Roll the Newsreels!
I began watching the DVD collection from MLB, The Official World Series Film Collection, last night. My friends pooled their money together to purchase it for me as a Christmas gift and I’m finally getting the chance to watch it.
As determined by WILBB reader suggestions, I started at the beginning. The first film in the collection is the 1943 series, Cardinals versus Yankees.
Watching the film is truly like turning back time. Recall that the first major league game to be televised was just a few years earlier, in 1939, on an experimental station in New York City, W2XBS (what would become NBC). Only about 400 TV sets were owned in the metropolitan area at the time, but the World’s Fair was going on and new technology was a big to do. Regular programming on TV was still several years away, though (1946) and World War II brought most television production to a halt.
Movies, though, movies were a much more mature technology and the war only created even more desire for people, in both the US and UK, to want to go out to see films. After Al Jolson’s the Jazz Singer in 1927 created a sensation with its synchronized sound and picture, by 1929 nearly all Hollywood films were “talkies,” and the 1930s and 1940s are considered the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Baseball was no stranger to the movies, and you had celebrity ballplayers like Joe E. Brown of the Cubs starring in “Alibi Ike” (1935), and movies like “It Happened in Flatbush” (1942) and the classic biopic about Lou Gehrig starring Gary Cooper, Pride of the Yankees (1942).
The first World Series film was made to be sent to the troops overseas as a patriotic lift, a reminder of home and all they were fighting for. As such, it is packed with a kind of stoic, rah-rah patriotism that we can rarely display these days without irony. It is easy to imagine, as you watch the film, being crammed into a make-shift movie house erected by the army with your squadron or battalion to see the reels played for the first time.
“The first four decades of World Series films were created as archival programs designed to capture the highlights for posterity,” writes MLB senior writer Jeff Scott about the collection. “The narration was staccato and to the point – much more play-by-play than storytelling.” The highlights of each game are run through chronologically, but there are other documentary moments, like establishing shots of the old, old Yankee Stadium, and the crowds making their way across the field to exit, that embellish the film. Also in the opening of the film is an acknowledgement of the MLB players currently serving (170 men) including a shot of Joe DiMaggio (as well as Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and others…)
One other thing I did not know, the film was written by Lew Fonseca–the same Lew Fonseca who had been an infielder for the Indians (and Reds, Phillies, and White Sox). As his Wikipedia page currently reads, ‘Fonseca is perhaps best known as one of the first men to use film in analyzing baseball games and finding flaws in players. It is said that his interest with cameras began while shooting Slide, Kelly, Slide in 1927. As manager of the Chicago White Sox, he used film extensively. After retiring from playing the game, he was director of promotions for both leagues. Fonseca worked on World Series highlight films for almost 25 years, as an editor and director, and occasionally narrated them as well.”
The narration is dry and yet peppered with normal, colorful baseball lingo like “Texas Leaguer.” The one thing that stands out immediately to me on watching the action highlights is that every ballplayer seems incredibly lanky. Perhaps some of that is the baggy, flannel uniforms, as well as the fact that players did not bulk up in those days, unless you count Babe Ruth overeating. They all seem to run like deer, on the balls of their feet.
The other thing you notice is all the errors and intentional walks. You can see in the footage how rough the infields are, and of course the gloves were smaller and not quite as sophisticated as the cowhide scoops we have today. (Check out this one of Bob Feller’s: http://www.sportsartifacts.com/gfeller.JPG)
And pitching duels. Lots of pitching duels.
The Yankees won the 1943 series, in five games, after having lost the previous year to these same Cardinals. Among the storylines that do emerge even in the dry play by play–the Cardinals were in every game. They scored first in the first three games, and would have probably taken a 2 games to 1 lead in the series in Game Three if their defense had not fallen apart in the bottom of the eighth, allowing for a five-run Yankee uprising.
One story not told in the film is that the one game the Cardinals did win (G2) was pitched and won by Mort Cooper, and caught by his brother Walker, on the same day that their father Robert died.
The duels continue in the 1944 series film, which I couldn’t help watching also, since after all, once we were sitting down in front of the TV, we might as well, no? And the older films are relatively short. 1944 was the All St. Louis series, with all six games played in Sportsman’s Park (presumably because it was the larger of the two home parks in town). It opens with a direct address from Connie Mack to the American soldiers, in which he touts America’s pastime of baseball as every bit as central to the American character then as it was when he first played ball in 1884. Wow.
Fonseca’s crew stretched themselves a little bit more in this one, using some techniques like slow motion and sound dubs of crowd noise. Of course, they only seem to have two little bits of crowd noise that they play over and over, but you can feel they’re trying to liven up the film. They also add the starting lineups to the beginning, showing a shot each player swinging his bat as the narrator gives his last name.
Again the Browns had chances to win that they missed, especially in game one, which went into extra innings and was lost in the bottom of the eleventh. Poor Ted Wilks, gets knocked around by the Browns in Game Three, and loses, but ends up earning the save in the clincher.
Pretty fascinating stuff if you are into baseball history–which I am. More reviews to come as I work my way through the collection!
(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)