September 27th, 2012

Lost (and Found) Baseball

Once again I am pleased to give Our Game over to one of my friends and esteemed colleagues, Rob Edelman. In two parts, this accomplished film historian will share with the readers of Our Game a splendid essay he contributed to the Fall 2011 edition of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game. 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.

Lost (and Found) Baseball

Rob Edelman

A gloomy fact of film history is that more than half the movies made during the silent film era (pre-1927) are lost—vanished into the mists with the passing generations.

One of the culprits is the evolution of film technology. For decades, prints and master materials of films were generated on nitrocellulose film stock, which deteriorates over time. Across the years, archivists have recovered “lost” films in rotting film cans that were hidden away under piles of boxes in grandma’s attic or deep in the bowels of motion picture studio storage facilities. When a can was pried open—if it could be pried open—all that remained was its contents in various stages of corrosion. The chemically deteriorating celluloid may have become sticky, or even solidified into a mass, or was coated in varying amounts of nitrate dust. Some images still could be seen and identified while those on other frames simply had dissolved.

Beyond the issues relating to the longevity of film stock, another practical reality of motion pictures comes into play here. One can view a film as a reflection of history or a mirror of the era and culture that produced it. One also can view a film as a work of art. However, an unavoidable fact of the film industry is that a moving image (whether it was made by a major Hollywood studio, a poverty-row studio, an independent outfit, or a producer of newsreels) is a product, no different from an automobile churned out in Detroit or a keg of beer from Milwaukee. Unless they are home movies shot by amateur camerapersons or non-narrative films, moving images are made strictly for commercial purposes, to be marketed to the public with the expectation that they will turn a profit. Furthermore, in the pre-television/pre-VHS/pre-DVD era, a film that had completed its theatrical play was the equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper. Simply put, it was old news. Beyond the reissue of a popular hit, there were no existing venues in which films could be repackaged and resold. So they often were discarded—tossed into a dumpster along with last night’s stale fish and rotting vegetables.

Some enterprising souls—for example, the powers who worked for Walt Disney—realized that, even theatrically, a film did not have to be the equivalent of a Gone with the Wind to be recycled every few years and marketed to new audiences. This was logical, particularly with regard to the children’s films produced by Disney. Every few years, a fresh generation of kids was ripe for introduction to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Snow White. As a result, before it became stylish (not to mention profitable), Disney took extra-special care to preserve its product.

That studio was not the first to grasp the concept of remarketing its product. In 1925, Eastman Kodak established the Kodascope Library, which rented 16mm versions of popular films to institutions and private collectors for noncommercial screenings. Kodascope features generally were edited down to between four and five reels (with one full reel lasting approximately eleven minutes) and were sepia or amber-tinted, while short films usually were unedited. While in business, the Kodascope Library marketed more than 700 films. Many exist to this day, and are coveted by film collectors.

But such was not the case pre-1920. As a result, an immeasurable number of moving images from that era exist only in faded memory.

To be sure, a handful of baseball-related feature-length films were produced before 1920. Those that are considered “lost” include Right Off the Bat (1915, Arrow), starring Mike Donlin; Somewhere in Georgia (1916, Sunbeam), featuring Ty Cobb; and Casey at the Bat (1916, Triangle), with DeWolf Hopper—not to be confused with a 1922 DeForest Phonofilm which utilizes the sound-on-film technology developed by Theodore Case and features a hammy Hopper reciting the poem that earned him immortality. Of the early non-baseball films in which ballplayer-turned-actor Donlin appeared, prints exist only for Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917, States Rights); copies of Jack Spurlock, Prodigal (1918, Fox), Brave and Bold (1918, Fox), and The Unchastened Woman (1918, Rialto De Luxe-George Kleine System) all have vanished.  

Other missing features peripherally deal with ballplayers and ballgames. The titles listed under the headings “Baseball” and “Baseball players” in the subject index of The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1911-1920 are: The Grandee’s Ring (1915, Interstate); Little Sunset (1915, Bosworth-Paramount), which, at four reels, straddles the line between short and feature and includes in its cast “members of the Pacific Coast League’s Venice team”; The Stolen Voice (1915, William A. Brady); The Varmint (1917, Morosco-Paramount); The Final Close-Up (1919, Famous Players-Lasky); Better Times (1919, Brentwood); The Greater Victory (1919, B.P.O.E.-Arrow); and Muggsy (1919, Triangle). 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; and The Baseball Revue of 1917 (1917, States Rights), five reels in length, which features footage of a couple dozen ballplayers from Grover Cleveland Alexander and Home Run Baker to Ed Walsh, Smoky Joe Wood, and Heinie Zimmerman.

Meanwhile, prints of varying lengths and quality exist for such baseball features as The Pinch Hitter (1917, Triangle) and The Busher (1919, Famous Players-Lasky), both starring Charles Ray; One Touch of Nature (1917, Edison), featuring John Drew Bennett and John McGraw; and Headin’ Home (1920, Yankee Photo Corp./States Rights), Babe Ruth’s first non-fiction film. (Of all the “lost” silent-era features, perhaps the most coveted is The Babe Comes Home [1927, First National],  also starring the Bambino.) The Pinch Hitter is one of the few baseball titles marketed by the Kodascope Library. But it is an abridged version. According to the aforementioned American Film Institute Catalog, the film runs 4,768 feet. In the third edition of the Descriptive Catalogue of Kodascope Library Motion Pictures, published in 1928, the film is listed as being “3960 feet standard length—on 4 reels.”

Of the one- and two-reelers produced prior to 1920 that are labeled as “missing,” some of the more fascinating feature big-name big leaguers. Such a list begins with two films starring Rube Waddell: Rube Waddell and the Champions Playing Ball with the Boston Team (1902, Lubin) and Game of Base Ball (1903, Lubin). Other titles include Hal Chase’s Home Run (1911, Kalem); The Baseball Bug (1911, Thanhouser), featuring Chief Bender, Jack Coombs, Cy Morgan, and Rube Oldring; Baseball’s Peerless Leader (1913, Pathé), with Frank Chance; Breaking Into the Big League (1913, Kalem), featuring Christy Mathewson and John McGraw; The Universal Boy (1914, Independent Motion Picture Company), also with McGraw; and Home Run Baker’s Double (1914, Kalem). One unusual title is Baseball: An Analysis of Motion (1919, Educational), described on the Silent Era website as “a slow-motion study of baseball players.” The titles of quite a few others begin with the word “baseball”: The Baseball Fan (1908, Essanay); Baseball, That’s All! (1910, Méliès); The Baseball Star from Bingville (1911, Essanay); Baseball and Bloomers (1911, Thanhouser); The Baseball Umpire (1913, Majestic); Baseball, A Grand Old Game (1914, Biograph); Baseball and Trouble (1914, Lubin); The Baseball Fans of Fanville (1914, Universal); and Baseball at Mudville (1917, Selig Polyscope). The status of all the films in the Universal-produced “Baseball Bill” comedy series remains unknown; the films starred Billy Mason and first were released in 1916. Other missing titles include everything from Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1910, Essanay); Slide, Kelly, Slide (1910, Essanay); and Spit-Ball Sadie (1915, Pathé)also known as Lonesome Luke Becomes a Pitcher; to The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916, Essanay).

Savvy baseball historians may list their most sought-after “lost” films—or, for that matter, images that likely never even were recorded. One is Tim Wiles, Director of Research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, coauthor of Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,and diehard Chicago Cubs fan. While researching his book, Wiles learned of the existence of the 1910 Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which was made by G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, one of the movies’ first cowboy heroes, and tells of a baseball nut who manages to forget his wife at the ballpark. According to Wiles,

While the film does not survive, there was a review of it in one of the early film publications—Moving Picture World. We ran the review as an illustration [in] the book. Also … we report that Anderson filmed part of a 1908 White Sox-Highlanders game at Chicago’s South Side park. Would love to see that, but beyond that, according to David Kiehn’s book on Broncho Billy, Anderson also signed a contract, presumably with the NL and AL, to film the World Series for 1908, ’09, and ’10. How would you like to watch the Cubs’ last World Series in 1908, Cobb’s Tigers, Wagner’s Pirates, and Connie Mack’s A’s play in the World Series? I sure would. To my knowledge, none of that footage survives.

Meanwhile, a relatively small number of pre-1920 baseball shorts and film oddities are known to exist—some in their entirety, others in fragments. Included here are one- and two-reelers and footage shot for early newsreels or by individuals with home movie cameras. The vast majority of the baseball footage housed in the UCLA Film & Television Archive is post-1920—and post-silent film era. Early moving images in this collection include shots of “Mr. and Mrs. Babe Ruth handing out shoes to children,” found on a 20-minute Hearst newsreel dated 1919-1920, and two minutes and 25 seconds of “unedited silent newsreel footage” from 1921 featuring the Bambino, Miller Huggins, Tris Speaker, and others. (UCLA also is home to an eight-minute excerpt from Headin’ Home, with picture quality that is described as “fuzzy and jumpy,” and two reels of Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman.)

A small number of baseball-related shorts—including His Last Game (1909, Independent Motion Picture Company) and Homerun Hawkins (circa 1920)—are listed in the Catalog of Holdings: The American Film Institute Collection and the United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress. One of the clips found in the “American Memory” section of the Library’s website is the earliest known baseball footage: The Ball Game (1898, Edison), which runs scant seconds and consists of an amateur team from Newark, New Jersey, battling a rival nine. One of the more intriguing extant baseball-related films is The Selig-Tribune, No. 21 (1916, Selig Polyscope), a one-reel newsreel that includes footage of members of the Chicago Cubs. Meanwhile, Casey at the Bat (1899, Edison)—also known as Casey at the Bat or The Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire—along with How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906, Edison); His Last Game; The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912, Broncho); Hearts and Diamonds (1914, Vitagraph); and an undated one-minute “Kinogram” featuring Babe Ruth are among the baseball shorts selected by film historian Jessica Rosner and included in Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era, 1899-1926, a DVD released by Kino International in 2007.

A representative sample of existing early baseball footage may be found in Baseball (1994), Ken Burns’ high-profile documentary. The section that covers 1900-1910 includes snippets of everything from small-town nines and bloomer-clad girls playing ball in fields and young boys doing the same on urban streets to major events and personalities. Unsurprisingly, the Baseball segment spotlighting 1910-1920 includes even more footage: male and female factory workers manufacturing baseballs and sewing gloves; players exercising, warming up, and batting; masses of fans populating stands and walking across ballfields; and athletes in baseball jerseys mingling with men in military uniforms during World War I. The Philadelphia Athletics are seen taking batting practice and there is the façade of the newly opened Comiskey Park as well as footage of some of the era’s top names: Grover Cleveland Alexander; Ban Johnson; Connie Mack’s famed $100,000 Infield (Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, Home Run Baker); and Ty Cobb warming up, at bat, sliding—and on horseback. The 1919 Black Sox scandal is well represented, with a bit of in-game World Series footage and shots of players warming up, fans in the stands, and images of some of its key figures (Eddie Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Kenesaw Mountain Landis).

In the closing credits of each section of Baseball, “newsreel sources” are cited. They range from the Library of Congress, the Oregon Historical Society, the University of South Carolina News Film Library, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive to commercial and other private sources such as John E. Allen and Streamline Archives. The small amount of extant pre-1920 footage is further underscored upon perusing the Allen web site. Of the 458 records found under “baseball” on the site’s search engine, a handful are dated 1920 or earlier. They include 56 seconds of footage of the 1913 opening of Ebbets Field; several seconds’ worth of a couple of small-town ball games (1912, 1918); and Ty Cobb hunting (1918) and with his family (1920). A smattering of additional images may be uncovered while searching the Internet. For example, among the clip titles found on YouTube are: Walter Johnson Pitching Footage (running one minute, 29 seconds); Christy Mathewson Pitching Footage (24 seconds); 3 Finger Brown Pitching (40 seconds); Pete Alexander Pitching Footage (46 seconds); John McGraw and Christy Mathewson (one minute, 13 seconds); Ty Cobb Footage (one minute, 34 seconds); 1905 New York Giants (23 seconds); 1909 World Series Footage (26 seconds); 1910 World Series Footage (43 seconds); and 1919 World Series Footage (three minutes, eight seconds).

Quite a bit of this footage may be found in Baseball. Nevertheless, the majority of images from this era included in the documentary are still photos. For example, the 1912 World Series, pitting the New York Giants against the Boston Red Sox, is recalled in detail via words and stills. But there are no moving images. Such also is the case with the 1916 World Series between the Bosox and Brooklyn Superbas.

Early extant baseball footage also may be found in other films. One example is We Believe (2009, No Small Plans Productions), a Chicago Cubs documentary. According to John Scheinfeld, the film’s director,

When making We Believe, we found two sequences of actual game footage shot in 1909 involving the Chicago Cubs. The first, running approximately two minutes, was shot in Pittsburgh with the Cubs in town to take on the Pirates. The second, longer sequence, running approximately four minutes, was shot at the West Side Grounds on September 16, 1909. Cubs vs. New York Giants. It was the day President Taft visited Chicago and he and his entourage are seen in the stands. Then the camera cuts to another angle from behind home plate facing the first base line. There are several pans of the Chicago Tribune marquee on the outfield walls. Then, most interestingly, the camera was moved on top of the grandstand, shooting down at the home plate-to-first base-line. We found the footage … the Library of Congress. Actually, it was a bit of a happy accident as we were looking for one thing and came across this footage spliced at the end of a reel of raw film. I don’t know anything about the Pittsburgh footage, but we learned that a local Chicago film studio shot much of President Taft’s visit to the city, including his going to the ballpark…. It’s pretty spectacular and we felt fortunate to have found it.

Part 2 appears in this space tomorrow.