Monday, August 10, 2015

Old Footage Now Identified as Showing Babe Ruth Setting a Home Run Record

It doesn't happen very often, but every once in a while there's a jewel hidden in plain sight. Sometimes it just takes a little research to uncover that jewel. Herewith the story of a classic silent movie that contains two such jewels.

Jewel 1: The Earliest-Known Celebrity Photo Bomb

In the 1920s, there was no bigger star on the baseball diamond than slugger Babe Ruth. And during the same decade, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger star on the silver screen than comedian Harold Lloyd. So when the Bambino made a cameo appearance in Lloyd's 1928 silent film "Speedy," fans of both our national pastime and motion pictures were elated.

Motion Picture News, January 28, 1928

You can watch the film here, with the Ruth appearance running from 49:03 to 53:20.

In the 85-minute-long movie, Lloyd plays Harold "Speedy" Swift, a rabid Yankees fan whose obsession with baseball results in his inability to hold a job. Speedy eventually becomes a cab driver and is lucky enough to pick up the Babe for a fare. Ruth asks Speedy to take him to Yankee Stadium and so begins a wild ride through the streets of Manhattan en route to the ballpark in the Bronx.

At the end of the trip, an exasperated Ruth exits the automobile, relieved to have made it to his destination in one piece. He turns to Lloyd and exclaims:

But the real gem comes just prior to that title card. Pay close attention to the end of the scene at approximately 52:42 as Ruth exits the cab. In the background at far right you will see a familiar face:

Yes. That's Lou Gehrig! This discovery was made by Kevin Dale back in 2011 and was first revealed at silent film historian/detective John Bengtson's always entertaining blog.

Jewel 2: A Ruthian Record Captured On Film

In the scene that follows Ruth's taxi cab ride, "Speedy" watches a ball game at Yankee Stadium. The scene includes two separate shots of Ruth at bat. The movie doesn't call out the footage as coming from a specific event (or events). Instead, it is simply used to establish that Speedy is at a Yankees game and Ruth is playing in that game. The following video shows both sequences:


The First Sequence: Ruth Strikes Out ... But When?

The first sequence lasts just two seconds and shows Ruth striking out and the catcher juggling the third strike or, perhaps, the foul tip on the third strike. The umpire quickly raises his fist to call Ruth out. Here are a few stills from the sequence.

First, it is clear that the action was not staged for the movie cameras. This is a real, in-game sequence. And since "Speedy" was released on April 7, 1928 (four days before the Yankees opened the season), the action must have taken place in 1927 or earlier.

Since Ruth is seen in pinstripes, we know that the action took place in New York. And the proximity of the dirt track near the grandstand (seen at the upper-left hand corner of the above stills) is consistent with the layout of Yankee Stadium, not the Polo Grounds. Thus the footage must have been taken at Yankee Stadium sometime between 1923 (the year the park opened) and 1927 (the year that "Speedy" was filmed).

The catcher's uniform provides some additional clues. He wears a cap with a white crown and dark bill, his stockings feature a thick dark band near the top, and a thin stripe runs down the side of his pants. From 1923 to 1927, the only major league clubs to wear such uniforms on the road were the 1923, '24, and '26 St. Louis Browns and the 1923-27 Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately, there is not much else to go on to help narrow down possible dates for this first sequence. I suspect that the competition was the St. Louis Browns, as the Red Sox road uniforms for the years noted featured pinstripes and, though it is difficult to state with certainty, it appears that the catcher's uniform is not pinstriped.

My research into this first sequence is ongoing, so for now, all I can say is "Stay Tuned."

The Second Sequence: Recording Ruth's Record Round-Tripper

The second sequence shows Ruth hitting a home run and trotting around the bases. Here are a few stills from that sequence.

Once again, this is actual, in-game action from 1927 or earlier. And Ruth's pinstripes, the opposition's darker uniforms, and the dirt track near the grandstand (seen at the upper-left hand corner of the fifth still above) all point to action taking place at Yankee Stadium.

The uniforms worn by the catcher and the rest of the fielders are quite different from that worn by the catcher in the first sequence. This time each fielder is wearing a cap with a light-colored crown and dark bill, and gray stockings with three dark bands (the middle band being thicker than the ones above and below). For the time period between 1923 and 1927, only one club wore such uniforms on the road: the 1925 and 1926 Cardinals. However, the 1925 Cardinals wore special patches commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National League on their left shoulder, and the fielders in this footage do not have such patches. Here's an image that shows the patch on the left shoulder of Cardinals pitcher Leo Dickerman in 1925:

So, if this sequence shows action between the Cardinals and the Yankees in 1926, we are left with the question: When did these clubs face each other that year? The answer, of course, is in the 1926 World Series. You may recall the story that prior to Game Four, Ruth made a promise to hit a home run for a sick boy named Johnny Sylvester. As it turns out, the Babe hit three that day.

Boston Globe, October 13, 1926

Those three homers (the first three that Ruth hit that post-season) set a single-game World Series record that has since been tied, but never surpassed. However, none of those homers is seen in this sequence, since Game Four took place at St. Louis's Sportsman's Park and the footage from "Speedy" was certainly taken at Yankee Stadium.

So when did Ruth hit his fourth home run of the 1926 Series? In the third inning of the seventh and final game, October 10. Play-by-play for that game corroborates what we see in the footage. With two outs in the bottom of the third and no runners aboard, Cardinals pitcher Jesse Haines surrendered Ruth's fourth and final homer of the Series. With the blast, Ruth set another record: most home runs (four) hit in one World Series. It took over fifty years before Reggie Jackson broke that record in the 1977 World Series.

Game Seven of the 1926 World Series is also known for the drama of its final innings. The Yankees were trailing 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when they mounted a rally and loaded the bases. Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby pulled starter Jesse Haines and brought in Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander to face New York's Tony Lazzeri. In one of the most celebrated moments in the history of the Fall Classic, Alexander struck out Lazzeri to end the threat. Two innings later, Ruth was caught stealing second base to end the game, and the Cardinals celebrated their first modern World Championship.

We can now identify the various individuals seen in the Ruth home run sequence. Catching for the Cardinals is Bob O'Farrell and all four infielders can be seen as Ruth rounds the bases: at first is Jim Bottomley, at second is Rogers Hornsby, at shortstop is Tommy Thevenow, and at third is Les Bell, who can be seen tossing a new baseball to pitcher Jesse Haines. The Yankees third base coach is likely Benny Bengough. The umpires are George Hildebrand at home, Bill Dinneen at second, Hank O'Day at third. (First base umpire Bill Klem is just out of the field of view as Ruth rounds first.) The Yankees bat boy is Eddie Bennett and awaiting his turn at bat is New York's Bob Meusel.

Some avid baseball fans might be surprised to see Meusel following Ruth in the Yankees' lineup, as that spot was usually reserved for Lou Gehrig. Indeed, Gehrig spent most of the 1926 season batting fourth, with Ruth batting third. But in mid-September of that season, Yankees manager Miller Huggins began experimenting with different line-ups for the heart of the Yankees order (3-4-5 hitters): Gehrig-Ruth-Meusel, Ruth-Gehrig-Lazzeri, and Ruth-Meusel-Gehrig. For the World Series, Huggins settled with the latter combination.

What a wonderful surprise: an old sequence found in a silent movie can now be identified as footage showing Ruth's record-breaking moment in the 1926 World Series.


  1. Fantastic stuff as always, Tom. I especially love the newspaper clip of the little boy.

    It's so amazing to see Ruth's swing. In the screen grab where we see him coiled to deliver his swing, we can see how he shifted his weight onto his back foot and lifted his front right leg completely, much as Mel Ott was shown doing and later Sadaharu Oh. Ty Cobb explained that Ruth was the first man he saw "swing with everything he had" so consistently. It's obvious to me that Ruth was ahead of his time in his swing mechanics and approach to slugging.

  2. I've updated a post I did on this topic in 2011 based on some of the assumptions above. Either using my previous assumptions, or these new ones, it seems as if the home run in question was from 1927, likely September 11 or 18.

    1. William -
      Thanks for alerting me to your blog posting.
      I believe that the reason that my conclusion differs from yours is that you are assuming that the game-action footage of Ruth was shot sometime during the filming of "Speedy." But this is not necessarily the case. All we know for sure is that the game-action footage must have been taken before "Speedy" was released (in April of 1928). As an example, the historic footage used in "Forrest Gump" must have been shot before the 1994 movie was released. The historic footage was not necessarily shot WHILE "Forrest Gump" was being filmed.
      Additionally, the conclusion that the game-action footage is from the Yankees-Browns game of September 11, 1927, does not jibe with various clues. The stockings worn by the 1927 Browns are markedly different from those seen worn by the catcher in the home run sequence in "Speedy." Additionally, there is no question that the on-deck batter in the game-action footage is the tall, lanky Bob Meusel, not the stockier Lou Gehrig, who followed Ruth in the 9/11/27 game.
      Similarly, the White Sox-Yankees game of September 18, 1927, also does not match the clip seen in "Speedy." As above, the stockings of the 1927 White Sox do not match those worn by the catcher in "Speedy." Also, Mark Koenig was on base when Ruth homered in the 9/18/1927 game, but in the "Speedy" footage it is clear that the home run was a solo shot. And, again, the on-deck batter is clearly Meusel, while in the 9/18/27 game, Gehrig was next to bat.
      - Tom

    2. I stand corrected (and have updated my post accordingly)! Although I was on the fence about the on deck batter being Meusel because of how he held the bat (like a lefty), a closer comparison to pictures of “Long Bob” makes it seem very likely he is next at that plate. If so, 1927 home runs go out the window.

      Although it seems odd that Lloyd would use stock footage instead of his own, that can also be explained neatly. In my post, I noted that Lloyd encountered significant delays due to rain, which might have necessitated a short cut. And, if he did need to use stock footage, it stands to reason that only World Series film would be available. That makes your identification of the 1926 World Series and the game 7 homer very likely.

      Great job, but now, when did that errant pitch/strike out take place? Maybe that’s Lloyd’s footage from 1927? At the risk of making the same mistake twice, if we assume this event was actually filmed by Lloyd (Ruth's only strike out at home in the 1926 World Series occurred with the bases empty, so it doesn't seem likely Lloyd would have access to film of another home strikeout if he didn't shoot it himself), there's only one possibility: August 31 vs. the Red Sox. In the first inning of that game, Ruth struck out with Earle Combs on third and Mark Koenig on first.

  3. Great research Tom! I've always loved "Speedy", such a classic silent film...