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.

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