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.”
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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.]
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