. Some of our boys got caught by the mob and were beaten up some. Tinker, Howard and Sheckard were struck. Chance was hurt most of all. A Giant fan hit him in the throat and Husk’s voice was gone for a day or two of the World Series that followed.

Pfiester got slashed on the shoulder by a knife.

We made it to the dressing room and barricaded the door. Outside wild men were yelling for our blood—really. As the mob got bigger, the police came up and formed a line across the door. We read the next day that the cops had to pull their revolvers to hold them back. I couldn’t say as to that. We weren’t sticking our heads out to see.

As we changed clothes, too excited yet to put on one of those wild clubhouse pennant celebrations, the word came in that the Giants over in their dressing room were pretty low. We heard that old Cy Seymour was lying on the floor in there, bawling like a baby about Tinker’s triple.

When it was safe, we rode to our hotel in a patrol wagon, with two cops on the inside and four riding the running boards and the rear step. That night, when we left for Detroit and the World Series, we slipped out the back door and were escorted down the alley in back of our hotel by a swarm of policemen.

Young Casey

Last week I wrote about the New York Mets and, inevitably, Charles Dillon Stengel, whose profound summation of his life—“I’m a man that’s been up and down”—gave title to the story. This time I’d like to write about that same lefthanded dental-school dropout from Kansas City—the abbreviation of which gave name to the man.

Casey did not, as one might imagine, owe his sobriquet to the ballad “Casey at the Bat,” published two years before his birth. Yet that origin would have been apt, for Stengel is baseball’s literary giant, its James Joyce … no less than Yogi Berra may be said to be its philosopher king. To me, he is baseball’s most interesting figure, a protean artist of infinite riches.

For this column, let’s confine ourselves to his playing days, which began in the minors in 1910 and ended there in 1931, when he played in a handful of games while managing Toledo in the American Association. Stengel was a solid if unspectacular outfielder with the Dodgers, Pirates, Phillies, Giants, and Braves. A highlight of his early years took place on a Sunday at Ebbets Field, on May 25, 1919. Stengel had been traded to Pittsburgh before the 1918 season, but spent most of that season in the military. Returning to play in his spiritual home, Casey was well on his way to an 0–for–4 and had just made an inelegant play in the outfield. When he sauntered in from the field at the end of the sixth inning, his Pirates trailing by 5–0, the crowd “guyed him,” in the words of the New York Sun. Bowing to the grandstand, he politely doffed his cap, and out flew a sparrow that a spectator had handed to Stengel. The crowd convulsed in laughter even though he had flipped them the bird.

In 1923, as a platoon outfielder with the Giants, Stengel hit the first World Series home run in Yankee Stadium history, winning Game 1. He hit another to provide the only run in Game 3. His reward was to be traded to the last-place Boston Braves one month later.

Of his dash home in Game 1 Damon Runyon wrote,

This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran, running his home run home, when two were out in the ninth and the score was tied and the ball was still bounding inside the Yankee yard.
This is the way–
His mouth wide open.
His warped old legs bending beneath him at every stride.
His arms flying back and forth like those of a man swimming the crawl stroke.
His flanks heaving, his breath whistling, his head far back.”

To us, Casey seems to have been born old, crusty and bandy-legged. Yet when he made his big-league debut with Brooklyn on September 17, 1912, the Eagle reported the following day:

It may be stated in the most polite circles that he did break in … with a loud, resounding-crash, such as has been made by few minor leaguers landing In the majors, Stengel is light-haired, hits and throws lefthanded, is fast on his feet and seems to have a good eye for fly balls. Against the miscellaneous collection of pitchers shoved into the fray by Pittsburg yesterday he made a record in five times at bat of four straight singles, followed by a base on balls, stole two bases and drove in two runs. He also gave every indication of being full of pep and self-confidence and promises to be a strong bidder for a regular job in the Brooklyn outfield. 

Fast on his feet! Full of pep! Breaking in with a bang! Below, in Casey’s own words, is the story of that debut, offered up in the early 1940s, before George Weiss brought him on to manage the Yankees.

One day in Kankakee, Illinois, in 1910 these two ballplayers—teammates of mine—were sitting on a bench watching me practice in the outfield. I’d haul down a flyball, hurl it into the infield, then toss my glove into the grass, take a run, and slide into the mitt. “He won’t be with us long,” one of them observed. “You mean he’s going up?” asked the other. “No,” replied the first, “there’s an institution here to take care of guys like that…!”

I was only practicing three things at once, like running, throwing and sliding. And I fooled them, because two years later, in September, I got off a train in New York, a brand-new suitcase in one hand and $95 in my pocket. The next day was my greatest in baseball. I was reporting to Brooklyn.

The bag was Kid Eberfeld’s idea. He was back from the majors and playing with us at Montgomery, Alabama, in the Southern League when manager Johnny Dobbs gave me the offer to join the Dodgers. The Kid and Mrs. Eberfeld came over to say goodby and good luck while I was packing. I had one of those cardboard valises … they’d last about a thousand miles if you got good weather, but if you ever got caught in the rain with one, you’d suddenly find yourself walking along with just a handle in your hand.

Well, they told me I couldn’t go to the big leagues with a thing like that and made me lay out $18 for a good one. I’d gone two and a half years to dental school and I was trying to save up enough tuition dough for another year. It cost about $150 plus more for instruments and everything, and I was short enough of cash without buying a bag. “You won’t come back,” said Eberfield. “Never mind the money. Forget about being a dentist.”

So I got to New York. It was in the evening and no use going to the park then, so I asked a cabdriver for a place to stay, and he drove me to the Longacre Hotel at 47th Street. I checked in and went down and sat in the lobby. I was afraid to go out, it was so dark, but finally I walked down to 46th Street and then hustled back, for fear I’d get lost. About twenty minutes later I went as far as 45th and back. I kept adding another block each trip and had been clear to 42nd Street and returned by midnight when I decided to turn in. The next morning I started for the park. Brooklyn played then at the old Washington Street grounds at Fifth Avenue and Third and with the help of an elevated and a streetcar I made it. The gateman found out what I wanted and waved toward the clubhouse. “Go on down there,” he said … and, as I walked away, he called after me, “You better be good.”

I’ll never forget walking into the locker room. There was a crap game going on in one corner. The only fellow who paid attention to me was Zack Wheat. He introduced me around. Nobody shook hands. Some grunted. A few said hello. I walked over to the game and decided maybe I ought to get in good with the boys by participating in their sport, so I fished out $20 and asked if I could shoot. Somebody said, “Sure,” and handed me the dice. I rolled ’em out. A hand reached for my 20 and a voice said, “Craps, busher,” and I never even got the bones back. I was about to reach for more money when I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was manager Bill Dahlen.

“Are you a crapshooter or a ballplayer, kid?” he asked. I told him I was a player and he said, “Well, get into a suit and on that field while you still have carfare.”

I hustled, believe me, and I’ve never touched dice since, either. I got to the bench and just sat there. I knew better than to pick up a bat and go to the plate. Elberfeld told me what happened to rookies who tried that. Finally Dahlen came over and said, “Let’s see you chase a few,” and I ran like hell for the outfield. Behind the fence was a big building with fire escapes all down one side and guys in shirtsleeves were parked on the steps, passing around pails of beer and getting set for the game.

I never expected to play, but just as the umpires came out, Dahlen told me to “Get in center.” Hub Northen, the regular center fielder, had been sick, and I guess they decided they might as well get me over with quick. My first time at bat we had a man on first and Dahlen gave me the bunt sign. The pitch wasn’t good and I let it go by. Claude Hendrix, the league’s leading pitcher, was working for Pittsburgh and George Gibson was catching. Hendrix threw another and I singled to right-center. When I got to the bench after the inning, Dahlen stopped me. “Didn’t you see the bunt sign?” he asked. I told him yes, but that down south we had the privilege of switching on the next pitch if we wanted to. “I don’t want you to carry too much responsibility, kid,” he said, “so I’ll run the team, and that way all you’ll have to worry about is fielding and hitting.” My ears were red when I got to center field.

Up on the fire escape the boys were having drinks on my hit and I could hear them speaking real favorably of me. I heard somebody holler, and it was Wheat telling me to move back. Hans Wagner was at the plate. He larruped one and I went way back and grabbed it. In the dugout Wheat said, “Better play deeper for him.” I thought of the catch I’d made and said to myself, “I can grab anything he can hit.” Two innings later he came up again and Wheat waved me back, but I wouldn’t go, and wham! old Hans peeled one off. The ball went by me like a beebee shot, and he was roosting on third when I caught up with it.

I got three more hits right in a row. The first time Hendrix had fed me a fastball, figuring why waste his best pitch, a spitter, on a busher. He was pretty mad by the time I combed two blows off his spitter and another off his hook. Once I was on first Dahlen gave me the steal sign and away I went. I beat Gibson’s throw, and Wagner just stood there, looking down at me. Never said a word. I stole two bases, and when I came up the fifth time we’d knocked Hendrix out and a lefthander was pitching for the Bucs.Pittsburgh’s manager Fred Clark hollered at me, “All-right, phenom, let’s see you cross over.” I was feeling cocky enough to do it so I stepped across the plate and stood hitting righthanded and I got a base on balls!

Two days later the Dodgers were playing the Cubs. I came to bat for the first time that day with nobody on. Cub catcher Jimmy Archer looked up to me and said, “So you’re the new Brooklyn star, huh? A basestealer, too, huh? Well, I hope you get on and go down.” I got on and, with two out, Dahlen gave me the green light. I was twenty feet from the bag when I saw Johnny Evers with the ball. I tried to slide around him, but no use. He really crowned me. As I lay there, he pulled up one pants leg. “Oh, tryin’ to spike me,” he growled, although I hadn’t even touched him. “I’ll stick this ball down your throat if you ever try it again, busher!”

My greatest day was over. And my real education had begun!

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