Warm up for the new season with more than a century's worth of ballpark films.
BASEBALL AND THE MOVIES both came into their own at the start of the 20th century. Each places a great deal of modern significance upon the year 1903. This was the date of both the first World Series (Boston Pilgrims vs. Pittsburgh Pirates)and the first dramatically edited film, "The Life of an American Fireman."
The earliest known baseball movie predates the 20th century. "The Ball Game" (1898), filmed by the pioneering Edison Co., briefly documents an amateur contest between two Newark, N.J., teams. The earliest fictional baseball picture was "Casey at the Bat" (1899), which only utilized the title of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's famous poem. Also lensed by the Edison Co., it is a fleetingly comic look at a batter striking out and arguing with the umpire. (Some things never change.)
While most baseball film literature keys on the post-1929 sound movie era, several silent cinema examples (often featuring major league stars) merit noting. One of the earliest was "Christy Mathewson, N.Y. National League Baseball Team" (1907), an entertaining look at the Giants' celebrated pitcher. What makes this short subject especially memorable is its inclusion of a signature example of Mathewson showmanship--the pregame ritual of driving his new car onto the field. As amusingly diverting as this is, it goes beyond a pioneering example of superstar strutting. This Mathewson touch has become a basic component featured in several baseball movies. The best variation occurs in "Alibi Ike" (1935), when the cocky title character played by Joe E. Brown brings his new automobile onto the field by plowing through an outfield fence.
"Right Off the Bat" (1915), the first feature-length baseball picture, starred another popular New York Giant, former outfielder Mike Donlin, in a loosely autobiographical story. He would go on to have a lengthy character actor career in films. The following year, controversial Detroit Tiger star Ty Cobb played at acting in "Somewhere in Georgia" (1916), a movie which suggested he stick to baseball. More entertaining are two features starring comic Charles Ray--"The Pinch Hitter" (1917) and "The Busher" (1919)--both of which chronicle a country innocent as ballplayer, a character which would frequently surface in later baseball pictures, from Brown's Alibi Ike to Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs ("The Natural" 1984).
The Babe on screen
Though the mythic Babe Ruth was less than well-served by the often-embarrassing biography, "The Babe Ruth Story" (1948, with William Bendix woefully miscast as the slugger), the Yankee legend was entertainingly active as a silent film actor. He is best showcased in an extended scene from comedian Harold Lloyd's "Speedy" (1928), wherein the comic is so obsessed with baseball and the Yankees that he keeps losing jobs. During one such short-lived position, this time as a taxi driver, he spots Ruth autographing baseballs at an orphanage. Providentially for Lloyd's character, Ruth is late for a game at Yankee Stadium. With amusing effectiveness, the celebrity fare sequence that follows utilizes characteristics associated with each man--the "thrill comedy" of Lloyd (here demonstrated by fast, but inattentive, driving skills in heavy New York traffic) and the Babe's popularity playing havoc with time commitments.
Their dialogue, which appears on titles during this thrill ride, succeeds both as humorous patter and as a knowing slant on period baseball. For instance, Lloyd says, "Gee, Babe, you've done more for baseball than cheese did for Switzerland." (Ruth's epic home runs brought fans back to the game after the "Black Sox" scandal threatened to rain baseball.) Lloyd also tells his hero, "Even when you strike out, you miss 'em close." (Ruth's cuts at the ball were so powerful that, even when he missed, spectators were enthralled.) The comedian's "miss 'em close" dialogue is also a set-up to allow Ruth the funniest line in the sequence, as it pertains to Lloyd's scary driving: "I don't miss 'em half as close as you do."
Eventually, the Babe and his cabbie fan get to Yankee Stadium. Even though the slugger is still shaken from the ride ("If I ever want to commit suicide, I'll call you"), he shows his regular-guy status by getting Lloyd into the game. Through the incorporation of actual newsreel footage, Harold then gets to see a batting Ruth both cut loose with a mighty miss and blast a ball into the seats--followed by his patented home run trot. However, consistent with Lloyd's tradition of baseball derailing his job status, the cabbie meets his boss at the game and is promptly fired.
Ruth's acting as a fearful taxi passenger in "Speedy" is an improvement over his starring roles in two earlier silent features--"Headin' Home" (1920) and "Babe Comes Home" (1927). Although neither performance suggests the "Bambino" should have hung up his spikes for Hollywood, each movie occasionally offers a fascinating close-up of arguably the game's greatest player during his prime. The athletic movements of "Headin' Home" document a surprisingly slender and graceful Ruth near the beginning of his long Yankee tenure, as well as the easy charisma which contributed to his movie star-like popularity. "Babe Comes Home" is a fun look at Ruth on the eve of his year of years, shot just prior to the 1927 season, in which he hit a then-record 60 home runs. It is, however, somewhat startling to see him in a Los Angeles--at that time part of the Pacific Coast League--uniform.
My favorite baseball sequence in silent films occurs in Buster Keaton's "The...