Baseball On The Big Screen
Tom DeMichael’s book, Baseball FAQ All That’s Left to Know About America’s Pastime, is a lot more than just a lot of stats and records. It’s about baseball in every way imaginable — on TV, the Movies, its history, and more! Tom De Michael talks about Baseball’s integration with Hollywood in a chapter he titled, “Baseball at the Movies.” Read an excerpt of the chapter below, and get your copy today!
The love affair between Hollywood and the game of baseball has been long, torrid, and very public. Even pioneer inventor Thomas Edison made the game a subject of his early filming efforts, shooting less than a minute of a Newark team playing an unidentified opponent in 1896.
Called The Ball Game, it was the precursor to Edison’s silent version of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” poem filmed in 1899. Titled Casey at the Bat or the Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire, it was a dramatization of the verse, shot on the inventor’s New Jersey lawn. It would be the first of at least seven versions of the story, including two feature-length films in 1916 and 1927, and five short films.
The growing popularity of cinema ran parallel to the growth of baseball in the early 1900s. Shorts like 1909’s His Last Game and 1912’s The Ball Player and the Bandit—both just twelve minutes each—combined baseball with the Wild West. Before long, it wasn’t unusual to see many baseball stars appearing on the big screen, acting as . . . well, acting as ballplayers.
Pitchers Chief Bender and Jack Coombs showed up in a 1911 comedy short, The Baseball
Bug, while Frank “Home Run” Baker starred in a 1914 short, curiously titled Home Run Baker’s Double. Pitching great Christy Mathewson appeared in Love and Baseball and Matty’s Decision, in 1914 and 1915, respectively.
Ty Cobb got in the act, starring in Somewhere in Georgia in 1916. Based on a not-so-original story by sportswriter Grantland Rice, the film features Cobb as a ball-playing bank clerk (years later he probably owned the bank). Discovered by a scout for the Detroit Tigers, the bank clerk leaves his sweetheart—the banker’s daughter—behind to play ball and steal bases, while a sneaky coworker tries to steal his girl. When Cobb is kidnapped
by thugs hired by the competing cashier, the Georgia Peach beats the bejesus out of
them, then arrives at the big game in time to win it, and his girl. Cobb made a cozy $25,000 for the two-week project.
It wouldn’t be long before the Bambino himself—Babe Ruth—brought his broad face
and big personality to the screen. With only one season under his (then-slim) belt with
the Yankees, Ruth starred in a seventy-one-minute 1920 feature called Headin’ Home. Once more, the story was not complex. A simple country boy named Babe (what a stretch . . .) doesn’t play baseball very well, until he blasts a long homer one day against the local team. Branded as a traitor to his town, he moves to New York and becomes a Yankee. With a return to his hometown, Babe is now a hero.
Ruth’s cinematic career continued as his success with the real Yankees grew. He starred in two comedy features in 1927 and 1928, Babe Comes Home and Speedy. The Babe also showed up in half a dozen shorts in the 1930s, making his final film appearance as himself in 1942’s Pride of the Yankees.
Early feature films focusing on the game included The Pinch Hitter in 1917, The Busher in 1919, and Slide, Kelly, Slide in 1927. The Great Stoneface, Buster Keaton, went out for baseball in 1927’s College and performed a masterful baseball pantomime in 1928’s The Cameraman. A real fan of the game, he was known to assemble pickup ball games with the film crew whenever there was a break in the shooting.
In the early 1930s, comic Joe E. Brown—he with the loving-cup ears and saucer-sized mouth—a former semipro ballplayer who passed on an offer to play with the Yankees, made three baseball films: Fireman, Save My Child in 1932, Elmer the Great in 1933, and Alibi Ike in 1935. In all three films, Brown was a simple man with a passion for baseball. As an interesting afterfact, Brown’s son eventually became the general manager with the
Ever since then, dozens and dozens of films with a baseball theme have captured the attention (and, more often than not, the admission price) of millions of moviegoers.
Some of the cinema stands out more than others, just like the ballplayers portrayed on the screen.
For many fans of the game, certain scenes and certain quotes remain, long after the projector has been shut down and the stale popcorn is tossed in the bin. For me, two particular moments stand out, both from films to be addressed in just a few paragraphs.
A key exchange in A League of Their Own, between manager Jimmy Dugan and star player Dottie Hinson, reaches far beyond the game of baseball. The catcher has decided to quit because, as she puts it, “It just got too hard.” Jimmy replies with a corny but still very true observation: “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard . . . is what makes it great.” Trite? Yes. Sappy? Yes. But a challenge to always reach higher? Yes.
In The Natural, slugger Roy Hobbs—confined to a hospital bed with his childhood sweetheart Iris Gaines at his side—reminisces about his life. Very simply, he pauses and quietly says, “God, I love baseball.” Truer words were never spoken, even if they’re just on film.