Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Early Baseball Films

The Pinch Hitter (1915) was discussed at length in the last article.  The film was significant in the development of the sports film.  Baseball-themed films made around the time of The Pinch Hitter usually kept the crucial drama off the field.  The ballplayers contended with family issues (One Touch of Nature, 1917), or romantic complications (Baseball's Peerless Leader, 1913), or the threats of criminal gamblers (His Last Game, 1909; Right Off the Bat, 1915; Somewhere in Georgia, 1917; Life's Greatest Game, 1924; and Hit and Run, 1924).

Filmmakers didn't see the footage of a ballgame as being exciting enough to entertain their audience.  It was not a view without reason.  A baseball game is something live, not pre-recorded.  It is something thundering, not silent.  It is something that should unfold spontaneously and noisily before our naked eyes.  As we will soon discuss, a Lubin filmmaker found it necessary to employ trick photography to make a ballgame look more interesting.  Animals were added to the game for their own unique entertainment value.  A critic for The Film Daily advised exhibitors of Hit and Run (1924), "Just show them a trailer of the prairie field game with the outfielder chasing the ball on horse."  A Motion Picture News critic emphasized that the ballplayer at the center of  You Know Me, Al (1915) "has a dog, whose antipathy to umpires is ferocious." 

A goal was to find a more glamorous setting for the cast.  The climax of Battling Orioles (1924) involves a chase through an exclusive club.  George T. Pardy of Exhibitors' Trade Review wrote of Hit and Run (1924), "One of the big situations is that staged in the cabaret, where Swat is attacked by a thug who is paid to break the player's trusty right arm."  The Pinch Hitter did much to establish the big game as a sports film's only real big situation.

Also, filmmakers were worried that not everyone liked baseball.  Mabel Condon of Motography wrote, "While the story of Little Sunset [1915] has to do with baseball it is not a baseball story, in that, to be understood and enjoy, it is not necessary that the spectators know who, what or why is first base, nor how many strikes put one out.  So it is a play for everybody, and one that undoubtedly will find general favor."

This "general favor" principle was applied by a Photoplay critic to Life's Greatest Game.  Though he believed that "the baseball atmosphere has its interest," the critic saw that the main selling point of the film was the fact that its story was "[f]ull of hokum melodrama" (a vicious gangster, an ocean liner sinking, a missing son).

It became obvious after awhile that a sizable audience did exist for baseball action.  In advising exhibitors about Hit and Run, a critic wrote, "Get your baseball fans interested. Tell them Hoot Gibson makes Babe Ruth look like a bushleaguer." 

The baseball dramas of this era were matched by the baseball comedies, which include Baseball and Bloomers (1911), Hearts and Diamonds (1914), National Nuts (1916) and Over the Fence (1917).  We will periodically discuss those films through the course of this article. 

The earliest known narrative baseball film was a 40-second comedy called Casey at the Bat; or, The Fate of a "Rotten" Umpire (1899, Edison).  Rob Edelman, author of "Great Baseball Films: From Right Off the Bat to a League of Their Own," wrote, "The [film] was shot on the lawn of Thomas Edison's estate in West Orange, New Jersey, and opens with a batter swinging wildly at a pitch and striking out.  He and the other players and umpires brawl, with a jumble of bodies piling up at home plate."  The Edison Catalog went into more detail on the action.  Their summary was as follows:
The umpire makes a decision that Casey doesn't like, and an argument follows, during which Casey deftly trips him up, and continues the argument on the ground. The other players run from the bench and join in the rumpus. The fielders come running in and the pile on the home plate looks like a foot ball scrimmage. A solemn warning to all rotten umpires.
That's a lot of action for 40 seconds.

The film was essentially remade by Biograph in 1906.  Edelman wrote of the 1906 Biograph film Play Ball on the Beach, "[In this] typical early story-oriented baseball film, a bunch of ballplayers become angered at an umpire's call."


Back at Edison, Edwin Porter directed a funny baseball film called How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906).  Here is the description of the film provided by Charles Musser in his book "Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company:"
In a small office, the lady stenographer writes a note for the office boy that reads "Dear Teddy: Come home at once.  Grandma is dead." The boss accepts the excuse and the office boy has a free afternoon to see the game. The young lady stenographer faints in disbelief when the boss falls for the explanation. The bookkeeper is told to escort her home. Left alone, the broker also decides to take the afternoon off and see the game. The remainder of the film intercuts Teddy on a telephone pole looking through a spyglass with masked point-of-view shots of the game—including a view of the boss discovering the stenographer and bookkeeper in the stands.
Here is the full film.

Lubin followed up Edison's How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game with How Brown Saw the Baseball Game (1907).  Hal Erickson wrote in his excellent book "Baseball in the movies: a comprehensive reference, 1915-1991":
Before heading out to a baseball game at a nearby ballpark, sports fan Mr. Brown drinks several highball cocktails.  He arrives at the ballpark to watch the game, but has become so inebriated that the game appears to him in reverse, with the players running the bases backwards and the baseball flying back into the pitcher's hand.
The rabid baseball fan was at the center of many films during this era.  The Baseball Fan (1908, Essanay) involves the efforts of a Chicago White Sox fan to see a game at Comiskey Park without paying for a ticket.  He starts out peeking through a knothole in a fence, but is quickly chased away by a police officer.  He then climbs a telegraph pole much like Teddy did in How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1910, Essanay) involves, according to Edelman, "a baseball nut who manages to forget his wife at the ballpark."  The Moving Picture World provided a lengthy description of the plot:
Our friend Blink is a baseball bug and a devotee of the sport. One day he finds he will have time in the afternoon to visit the ball park, and from that moment until noon he is in an excited fever, refusing to talk anything but baseball to the business men who call on him. When the clock strikes twelve Blink seizes his hat, slams down his desk and tells his stenographer that he is gone for the day.

Blink hurries home and gets his wife busy with the dinner. She is curious to know why he is in such a hurry and finally, between bites, he tells her he is going to the ball game. Fanny expresses her desire to go also, and insists on her husband waiting for her to dress.

Minutes crawl by like hours to Blink as his wife arrays herself for the game, and when she finally appears, leading Jack, the bull pup, he seizes her by the arm and drags her out of the house. They board a car, but the conductor objects to the dog.
The disagreement with the conductor gets physical, but it is soon resolved and the couple are driven to the ball park.

The Moving Picture World continued:
Blink goes to get the tickets.  When he comes back with the necessary paper he is in such a hurry and so happily excited as to grab the arm of another woman, a large, fat, colored "mammy," and does not discover his mistake until they are inside.

Now he has to buy another ticket, and after he has located Fanny and the dog they hurry into the gate and into the bleachers.

The game is an exciting one, but not for Fanny.  She sees nothing in it at all, and finally dozes off to sleep with her head resting on a fat man's shoulder.  Jack, the pup, becomes excited or angered at a rather shady decision by the umpire and freeing himself from his chain chases the luckless referee all over the diamond.

The home team wins, of course, which makes Blink so happy that he goes off, forgetting Fanny.  He follows the band and the players on their triumphal procession downtown and arrives at his home before he thinks of his missing spouse.

In the meantime Fanny has slept peacefully through the game, and is deserted by her fat man.  She is finally the only one left on the bleachers, but is soon awakened by a ball park guard.

She meets Blink halfway home, and there is the usual family row, which ends peacefully, however, at the close of the film.
The Moving Picture World assessed the film as follows:
A lively travesty on the passion for baseball which actuates so many devotees of the sport now. Not always, however, will a man become so excited that he forgets to take his wife home, leaving her on the bleachers to find her way home as best she can. Probably the innovation of having bull pups chase umpires all over the grounds will not become popular, particularly with the luckless umpires, but in this instance it adds another feature of fun to a film already overflowing with it. Then comes the finale, which starts with a family row but ends in peace and happiness at home. Blinks is undoubtedly benefited by his outing, though it must be confessed that his nervous condition borders on collapse at a number of stages in the progress of the story.
In Baseball, That's All! 1910, Méliès), yet another office worker lies to his boss to attend a game.  Film Index described the opening as follows:
He's a regular "fan" and studies the baseball news as carefully as some people do their Bibles.  He comes to breakfast with his dear little wife and finds his morning paper as usual at his plate. "By Jove!" he shouts, as he glances at the news, "a game this afternoon." Then he begins to wax eloquent about the strikes, flies, home runs and base hits, putting his hand in the hominy, knocking the coffee pot from the table and winding up his exposition by pulling the table-cloth off and everything else with it. He has gone the limit and wifey can humor his craze no longer. She swoops down upon him with an umbrella and gets in some "swats" that nearly knock the cover from his dome. He makes a run for the office with a deep laid plan to go to the ball game by pretending he has a toothache. The plan succeeds and he starts for the grounds.  Just after he has worked the toothache excuse the boss picks up the newspaper and the first thing he strikes is the baseball announcement. "Ah," says the boss, "it's me for the ball park," and off he goes to see the sport.
The clerk gets into a scrap with another baseball fan on his way to the game.  He is immediately brought before a judge to answer for the altercation.  The judge, also a baseball fan, identifies with the clerk's passion for the game.  He releases the clerk and adjourns court to take in the game himself.

At the game, the clerk is too enthusiastic for others around him.  Film Index continued:
[H]e is told to sit down, shut up, hire a hall and do several other things. . .  [He] loses control of himself, waves his hat, falls over on the judge and his boss, who has not recognized him until now.  The old man fires him from his employ and the judge threatens to arrest him. 

All in all, hat busted, clothes torn and hair disheveled, the young enthusiast gets home and crawls into bed.  Sleep cannot subdue his ardor.  In his dreams he raves, roots and rants about the boys at the bat.  Not until his wife enters the room and empties a pitcher of water on him does he wake and his fever cool.  Then, and not until then, does he reckon the cost of one day's game of baseball.  With an aching brow and conscience he vows "never again," falling into the arms of his forgiving wifey.
The Baseball Bug (1911, Thanhouser) received a great deal of press attention for featuring four stars of the champion Philadelphia Athletics.  A clerk is convinced that he is, according to The Moving Picture World, "a wonder of the baseball diamond."  His wife, who is desperate for her husband to stop his nutty obsession with baseball and return his attention to his dull office job, elicits the support of Philadelphia Athletics players to take the conceit out of the man.  The New York Dramatic Mirror noted, "A message is faked up from Connie Mack to Percy, telling him that his fame has reached Philadelphia, and that Coombs, Bender, Morgan, and Oldring will visit him to learn pointers on the game. . . [T]he pitchers pitch for him while he tries to show them how to hit.  Needless to say, he fans the air until he is sick of baseball, and is a cured man to the joy of his wife."

The Moving Picture News was enthusiastic in their remarks, as you can see:
Bender!  Coombs!  Morgan!  Oldring!  They're picture players! Now let the hearts of all fans rejoice, for the four stars of the star Philadelphia Athletics will be with them once more, though the season is over.  And it will be a diversion to see them as actors - to see if they face the cameras confidently as they did Mathewson. In advance, let it be said that they did.  They enacted their roles at the Thanhouser studio with the precision of veteran photoplayers, and they even played a 'stage' game of ball with all the enthusiasm that they manifested in their battles on the genuine diamond.
Baseball, a Grand Old Game, a short comedy produced by Biograph in 1914, is set into motion when a man (described by The Moving Picture World as a "simp") tells his boss that his mother-in-law was killed in a train wreck so that he can spend the day at a ballpark.  The Motion Picture News reported, "The many opportunities which the national game has afforded for burlesque, especially of the dyed-in-the-wool baseball crank, are taken advantage of in the picture." 

Baseball and Trouble was a short comedy produced by Lubin in 1915.  Jack Potts (William W. Cohill) calls in sick to work so that he can see a ballgame.  He underestimates his boss' concern and fails to anticipate that the man will visit his home to see how he is doing.  Potts' wife (Lila Leslie) has to  come up with a plan quickly.  She wraps up a tramp in bandages to make him unrecognizable and then has him lie in bed pretending to be her husband.  Motography reported, "[She] tells the boss that [he's husband] tried to go the office, but was run over by an automobile."  The tramp panics when the boss insists on summoning an ambulance to rush him to the hospital. 

In Baseball and Bloomers (1911), the athletes of Miss Street's Seminary for Young Girls set aside their usual exertions in tennis and basketball to organize a baseball club.  

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912) is short drama from Broncho Film Company.  Erik Lundegaard wrote of the film:
Harry Burns (Harold Lockwood) is a good pitcher with a university team whose uncle comes into a bad way financially and can no longer send him to school. He suggests Harry go west to find work. . . [He's] trusted enough to pick up the payroll in town. . . Even as she's quickly revealed by Harry, the bandit appears, dressed in black, gun drawn, and grabs the payroll. Then he feels in Harry's pockets to remove him of his guns. Except there are none. He only finds a baseball, which Harry's old coach had just sent to him. Laughing, he drops it and leaves. At which point Harry picks up the baseball and beans the bandit in the back of the head. He and the girl truss him up, bring him back, Harry's the hero.
Vitagraph produced a film version of  Ernest L. Thayer's classic 1888 poem "Casey at the Bat" in 1913.  The Moving Picture World provided an unusually extensive plot description for the brief (ten-minute) film:
The Mudville B.B. Club has one sure winner, Casey [Harry T. Morey], the idol of the fans and the admiration of the ladies. Kitty, a housemaid, and Mary, a cook, can see nothing but Casey. Grady, a mere policeman, is his rival for Kitty's love. Mudville and Hicksville Clubs are to play their final game for the championship. Casey's first hit is a home run. Mudville cheers him to the echo. In the last half of the ninth inning, Mudville is at the bat, two men on bases and two out. "Casey at the bat," shouts the crowd. He takes his place with all the confidence of a hero. With a cheering salute to the Mudville rooters, "Watch me boys!" he strikes out. The game is over, the score is, Hicksville 9, and Mudville, 7. Casey is a fallen idol. He makes a lone sneak to Kitty's home. She has already heard of his overthrow. He peeks through the window as the rain descends in torrents and beholds Grady, his rival, being feted and petted by Kitty and the cook.

John Bunny takes to the field to make a good impression on the wealthy Miss Whipple in the 1914 Vitagraph comedy Hearts and Diamonds.


Billy ("Smiling Billy") Mason starred as a baseball pitcher in a twelve-part series called "Letters from Bugs to Gus," which debuted in 1915 with You Know Me, Al.  The series was written by Ring Lardner and produced by World Film Corporation.  Motion Picture News reported, "There are real baseball scenes, with real players plus the comedy element, and the quaintness of Ring Lardner's stories is absolutely rendered on the screen."  Mason moved to Universal to play essentially the same role in a trio of films: Baseball Bill (1916), Flirting with Marriage (1916) and Baseball Madness (1917).  Bill is out of work at the start of the second film.  The bulk of the film involves Bill dressing as a woman to get a job as a waitress.  Later, he manages to go to a ballgame.  The Moving Picture Weekly noted, "The home team is playing badly, and Bill can hardly stand it.  The pitcher is being hit all over the lot. . . Bill can stand it no longer. He makes a break for the bench, and is recognized with joy, and rushed into a uniform.  He pitches perfect ball and wins the game."

Harold Lloyd heads to the ballpark in Spit-Ball Sadie (1915, Pathé).  Internet Movie Database reports, "A young man promises his girl that he will get Spitball Sadie, a renowned female pitcher, for her all-girl baseball team. When he is unable to get Sadie to come, he dresses up as her and takes her place on the team."

Little Sunset was released with much fanfare by Paramount Pictures in 1915.  TCM website provided the following description of the film's plot:
Hobart Bosworth plays [The Apaches'] star player Gus Bergstrom, known to fans as "The Terrible Swede."  "Little Sunset" is the red-haired, fiery-tempered son of a minor league baseball player named Jones.  The boy worships. . . Bergstrom. . . and is overjoyed to learn one day that his father has been signed to the "Terrible Swede's" team.  Following the death of Little Sunset's mother, the boy accompanies his father on the road as the team's mascot. He and Gus become great friends, and when Little Sunset falls ill, the "Terrible Swede" plays miserably. At an important game, Gus makes a serious mistake, and the manager angrily upbraids him. Weary of baseball after fifteen years as a player, Gus takes the opportunity to quit the team and return home to tend to his business affairs. Hearing that the team is in trouble, however, he rejoins the Apaches and leads them to a pennant victory. Little Sunset, who had been outraged when Gus deserted the team, finally decides to forgive his pal.
The success of Charles Ray's The Pinch Hitter in 1915 is likely to have had an influence on the baseball films that immediately followed it.

DeWolf Hopper Sr., an acclaimed stage actor best known for reciting the "Casey at the Bat" poem for almost four decades in films, on stage, records and radio, starred in a Fine Arts adaptation of Casey at the Bat (1916).  Mudville's baseball champ Casey becomes so distracted by the ill health of his niece that he strikes out during an important game.  The Moving Picture World said of the film: "[It] gives Mr. Hopper opportunity for one of those humanizing performances which seem to fit him almost as well as he fits them, and that is saying a great deal. . . [E]very movement he makes on the field is filled with that subtlety of performance which only such capable active seem to understand."  Motography opined, "It is rather thin material to build a five-reel story on, but here it has been done quite well.  There is a lot of baseball in the story and it may consequently be termed a play with the national spirit."

National Nuts (1916) is a Vogue comedy that stars Ben Turpin as a recruit pitcher named Jeff.  Motography reported, "Jeff takes his sweetheart, Rena [Rena Rogers], to the ball park and there she becomes interested in [Strikeout] Murphy [Paddy McQuire], the sensational pitcher of the big league, and her love for Jeff wanes."  Lord Rawsberry (Arthur Moon), a bogus nobleman, also has an interest in Rena and seeks to bring about Murphy's downfall to end Rena's interest in him.  Motion Picture News reported, "In an important game Rawsberry put arsenic on the ball, and Murphy's pitching becomes less and less effective as he uses his famous spit-ball and gets the arsenic in his mouth.  Jeff is sent to the mound and by his marvelous benders baffles the opposing batsman."  According to Motography, "Jeff exposes the umpire and Rawsberry and Murphy again becomes a hero and later marries Reno, while Jeff becomes a mascot in one of the Bush Leagues."

Motography had reported on the film's production  earlier.  Their article noted in part:
The comedy was filmed during the opening season of the Coast League and the game was between Los Angeles and Salt Lake.  Turpin will be seen as Peerless Frank Chance's greatest twirler.  When he appeared on the field eighteen thousand fans wondered, but the next moment it dawned on them that a picture company was at work, and all eyes were focused on Turpin, who, dressed in a suit large enough for a played three times his size, "wound up" and delivered in his own unique expression of baseball comedy.
A group of boys are devoted to their team, The Greenpoint Giants, in Shut Out in the 9th (1917, Edison).

Sidney Drew introduces his wife to the joys of baseball in Her First Game (1917, Metro).  The film was shot at New York's Polo Grounds.

The star of Somewhere in Georgia (1917) is real-life baseball star Ty Cobb, who starts out in the film as a a humble bank clerk.  Because he isn't discouraged in his dream to be a baseball player like The Baseball Bug's clerk, he goes on to become a game-winning baseball slugger.  Unfortunately, game-winning baseball players attract the unwanted attention of gamblers.  Cobb is kidnapped by gamblers at a pivot point in the story.  But the film, maybe influenced by The Pinch Hitter, did have its climax on a ballfield.  Internet Movie Database reports, "Breaking loose from his bonds, Cobb beats up each and every one of his captors and shows up at the ballfield just in time to win the game for the home team."  Mark Vance of Variety noted, "[T]he usual excitement attends the baseball game in which Cobb caps the climax with his playing and wins the girl in the end. There's a deep-dyed villain and the subsequent denouement at the finale, with Cobb stealing a kiss from his prospective wife behind a baseball glove."

Harold Lloyd returned to baseball in Over the Fence (1917).  Lloyd is unable to get into a ballgame with his date, Bebe Daniels, because his romantic rival (Snub Pollard) rummaged through his coat earlier and swiped his tickets.  Fritzi Kramer wrote, "Unable to enter through the front, Harold dashes in through the players' entrance and is mistaken for an out-of-town champion player. He is sent out to pitch at once. . . After some comical warmup moves, Harold gets down to business — and he's fabulous!"

Charles Ray starred in a second baseball film, The Busher, in 1919.

Headin' Home (1920) was promoted as the "true story" of baseball great Babe Ruth.  The film, which stars Ruth, includes brief footage of legendary slugger playing baseball.

Reference sources

Rob Edelman, "Baseball Film to 1920, Part 1," Our Game (May 22, 2012).

Rob Edelman, "Baseball Film to 1920, Part 3," Our Game (May 24, 2012).

Fritzi Kramer, "Over the Fence (1917) A Silent Film Review," Movies Silently (May 16, 2017).

Erik Lundegaard, "The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)."

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