Monday, March 24, 2014

Some Very Fortunate Footage


A few months ago, I learned of the stunning archival holdings at the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections. Thanks to the invaluable help of Production Manager Ben Singleton, I had the chance to review some amazing baseball footage, part of the Fox Movietone News outtakes that were donated to USC back in the early 1980s.

When you think about it, this collection of footage is doubly rare. Certainly, very few people have seen the film today. But, since this footage didn't make the cut for the original Movietone News reels shot in the 1920s and '30s, it is likely that few beyond a handful of editors actually saw this footage back in the day.

Given my interest in baseball history, I was entranced by most every frame I viewed, but I was especially fascinated by some footage marked A7378 to A7382. The date associated with the footage was noted as June 1, 1925, but my experience researching some other footage in the collection taught me that these dates did not necessarily correspond with the date the film was shot. For example, different footage (A4510) marked "November 7, 1924" clearly showed Babe Ruth at Washington Park in Los Angeles. But Ruth's appearance there was on October 27, not November 7, 1924.

The footage marked A7378 to A7382 starts with a batter taking his cuts at the plate:



There's no question about the identity of the man with the bat. His powerful upper body, his grip at the very end of the bat (unusual for the time), his distinctive stance and swing. It's clearly Babe Ruth. The Babe is wearing Yankee pinstripes, so going on the tentative assumption that action is from June 1, 1925, this would imply the game took place at Yankee Stadium.

Now let's take a closer look at the opposition catcher:



Note that he wears two-toned stockings, an all dark cap (backwards under his mask), an all-gray uniform and his left sleeve is adorned with a small dark emblem of some sort. That description matches the road uniform of just one American League club during the entire decade of the 1920s: the Washington Senators of 1924 and 1925. Here's baseball researcher Marc Okkonen's drawing of that uniform, as found at the National Baseball Hall of Fame's online exhibit Dressed to the Nines:



After a number of pitches, Ruth finally hits a fair ball and begins running towards first. As the camera follows him towards first, he slows down, turns towards the third base line and heads to the Yankees' dugout, obviously having grounded out to end the inning. As he starts across the diamond, the pitcher for the Senators heads towards the first-base visitors dugout. His lanky form is unmistakably that of pitching legend Walter Johnson.



Certainly Ruth faced Johnson a number of times at Yankee Stadium in 1924 and 1925, but thanks to Dave Smith of retrosheet.org, I was able to confirm that the footage was indeed from June 1, 1925. First, it was easy to verify that Washington played at New York on June 1, 1925. Second, play-by-play from that game corroborated perfectly with action from the at bat captured in the footage.

Ruth came to the plate three times in the game. His first at bat occurred in the second inning as he led off with a grounder to Johnson. Since it was the first out of the inning, it was not this plate appearance that we see in the Movietone outtake. His second time up came in the fourth inning and resulted in a walk. Also not a match.

Ruth's final trip to the plate came with one out in the sixth inning, with teammate Earle Combs already on first base. According to the play-by-play account, Ruth grounded out to second base. This matches nicely with what we see in the footage. But it is another part of the at bat that ultimately convinced me that we're seeing action from the June 1 game.

At one point in the footage, with the count 2-and-1 on Ruth, we see the Senators catcher receive a pitch from Johnson (ball three) and then quickly fire the ball toward the infield. His throw is nothing like his normal, leisurely tosses back to Johnson. It is clearly a throw to second base. This corroborates perfectly with the play-by-play from the June 1 contest which notes that, during Ruth's at bat, Combs tried to steal second, but was retired: catcher Muddy Ruel throwing to shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh for the putout. A perfect match between footage and play-by-play There's no question that we're seeing Ruth's sixth-inning at bat on June 1, 1925.

One key to dating early baseball footage is to ask oneself, "For what reason did the news service want to cover what we're seeing?" Unlike the situation today, where it seems that everyone and everything is captured on video all the time, in these earlier days, a conscious decision was made before sending a cameraman and equipment out on assignment. But what was so special about this June 1, 1925, game that footage would be wanted? Why cover this contest?

For the answer, we need to look back to early March of that year. As was often the case throughout his career, Ruth fell ill during spring training. However, this time his sickness was much worse than usual. The Babe was hospitalized and ultimately required surgery. Rumor had it that the Babe had serious digestive problems, brought upon by overeating, but this was a charge that Ruth himself denied. Nevertheless, sportswriters quickly dubbed the illness "The Bellyache Heard 'Round the World." The result was that the Yankees lost their star (and biggest drawing card) for the first month and a half of the season. Given that Ruth was the most dominant player of his day, most anything Ruthian was worth capturing on film. But it was simply a "no brainer" to send a cameraman over to Yankee Stadium in the spring of 1925 to cover Ruth's first game back after a long, serious illness.

Footage of Babe Ruth's first game back in 1925 is interesting, but perhaps not worth blogging about. However, it was not this portion of the film that excited me. Instead, it was other footage, shot earlier that same day, that caught my attention. This pre-game footage showed Ruth taking batting practice, tossing the ball around and posing for the camera in front of the Yankees dugout. Here's are a pair of frames from this section of footage:





Behind Ruth, at far left, is a familiar Yankees player: Lou Gehrig. The previous season, Lou had a breakout year with Hartford of the Eastern League, batting.369 with 37 homers in 134 games. But at the moment we see Lou on the bench behind Ruth, Gehrig had played just 11 games with the 1925 Yankees, posting a meager .174 average while seeing intermittent action as an outfielder and pinch-hitter.

That afternoon, just two innings after the Ruth ground out captured on film, Gehrig was sent to pinch-hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger. Lou flied out to Goose Goslin in left field.  But more importantly, it was the first game in which he had participated in four days. The next day, Gehrig started at first base, went 3-for-5 at the plate, and didn't take another day off until May 2, 1939.

In short, not only does the footage capture Ruth's return to the Yanks in 1925, but it also gives us a glimpse of Lou Gehrig on the very day he began his famous streak of 2,130 straight games played, a mark that remained unbroken for well over half a century. In hindsight, some very fortunate footage shot by a very lucky Fox Movietone cameraman.



Update of March 25, 2014:

Thanks to Ben Singleton at University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections, here's a portion of the historic footage discussed above. The first scene is Ruth's sixth-inning at bat that, by comparing to the play-by-play data, helped confirm the date of June 1, 1925. The second scene shows Ruth outside the Yankees dugout prior to the game. The final scene shows Ruth in the dugout, with Lou Gehrig in the background at far left. (Also on the bench, but at the right side of the frame, is Yankees center fielder Earle Combs). Enjoy.

video

Friday, January 24, 2014

Babe Ruth at Happy Hollow


Babe Ruth is one of the most photographed athletes of his era ... or any era. He was, of course, an immensely popular celebrity, but he was also genuinely fond of having his photo taken. This combination means that today there is a wealth of images of the Bambino.

Some of my favorite pictures of Ruth are less-than-obvious shots: pictures taken away from the park, in unfamiliar settings. (As an example, see my post titled "A Majestic Mystery.") Here's a photograph of Ruth that I found especially intriguing:


Robert Edward Auctions

This real photo postcard was made available at Robert Edward Auction back in 2006 and sold for $696. The lot description reads:
Unique real-photo postcard of Babe Ruth with two attractive young ladies and a very interesting story. The family from which this postcard originates claims that their grandmother operated a "house of ill-repute" in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s, which catered to ballplayers who visited the area for spring training. One of the women in this photograph is allegedly the grandmother of this family, and this souvenir photograph of Babe Ruth at his most dapper was found among her effects. A sign identifies the location as "Hot Springs." The Red Sox went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years. Judging from Ruth's slim physique, this photograph appears to date from Ruth's days with the Red Sox, though Ruth enjoyed Hot Springs SO much that it is well documented that he continued to visit Hot Springs for "pre-spring training" in the 1920s even after joining the Yankees, who practiced spring training in Florida. It is interesting to note that Ruth would often get sick in Hot Springs, though it is not clear if this was due to hard living or the steam baths which made him more susceptible to illness. In any event, he certainly looks to be in good spirits in this postcard. As Ruth's stardom grew, he took great pride in his appearance and became well known for his grand style of dress. This real-photo postcard, in addition to being accompanied by a very unusual story, displays Ruth's personality and style off the field in a very unusual setting which certainly relates to his larger-than-life legend.
I decided to delve further into the story. First, let's take a look at the reverse of the postcard to see what can be learned:



A canceled postage stamp would have been helpful in dating the postcard, but the pre-printed information on the reverse can still be helpful. According to numerous real photo postcard dating guides on the Web (for example, check out this one at playle.com), a "PLACE STAMP HERE" stamp box surrounded by the letters "AZO" featuring two triangles pointing up and two pointing down has a date range of 1918 to 1930.

Now let's take another look at the front of the card. The sign below Ruth's hand clearly says "HOT SPRINGS" and, below that, while difficult to discern, are the words "WATER WAGON." In the upper left-hand corner of the picture, the letters "OME" are visible on what appears to be the corner of a faux log cabin. Given this information, it seems safe to say that the picture was taken in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The lot description notes that Boston "went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years." Indeed, during Ruth's tenure with the club (1914-1919), the Red Sox trained at Hot Springs in each season except for 1919, when they trained in Tampa, Florida. Thus, it would seem likely that the postcard dates from 1918, as the lot description suggests. However, another possibility is that the photo was taken the following decade, while Ruth was with the Yankees. As noted in "A Majestic Mystery," Ruth (and some other Yankees) often participated in pre-spring training workouts at Hot Springs in the early 1920s.

The lot description also notes that Ruth is shown with "two attractive young ladies." And goes on to note that one of these two "operated a 'house of ill-repute' in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s." The clear implication is that the photo is somehow related to this "house of ill-repute," but this seems quite unlikely.

First, beginning in 1917, the Red Sox not only allowed players' wives to come to spring training, but they actually encouraged the practice. According to a note in the February 17, 1917, issue of Sporting Life, "President Frazee, of the Red Sox, is adopting a new plan to get his players in line. He will invite the wives of all players to Hot Springs as his guests, providing hubby signs a contract at once."

Second, though I cannot state it as a certainty, the woman just to the right of Ruth appears to be none other than Ruth's wife, Helen. Here's a photo of Ruth with Helen for comparison:



Where in Hot Springs was this "Water Wagon" photo taken? Given that the scenery in the picture appears to be created as a "photo op," I figured that other people may have had there photograph taken at the same spot. Indeed, that appears to be the case.

Research on the Web has revealed that there were other incarnations of the "water wagon." Here's one:



... and another:


Harvard Art Museums

And here's a picture that shows the same building as seen in the Ruth photograph:


VintagePackRat

We now can see that the "OME" in the Ruth version of the "photo op" is the far right portion of "OUR SUMMER HOME" as seen in the above picture.

And here's a photograph of the same scene that features one James Hackett (far left), a mobster who had twice been kidnapped by the College Kidnappers:


Blue Island Bang-Up

Each of these photographs was taken at Happy Hollow, also known as McLeod’s Amusement Park, located in Hot Springs, the spring training home to numerous big league clubs over the years, not just the Red Sox. No doubt Ruth was one of many ball players who eventually made their way to this local attraction ... one that certainly had nothing to do with a "house of ill-repute."

In fact, here's another shot taken at Happy Hollow years earlier, showing three Red Sox players on horseback. Left to right: Jack Thoney, Bill Carrigan and Pat Donahue.


Happy Hollow in Hot Springs

In summary, the real photo postcard of Ruth was taken at Happy Hollow in Hot Springs, most likely in 1918 with his wife Helen.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Majestic Mystery


Nearly two years ago, Paul Lukas at Uni Watch made note of a wonderful photograph of Babe Ruth with Al Devormer, both wearing natty Yankees sweaters. (For those unfamiliar with Devormer, Bill Nowlin has written an excellent biography of him as part of the SABR Baseball Biography Project. For those unfamiliar with Ruth ... uhmm... really?)


Legendary Auctions

The print was made available at Legendary Auctions in March of 2012 and ultimately sold for just over $500. Beyond the identifications of the two ball players, there was no other information about the photograph. I thought it would be fun to research the image, but it wasn't until recently that I had a chance to do so.

The Ruth/Devormer photo can be found at various locations on the web, the best version I could find being this one from The Real BSmile Tumblr page:


The Real BSmile

Back in 1992, Megacards issued a 165-baseball card set called "The Babe Ruth Collection" with card #123 featuring a detail from the photograph:


Zeprock - Herb Pennock Gallery

Alas, the card misidentifies Devormer as Herb Pennock. As it turns out, handwriting on the reverse of the auctioned photograph suggests that this may have been a common mistake:


Legendary Auctions

So what can we learn from this photograph?

First, a quick check at baseball-reference.com tells us that Ruth and Devormer played together for the Yankees during 1921 and 1922. Of course, there is also the strong possibility that the photograph was not taken during the regular season, so spring training or post-season barnstorming tours may also be possibilities. No matter the location, it seems quite likely the photo was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

Second, as noted by Paul Lukas, the sweaters are wonderful. Exactly when the Yankees first adopted this particular style of sweater is unclear, though they were certainly in use by 1923. In fact, Ruth (at left) and his teammates can be seen wearing them in this photograph taken at Opening Day of Yankee Stadium, April 18, 1923:


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  LC-DIG-ggbain-35768

Paul also pointed out the sign above Ruth's head:



It features the logo of AT&T, first adopted by the company at the turn of the century:


Bell System Memorial

This particular version of the company's logo was phased out in 1921, though the old logo would continue to be used on existing signage for years. Thus, this sign does little to help determine a date or location for the photograph.

The license plate seen on the car at right provides another enticing clue:



Though specific details are difficult to discern, we can see that the plate features dark-colored numbers on a light-colored (but not white) background, and the first two digits appear to be slightly separated from the latter digits. How many license plates from the early 1920s had this design/color scheme? Well, thanks to the License Plates of the United States of America web site and a good deal of "grunt work," just a few matches for states and years emerged as possible matches:

  • Arkansas - 1922
  • Kansas - 1921
  • Minnesota - 1923
  • Missouri - 1920
  • North Carolina - 1920
  • North Dakota - 1922

While it's certainly possible that the automobile may have had out-of-state plates, it is more likely that the plates correspond to the location of the picture.

Note that New York is not on the list, as the Empire State's license plates from the early 1920s always featured white lettering on a dark background. In fact, other than Missouri, where two clubs played in St. Louis, the home state of each of the sixteen major league clubs had license plates that did not match the above design elements. Was the shot taken in St. Louis, when the Yankees were in town to play the Browns? If so, the plate is a year out of date, because we've already determined the photograph was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

What about spring training? In 1921, the Yankees held spring training in Shreveport (LA) and the following year in New Orleans (LA). But, Louisiana's plates did not use a numbering scheme that featured the first two digits separated from the rest of the numbers.

The license plate clues seem to eliminate the most likely locations ... except for one. In 1921 and 1922, in the weeks prior to the Yankees' spring training in Louisiana, the club held special "preliminary workouts" in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This pre-pre-season venue is often overlooked, but the Boston Globe of February 21, 1921, noted that "Babe Ruth left snow-covered New York today for Hot Springs, Ark., where he will start training for another attack on his home run record." And the New York Times of February 16, 1922, stated "Babe Ruth informed the Yankees yesterday that he will leave for Hot Springs next Monday to join the small squad of players there for preliminary workouts."

While Ruth attended both the 1921 and 1922 sessions at Hot Springs, Devormer did not. We know this, because the Los Angeles Times of February 26, 1921 noted that "Al Devormer ... has been sent to the New York Americans, and will join them in Shreveport." But the following year, the New York Times of February 20 stated "[Waite] Hoyt ... will begin preliminary work at Hot Springs on Wednesday. They will join Everett Scot and Al Devormer, who already have made their appearance at the Arkansas resort."

So we have established that both Devormer and Ruth were in Hot Springs prior to spring training in 1922. Additionally, our photograph shows a license plate with design elements consistent with those used in Arkansas that same year. These leads are promising, but can we determine with certainty that the location is indeed Hot Springs?

In February of 1922, Ruth went to Hot Springs as a hold out. He spent most of his time playing golf and relaxing in the rejuvenating waters on Bathhouse Row. In an effort to ink the Bambino's name to a contract, Colonel Tillinghast Huston, part-owner of the Yankees, traveled to Hot Springs, staying at the Eastman Hotel. The Binghamton Press of March 4 gave further details:

The Colonel was anxious to rehash the negotiations that the pair had gone into several days ago, negotiations that undoubtedly had not met the approval of [the other Yankees part-owner] Colonel Ruppert in New York. A wire received from his partner the day before had forcibly enlightened Colonel Huston as to that.

As for divulging the contents of the Ruppert message, again he was a stone image. Huston couldn't hide his displeasure nor his concern over the new turn of affairs in the case of Ruth vs. 1922's stipend.

The waters boiled some more when Ruth repeated the silent rebuff of Monday by golfing while the Colonel fretted in his den. Huston has been steaming some---quite some. Unable to bear watching and waiting last night, Huston sought Ruth at the latter's hotel. Ruth with most of the other Yankees, was attending a very late dance.

Huston had no sooner left the Majestic hotel when baseball's leading man came through the front door.
So Huston was staying at the Eastman Hotel, while Ruth (and other Yankees) were at the Majestic. Pictures of the Eastman Hotel do not show features similar to those seen in our photograph, but take a close look at this image of the Majestic from 1910:


Hot Springs Arkansas Historical Baseball Trail - The Majestic Hotel

Note the various columns in the highlighted version of the Ruth /Devormer photograph below:



The green arrows (1, 2, 3, 4) point to columns near the hotel building and (A and B) near the street. Note that only a small portion of the base of column A is visible in the photo. Note also that arrow 1 is actually pointing to a pair of columns that are situated close to one another, as is the case with arrow B. It is unclear in this photo if the other columns are also actually "doubles." (Those are street lights behind Devormer, not weight-bearing columns.) The red arrow points to a dark patch on the lower portion of column B. (Another similar patch can be seen on the building-side of column 1.)

Now compare these features with those seen in the highlighted version of the Majestic photo:



Both images show the same arrangement of columns 1-4 and A-B (all of which we can now see are "doubles"). And both images show the dark patch on column B, as pointed out by the red arrow. Clearly the images are showing the same building. The blue arrow in the lower photo points to the exact spot where Babe Ruth and Al Devormer are seen standing in the upper photo. (The street lights are missing from the earlier Majestic photo, but no doubt those were added afterwards.)

According to the Racine (WI) Journal-News of February 22, "Babe Ruth will arrive here Wednesday [February 22]. Al Devormer, of the Yankees, and Cecil Causey, Bill Ryan and Earl Smith of the Giants, arrived here Saturday [February 18]." And the Bradford (PA) Era of March 8, 1922, reported that "Mike McNally, Al Devormer and J. Franklin 'Home Run' Baker broke camp here today [story dated March 7] and started for New Orleans to join the main squad of the New York Americans. Babe Ruth, Waite Hoyt, Carl Mays and the other Yankees in training here had set no definite time for their departure." Thus, Devormer and Ruth were together in Hot Springs from February 22 through March 7, 1922.

Finally, a check through some newspapers from this time frame revealed the following undated image published in the New York Tribune of March 5, 1922, and found under the headline "Snapshots of Giant and Yankee Players at Hot Springs Training Camp":



So, thanks to the presence of a blurry license plate and a few uniquely placed columns, we've determined that the photo of Babe Ruth and Al Devormer was taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in late February or early March of 1922.