Lost (and Found) Baseball, Part 2

This continues from yesterday’s post (below this one). Happily, a number of baseball films have been restored—and a case study of one such repair involves Headin’ Home.For years, this film existed in bits and pieces similar to the eight-minute excerpt found in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. A truncated, feature-length VHS tape with blurry visuals was available for purchase from Grapevine Video, a company that specializes in marketing public domain silent films. Meanwhile, Minnesota-based film archivists Ted Larson and Harold “Rusty” Casselton spent years piecing together, from a range of sources, a nearly complete 16mm print. This version, running 73 minutes, was screened at a number of venues, including New York’s Film Forum (on February 6, 1995, as part of the Bambino’s 100th birthday celebration); Cinefest (a festival of old films held each March in Syracuse, New York); and the Louisville Bat Museum, during the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual convention. The VHS tape shown at the SABR screening looked so pristine that some audience members assumed they were viewing a newly struck 16mm print.

Artistically speaking, Headin’ Home is not a silent screen classic on the order of King Vidor’s The Crowd, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, or any number of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd comedies. But its historical value is unmistakable. For one thing, it offers a portrait of Ruth (whose on-screen character is known simply as “Babe”) at a time when his hardscrabble background and off-screen carousing was not yet public knowledge. Thus, he could be believably cast (as he is in Headin’ Home) as a clean-living, mother-loving, all-American boy who is the product of an idyllic small-town America. But there is another aspect to the film that resonates today. “I just remember thinking the first time I saw it that, when you think of Babe Ruth, you think of the image of a ballplayer who is older and heavier,” explained Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein. “But the film is a reminder that, when he [appeared in] it in 1920, he already was a national figure. He was young and thin, and he already was a superstar.”

The manner in which the Headin’ Home restoration came about is reflective of the manner in which “lost” films are found and refurbished. Casselton recalled that, in 1993, he

received a call from a friend in Arizona about a woman who had a nitrate feature in her front closet. She had inherited the film from her father, and he always told her that it was very special because it starred “Baby Ruth.” The Arizona print had no title and was brittle from age. The film was distributed on a states rights basis [meaning that it did not have national distribution; instead, regional distributors purchased licenses from its producer to screen the film], and this print had been edited to remove references of bootlegging and illegal drinking.

The film’s preservation was funded in conjunction with Goldstein and Collector’s Sportslook, a magazine. Once the monies were in place, Casselton and Larson rolled up their sleeves. Casselton continued:

I ended up tracking down a second nitrate print from a collector in Connecticut. The “Connecticut” print had an original main title and a total of nine other inserts that had been cut out of the “Arizona” print. It was, however, missing the last five minutes, and [there were] gaps throughout in the general continuity. I [was] aware of yet another source for material on the film. Many years ago, a company released in 16mm a very substantial print of the film. There certainly would be no use for that material except for the fact that it had one more scene that was still missing from the composite master. I tracked down the negative for that print, but the owner would not cooperate and make the scene available to be incorporated into the restoration print. The scene is near the end of the film, when Babe goes home to visit his sweetheart. The girl’s father now accepts Babe and they leave the room. At this point the print cuts and what is missing is a scene with Babe and the father in the basement with a still having a good old time. I guess this leaves the current print as a restoration project in progress. Someday, it will be completed. 

Years later, in April 2006, a 35mm restoration of Headin’ Home—this one running 50 minutes—was screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of “Baseball and American Culture,” a 12-film series organized by Dr. Carl E. Prince, former chairman of the history department at New York University, and Charles Silver, a curator in MOMA’s Department of Film.This version was described in the New York Times as “a rare, freshly restored silent.” According to the New York Daily News, it was restored by Silver “to 35mm format from multiple reels. ‘Charles is a wizard,’ says Prince. ‘[The film] hasn’t been seen in over 80 years. It’s about home, mother and apple pie—it’s just wonderful.’”

Prince’s words are surprising … and misleading. It was as if the Grapevine Video version of Headin’ Home never existed—let alone the Larson-Casselton restoration.  

Regarding the manner in which the print screened at the Museum of Modern Art came into being, Peter Williamson, MOMA’s preservation officer, reported that the Museum “copied a nitrate print of HH—it was in terrible shape, so it took much longer than usual to repair just so we could get it through the printer. I don’t know where the nitrate came from, but I suspect it is the source for all the various releases over the years.”

As for the length of the MOMA print, Williamson added,

Running time for a silent film depends on the projector. If it can only run at sound speed, the action might look too fast, but put it on a variable speed projector and slow it down so people move naturally, then the same length of film will take longer to project. An hour of sound speed film could run 75 minutes if you slow it down to 17 or 18 fps [frames per second]. Whatever the running time, we got five very full reels of film. Is it complete? Well, the AFI [American Film Institute] catalog says it could be five reels, or it could be six reels. One person thought there was a jump in continuity, so we could be missing a reel, but who knows?

One never can tell where or when a nitrate print of a vintage film may turn up. “A man came by here a few years ago with an original nitrate print of Babe Ruth in ‘Heading Home’ [sic],” recalled Janice Allen of Cinema Arts, Inc., a specialist in film restoration. (Allen also oversees John E. Allen, the motion picture stock footage library.) “We cleaned it and I think [I] looked at it with him on our scanner.” Allen reported that the print was sold “by an auction house in Chicago, it went for about $35,000 for five or six reels, not bad.”

Of the other early baseball features that exist, perhaps the most intriguing (beyond Headin’ Home) is One Touch of Nature—if only because it features John McGraw. For years, researchers could view a complete print of this title in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. An 18-minute excerpt is on the Reel Baseball DVD, along with the Larson-Casselton Headin’ Home restoration, a 55-minute version of The Busher, and the previously mentioned short subjects and baseball film fragments. (One of the films that Jessica Rosner wished she could have included in Reel Baseball is a remake of The Pinch Hitter [1925, Associated Exhibitors]; but alas, this version, starring Glenn Hunter, is no longer in existence.) 

If such films as Right Off the BatSomewhere in Georgia, and The Pinch Hitter remake remain “lost,” one-sheet posters, insert posters, lobby cards, stills, press materials, and other production items are extant—and often are found in auction catalogs and special collections in libraries and archives. One example: In August 2002, Hunt Auctions offered what it described as a “rare 1915 Mike Donlin ‘Right Off The Bat’ movie poster.” The 28-by-42-inch piece was a “color lithographic poster featuring Donlin standing alongside [a] woman under [a] tree with foliage in [the] background. Retains beautiful original color with only light original vertical and horizontal folds backed on linen. Titling at bottom includes mention of the other star of the film, John J. McGraww….” The estimated price for the poster was $3,500-$4,500. The sale price was $5,000.

Somewhere in Georgia was the first and only production of the Sunbeam Motion Picture Corporation, and was distributed on a states rights basis. In its June 2009 catalog, Lelands.com listed what it labeled “a never seen before item that will probably never [be] seen again.” Up for bidding was a lot consisting of two Sunbeam Motion Picture Corporation stock certificates (dated 1916 and 1917); a Sunbeam brochure; several letters, one of which described the selling of screening rights to the film in New England; and a set of eight double-sided 8-by-10 inch Somewhere in Georgia lobby cards. Seven featured Ty Cobb. Lelands offered the entire lot for a $10,000 reserve.

Also in 2009, Robert Edward Auctions put up for bidding a large (10.5-by-13.5-inch) publicity photo, taken in 1920, of Babe Ruth striking a batting pose on the Polo Grounds turf. The still is not related to Headin’ Home because the Bambino is in his Yankees uniform. But his face is covered in white pancake makeup, and the photo more than likely was taken in conjunction with Play Ball with Babe Ruth (1920, Universal), a short instructional film. As noted in the Robert Edward Auctions catalog, “We can only speculate, based on the size and unrivaled quality of the print, that this was produced for promotional theater display or as a special presentation piece for those involved with the film in some significant manner.” The starting bid was $2,500. The sale price: $8,813.

Occasionally, Headin’ Home-related memorabilia surfaces. On two occasions, in 2006 and 2009, Heritage Auction Galleries offered what it described as a “1920 Babe Ruth Signed Tex Rickard ‘Headin’ Home’ Card.” (Rickard then was famed as a boxing promoter and it was through him that Headin’ Home was booked into Madison Square Garden, where it made its world premiere.) On the front of the cigarette-sized card is a black-and-white photo of the Bambino gripping a bat. “BABE RUTH IN ‘HEADIN’ HOME” is printed in white near the bottom—and the card is autographed by the Sultan of Swat. The following is printed on the back: “Here he is BABE RUTH / Colossus of the swat / The home run king in a gripping base ball storm ‘HEADIN HOME’ / Sidney Lust’s LEADER THEATER / First showing in Washington. One week only / Starting Sunday, May 9 at 3 P.M.” In 2006, the card sold for $5,676.25. Three years later, it was re-auctioned. This time, the winning bid was $8,962.50.

In 2004, Heritage also auctioned two similar cards, albeit unsigned, featuring Ruth in different poses. However, these cards were from the New York premiere. The following is printed on the backs of each: “COMPLIMENTS OF TEX RICKARD PRESENTING THE FIRST SHOWING IN THE WORLD OF BABE RUTH IN ‘HEADIN’ HOME’ A DELIGHTFUL 6-ACT PHOTO PLAY AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN 8 DAYS STARTING SUNDAY EVENING, SEPT. 19TH” One sold for $1,075.50. The price of the other was $2,031.50.

The Babe Comes Home may be a missing film, but quite a few lobby cards, one-sheet posters, and insert posters have turned up across the years—and are worth top-dollar. Sometimes, such material is unearthed in the most unusual locations. For instance, two 14-by-36-inch movie poster inserts from the film were discovered in 2006 in the interior wall of a home that was being renovated. They featured an image of the Bambino at bat and head shots of Ruth and co-star Anna Q. Nilsson bursting out of a baseball. Both were offered for bidding respectively in 2006 and 2007 by Robert Edward Auctions. It was noted in the 2007 auction catalog that the posters “were among a significant group of 1920s movie posters which had been used as insulation in the walls of the home during its construction. What makes this discovery all the more significant is the fact that the existence of the insert was completely unknown.”

A smattering of materials related to the early one- and two-reelers also exist—and occasionally, their origins are cloaked in mystery. For example, in 2004, Robert Edward Auctions sold a set of five lobby cards from Spring Fever, a Honus Wagner short that the auction house reported as being released in 1919. Wagner appears in three of the five; on them, he is identified as “Hans Wagner.” “Filmgraphs” is cited as the film’s releasing company; however, it should be noted that the company name is an addition, a photographed overlay. The cards were part of the Hall of Famer’s estate and were put up for auction by his granddaughter, Leslie Blair Wagner.

To be sure, Spring Fever is a curio—and not just because it features Wagner in a rare screen appearance. As described in the auction catalog,

In Spring Fever Honus Wagner teaches a young boy the skill of batting. Incredibly, the young boy in the film was Moses Horowitz [sic], who later became very well known as Moe Howard, of the Three Stooges. The cast of Spring Fever also included Moe’s brother, Shemp Howard. Now really, we must pause for a moment, to contemplate the fact that the great Honus Wagner actually starred in a movie with two future members of the Three Stooges, long before this comedy team’s formal debut.

The opening bid for the set was $500. The sale price: $1,495. (Moe’s and Shemp’s birthname was in fact Horwitz, rather than Horowitz; meanwhile, Shemp later appeared opposite Dizzy and Paul Dean in Dizzy & Daffy [1934, Warner Bros.], a two-reel comedy in which he plays a half-blind hurler who quips, “The only Dean I ever heard of is Gunga.”)

The whereabouts of any existing print of Spring Fever, the actual year in which it was made, and the possibility that it originally was released under a different title remain unanswered questions—as is the breadth of Wagner’s screen career. Apparently, late in life—he passed away in 1975, at age 77—Moe Howard claimed to have appeared with Wagner in 12 short films. All supposedly were made in the early 1920s, a “fact” that is casually noted in a number of Three Stooges histories. “Besides stage work,” according to The Three Stooges Scrapbook, authored by Jeff and Greg Lenburg and Moe’s daughter, Joan Howard Maurer, “Moe also appeared in 12 two-reel shorts with baseball great Hans Wagner.” However, as noted on a post on the Three Stooges.net Forum, made by “BeAStooge” on November 4, 2005, “In the early ’90s at one of the Philadelphia [Three Stooges] Conventions, Joan Howard told me she did not know where the Lenburgs got that information; as co-author, it did not come from her, and she was not aware of anything in her father’s papers that may have sourced the information.” Then in The Three Stooges, Amalgamated Morons to American Icons: An Illustrated History, Michael Fleming reported that a “series of twelve two-reel silent sports comedies [were] filmed outside Pittsburgh. The result: it’s a good thing Wagner could hit a curveball. He won five batting titles for Pittsburgh but was not Oscar material. ‘I think,’ said Moe, ‘that perhaps they made banjo picks out of the [films].’” No detailed production information is cited in either book, and no record of their existence is found in the standard film history sources. (For the record, Wagner in fact copped eight batting crowns.)

The Wagner/Three Stooges connection remains an enigma to Three Stooges experts. “It has been written in the past that Moe and Shemp starred with Honus Wagner in the Spring Fever short and that Moe starred with him in 12 shorts,” explained Wil Huddleston of C3 Entertainment, which owns The Three Stooges brand and sponsors the team’s official website. “As to which ones, I am not sure. Unfortunately, I do not have any way of confirming this because we do not have those shorts available to us.”

Regarding Spring Fever, other sources—for example, the first edition of Total Baseball and Arthur D. Hittner’s Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball’s “Flying Dutchman”—report that Wagner made the film in 1909 for the Vitagraph Studios. According to Total Baseball, “the movie showed Honus Wagner teaching a little boy the art of batting.” Hittner noted that the film “featured the famous ballplayer delivering batting tips to a young boy, played by Moses Horwitz.” Lending this credence is the fact that Horwitz/Howard was born in 1897; by 1919, he no longer was a “little” or “young” boy. Furthermore, the Vitagraph studio was located in Brooklyn—and the Horwitz brothers were born and raised in Brooklyn.

As listed in The American Film Institute Catalog, Film Beginnings, 1893-1910,Vitagraph released over 175 short films in 1909. None is titled Spring Fever, and most are long lost. So perhaps the Spring Fever lobby cards are connected to the film’s retitling for re-release. Adding to the confusion is another 1919 short with the same title, this one a Harold Lloyd comedy. But the existence of the lobby cards is proof positive that Wagner did appear in a movie that at one time was marketed under the title Spring Fever.

If the Spring Fever lobby cards and other original artworks are too pricey for those wishing to collect baseball film memorabilia, inexpensive reproductions (particularly of lobby cards and posters) are available from a range of venues. An additional source for vintage images is the display advertising found in newspaper archives. For instance, a nifty line drawing of a very recognizable Babe Ruth adorns an advertisement for the Madison Square Garden premiere of Headin’ Home that appeared in the New York Times on September 19, 1920. In the ad, the film is hyped as “A Delightful Photoplay of Youth and Happiness.”

Such ads do not just appear in “big city” papers. A head-to-toe shot of Charles Ray, garbed in a baseball uniform, dominates the display ads for The Busher printed in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star Journal and Sandusky Register in late August and early September, 1919. A non-baseball-oriented ad featuring a headshot of Ray, toplining The Pinch Hitter, appears in the June 27, 1920, Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette; at this juncture, Ray was a major film star, and such an image was deemed sufficient to attract ticketbuyers. Simple, no-frills ads for Right Off the BatSomewhere in Georgia, and One Touch of Nature respectively appear in theJanuary 22, 1916 issue of the Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette, the September 16, 1917 Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, and the January 2, 1918 Freeport (Illinois) Journal-Standard. Similar ads for The Busher appear in the June 29, 1919 Lowell Sun and August 27, 1920 Charleston (Virginia) Daily Mail.

While such visuals may fascinate collectors, fans, and historians, the question remains: Will material from Right Off the Bat, Somewhere in Georgia, The Babe Comes Home, and the missing shorter films ever be unearthed? One never can tell.

For one thing, prints or even negatives may be languishing in foreign film archives. In 2008, a cache of eight American newsreels, trailers, promotional films, and documentaries was uncovered in Australia’s National Film and Sound Archives. One was Screen Snapshots (1925, Columbia), one in a series of documentary short subjects produced between 1924 and 1958, in which film stars are pictured playing baseball. The following year, while vacationing in New Zealand, Brian Meacham, a film preservationist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, visited the country’s film archive and inadvertently came upon dozens of long-lost U.S.-made features, short films, and trailers dating from 1898 to the 1920s. The highlights included Upstream, a 1927 feature directed by John Ford; Maytime, a 1923 Clara Bow drama; and the earliest surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand. The films, some of them shrunken or in varying degrees of decay, are set to be preserved and eventually screened.

Not surprisingly, Babe Ruth was one of the most frequently photographed sports heroes of his era. Moving images of the Bambino on the ballfield, waving his bat as he waits for a pitch and then smashing dingers and waddling around the bases abound in Ken Burns’ Baseball. So are shots of him chopping wood, kibitzing with kids, playing with his young daughter and some puppies, and standing on a window ledge while autographing baseballs and tossing them to the masses below. There even is footage of a pre-1920 Ruth, in his pre-New York days. One of the most endearing (culled from John E. Allen) dates from 1919 and features the Babe, in a Red Sox uniform, playfully emerging from behind a door and joking with a woman.

But not all Babe Ruth footage has been found and archived; far from it. One of the more impressive recent discoveries came in 2011, when it was announced that eight reels of 16mm film had been unearthed in an Illinois cellar. The footage included three-and-a-half minutes of the Bambino and Lou Gehrig, reportedly taken with a home movie camera in Sioux City, Iowa, on October 18, 1927, during a barnstorming tour. The New York Times reported that this discovery “might be unlike any other, showing Ruth in his prime and shot from close range, sitting atop a pony while wearing a child’s cowboy hat and muttering into a home movie camera, as a boyish Lou Gehrig, who never had children and was known for his dignified demeanor, held children and framed his smile with big dimples.” An unnamed antiques dealer bought the lot in an estate sale. He, in turn, sold the reels to R.C. Raycraft, an Illinois antiques dealer and producer of law enforcement videos.

Another recent Babe Ruth discovery consists of eight seconds of the Bambino patrolling right field in the House That Ruth Built, along with additional seconds in which he expresses his opinion to an umpire after striking out and summarily heads away from home plate, with Lou Gehrig on deck. This footage, which reportedly dates from 1928, also includes views of the ball yard. It was taken from the first -base stands in Yankee Stadium and was discovered in a home movie collection in New Hampshire. The outfield footage reportedly is the only one of its kind. No known footage exists of Ruth tossing pitches in a Boston Red Sox uniform.

Additional recent finds include what reportedly is a 1924 instructional film featuring Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb and a kinescope of the television broadcast of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series pitting the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates (which ended with Bill Mazeroski’s legendary game-winning dinger). The latter was discovered in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar.

Despite the unearthing of these gems, what remains lost is unimaginable and incalculable. Granted, one easily can compile a list of all early baseball-related films and newsreels and determine which are missing. But it would not be possible to verify all the baseball-related footage, taken by amateur cinematographers, of everything from major and minor league teams and games to regional semi-pro nines to youngsters pitching and catching in schoolyards.

That being said, other similar discoveries invariably will be made in the future. One never knows if—or when— fragments or complete prints of Right Off the Bat or Somewhere in Georgia might be discovered resting unobtrusively in a corner in an archive in Europe, South America, or Australia, or covered in decades’ worth of nitrate dust in grandma’s attic.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Audrey Kupferberg; John Thorn; Janice Allen of Cinema Arts, Inc. and John E. Allen; Tim Wiles of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum; Peter Williamson and Charles Silver of the Museum of Modern Art; Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum; John Scheinfeld; Jessica Rosner; the late Harold “Rusty” Casselton; Wil Huddleston of C3 Entertainment.

2 Comments

It’s too bad there are no copies of the 1925 silent movie “The Pinch Hitter.” Much of the film was shot, starting on June 1, 1925, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ and used the campus buildings and Neilson Field where the baseball and football teams played (1891-1938) for much of its footage. They also used members of those teams as the players surrounding actor Glenn Hunter (as Joel Martin, the Pinch Hitter). The Rutgers Band was used for one scene dressed in their normal uniforms of red sweaters and white trousers. Players earned $10/day and extras $5/day. The names of the fictional colleges involved were Wellington College and Glenn Hunter’s team, Rutledge College (probably a homage to the school they were shooting at).

Cool deep background, Steve!

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