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, 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 Ruth's ground out had been 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. Enjoy.

Update of October 10, 2018:

For the final scene in the footage above, I had previously misidentified the player behind Ruth in the dugout and at far right (see blue arrow below) as Earle Combs. In fact, the player is Wally Pipp, ironically the very Yankees first baseman whose job was taken over by Lou Gehrig!