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:]

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:]

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.


Is there any known copy of the World Tour film in existence?

This is almost certainly a lost film. Rob Edelman writes, in a forthcoming article for the journal Base Ball, “Feature-length documentaries whose status is classified as ‘unknown’ include The Giants-White Sox World Tour (1914, Eclectic Film Co.), a six-reel record of the New York Giants-Chicago White Sox’ 1913-1914 trip around the world, which includes moving images of John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Charles Comiskey, Germany Schaefer, Hans Lobert, and others….”

The photo identified as the 1902 Athletics with Waddell is actually the 1905 Athletics.

Thank you for your correction, Nicholas.

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