A Brief History of Baseball in the Movies
By Dave Filipi
One of the strongest testaments to baseball’s position as our national pastime is the sheer number of memorable films based on the game.
One of the strongest testaments to baseball’s position as our national pastime is the sheer number of memorable films based on the game, especially compared to the relative dearth of appealing football, basketball, hockey, horse racing and boxing movies. It’s not even close. Any baseball fan can quickly rattle off a Top 10 of his favorite baseball films.*
Baseball’s central place in the national consciousness becomes even clearer when one moves beyond Hollywood films and looks instead at ephemera: television commercials, home movies, instructional films, documentaries, and newsreels. From 2004-2018, I organized a program of archival baseball films for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, where I work as the director of the film/video program. These programs were comprised of footage from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collection. Now, naturally, the Baseball Hall of Fame is going to have more films about baseball. But the four years I worked with UCLA were especially illustrative.
Working with the UCLA archive, I had access to newsreel footage from the Hearst Metrotone News Collection. I included clips from as early as 1907—footage of New York Giants star Christy Mathewson pitching—and as recent as footage of President Nixon throwing out the first pitch in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Now, it must be acknowledged that by the end of the century, football had far surpassed baseball in terms of popularity, and NFL Films has been the official film chronicler of professional football in the country, but when I tried to organize a football program with material from UCLA, I was barely able to gather enough interesting or entertaining footage for one program. The earliest football footage was from a 1903 game between Princeton and Yale and the latest was footage from a 1975 NFL game between Chicago and Minnesota. There is actually a fair amount of newsreel footage of college football games from the 1930s-1950s, but the vast majority of it is shot from atop the stadium with the camera panning left and right and from far too great a distance to make it compelling or to identify individual players. (I did find a nice clip of a very young Janet Leigh “practicing” with the Boston College football team in 1949.)
Baseball’s central place in the national consciousness becomes even clearer when one moves beyond Hollywood films and looks instead at ephemera.
Conversely, baseball was incredibly well-documented in the 20th century, even if one considers that roughly 80 percent of all films made before 1930 are lost. But miracles do happen. Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison caused a stir when he uncovered rare footage of the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series, and one need only look to Ken Burns’s epic documentary Baseball or HBO’s series When It Was a Game as evidence of the sport’s abundant film record.
It wasn’t only the big events that were covered by the various newsreel companies. Spring training and many minor league and Major League regular season games were rigorously chronicled, and each company seems to have assigned units to cover every major moment, including All-Star Games and the World Series. Newsreel makers were compelled to record the myriad ways baseball intersected with the broader culture. There is footage of baseball being played in Wembley Stadium during World War II, not to mention baseball being played by troops (including Joe DiMaggio) overseas and even on the sea atop an aircraft carrier. There is footage of a game featuring the New York Giants playing in Sing Sing, and college students playing in canoes on a flooded Michigan State campus.
Baseball attracted major cultural and political figures. I’ve included footage of Presidents Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and Nixon throwing out first pitches; Kansas Governor and failed FDR challenger Alf Landon listening to the 1936 World Series on the radio; many clips of colorful New York Governor and Babe Ruth pal Al Smith; King Faisal II of Iraq meeting Jackie Robinson and his teammates during a stop at Ebbets Field for a game against the Giants in 1952; and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visiting Yankee Stadium in 1954 and chatting with Casey Stengel.
As a film curator, it’s always fun to uncover examples of baseball players mingling with stars from stage and screen. Some of my favorites include: Bing Crosby visiting his Pirates in spring training; Lou Gehrig receiving a commemorative watch for his 1936 MVP award from George M. Cohan and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at Yankee Stadium; June Allyson appearing with members of the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park to promote her upcoming 1949 film The Stratton Story; and numerous charity All-Star games in Hollywood featuring everyone from Jack Benny to Jimmy Durante to Buster Keaton.
Before cable and even before television, Americans followed the daily rhythms of the baseball season in newspapers and on the radio. But the movies, especially the newsreels, allowed a fan in Fargo to see Walter Johnson in action or a kid in Las Vegas to know what Dizzy Dean’s windup looked like. The movies let fans across the country experience a game in Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds. The movies helped spread the country’s love of the game and reinforced the degree to which it permeated our culture. •
*For the record: The Bad News Bears, The Natural, Eight Men Out, Moneyball, Angels in the Outfield, It Happens Every Spring, The Pride of the Yankees, 42, Damn Yankees, The Big Leaguer.
Dave Filipi is the Director of Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.