Saturday, February 6, 2016

Baseball in the Movies: Hidden in Plain Sight

There have been hundreds of movies in which baseball has played a prominent role, and countless others in which baseball makes a cameo appearance, but I get a special kick out of watching a movie and stumbling across a brief glimpse of baseball that is easily overlooked. In the past I have blogged about a number of movies that contain these instances of baseball "hidden in plain sight."

In "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of", I examine the appearance of a baseball photograph in John Huston's film noir classic "The Maltese Falcon." And in "You Know How to Whistle", I research a photograph hanging on the wall of a room in the unforgettable Bogey and Bacall drama "To Have and Have Not."

Most recently, I found a baseball picture literally hanging out in the "The Sting," the winner of the Best Picture award at the Oscars in 1974. In the scene in which Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) argues with Doyle Lonnegon (Robert Shaw) following their poker game, there is a picture hanging on the wall of the train compartment.

The picture is a hand-colored version of A.B. Frost's illustration titled "The Critical Moment." The full-page drawing was originally published in the May 16, 1903, issue of Collier's magazine:

Here's how they match up:

Recently, my friend and baseball researcher extraordinaire, Mark Armour, reminded me of another instance of baseball in the background of an otherwise non-baseball movie, Gene Kelly's incomparable musical "An American in Paris." In the opening sequence in which the three main male characters are first introduced, we peer into the room of pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant). On the wall in the background are four baseball photographs:

I first noticed these pictures a few years ago when I purchased the movie on DVD. And while I've spent a good deal of time researching the images, I have yet to make any significant headway. I did manage, however, to determine that the distracting poster of the pin-up girl at far right was published in 1946 by artist Billy De Vorss and is titled "Pose Please":

Here's how that poster and movie still match up:

I wonder how much the movie's set decoration was influenced by Levant himself. For example, the baseball images not only help establish the character Adam Cook as an American, but also connect with Levant's obsession with the game. According to his UPI obituary, Oscar Levant "was devoted to baseball and first became nationally known outside the musical world for his appearances on the radio show 'Information Please' as a walking encyclopedia of baseball statistics." And wouldn't it be wonderful if the photo of the dancer seen to the left of the pin-up girl and just below the bookshelf was actually a picture of the longtime wife of Levant, June Gale, who began her career as a dancer?

Of the four baseball pictures on the wall, the one at the top seems the most familiar to me.

The pose is certainly similar, but by no means identical, to ones I've seen of pitching legend Christy Mathewson. For example, here's a well-known portrait of Mathewson:

An overlay of the above image on our movie still shows that it's "close, but no cigar":

Not only is the pose slightly different, but the uniform and backgrounds also fail to match. Nevertheless, it suggests that the player pictured in the still may indeed be Christy Mathewson.

The bottom three photos (a player throwing, a close play at third base, and a scene in the dugout) are each tantalizing, yet so small and out of focus that I am unable to determine much, if anything, about them.

I encourage my readership to take a close look and see if they can help solve this mystery.

Update of December 18, 2020:

Earlier today I bumped into this photograph of Christy Mathewson:

What initially intrigued me about the image was the building in the background: a match to that seen in the photo on Adam Cook's wall. But, of course, the pitcher's pose is wrong. We should be seeing the pitcher with his hands above his head. Still, the uniform and background are the same in both photos, so I wondered if perhaps another shot with the correct pose was taken at the same event. I contacted my friend Andrew Aronstein, a guru of photos from this era, to see if he was aware of another picture of Mathewson taken at essentially the same time, but with his hands over his head. Happily, he had:

This image of Matty, likely taken either in 1900 or 1901, matches perfectly, as can be seen below:

1 comment:

  1. Both Kelly and Levant are from Pittsburgh.