Friday, February 26, 2021

The Federal League in Film - Part I: Jim Bluejacket in "The Stolen Voice"

At the southern tip of Aruba, in the town of San Nicolas, you’ll find a small baseball stadium called Joe Laveist Sport Park. Beyond the right field wall, just a 450-foot blast down the first base line, is Jim Bluejacket Straat. One block long, the street was named for a former big league pitcher whose name was actually William Lincoln Smith, though he played under the name of Jim Bluejacket

The strapping, six-foot-two-inch pitcher from Oklahoma started playing pro baseball in the first decade of the 20th century and spent parts of three seasons in the big leagues, tossing for the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the Federal League from August of 1914 through the end of 1915, and joining the Cincinnati Reds the next year for a brief three-game stint. Sources differ regarding whether he was part Shawnee or part Cherokee, but all agree that he was on his way to a promising pitching career. Then trouble with the bottle led to his downfall.

Jim Bluejacket with the Brooklyn Tip Tops in 1914

Those interested in the full story of Jim Bluejacket, and how it is that he ended up living and working in Aruba, should read the excellent bio written by Bill Lamb, a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the 2019 winner of the organization’s prestigious Bob Davids Award.

It seemed that this humble street in Aruba was all that Jim Bluejacket left behind, the last faint reminder of a baseball “what if” story. But recently I came across another reminder of the pitcher, this time in the form of a motion picture “what if” story.

In 1915, World Film Corporation released a four reel silent movie titled “The Stolen Voice.” You can watch a beautifully restored version of the hour-long movie at the Eastman Museum web site.

The story is a bit complex, but here’s my attempt at a brief synopsis:

In New York City, a famous operatic singer, Gerald D’Orville (sometimes spelled Dorville), meets the rich Belle Borden. Borden already has a suitor, one Dr. Luigi Brosio, but she turns all her attention to D’Orville and this makes the doctor jealous. Meanwhile, a pretty shop girl named Marguerite Randall also greatly admires D’Orville. Eventually, Brosio uses his hypnotic powers to cause D’Orville to lose his voice and thus his livelihood. D’Orville goes to Europe for treatment, but nothing comes of this. When he returns to New York, he is broke and must look for work. Turned down wherever he goes, D’Orville hits upon the idea of acting in silent films, where his inability to speak should be of no consequence. Dick Leslie, an old friend whom D’Orville had helped years earlier, is now a successful movie director and hires the desperate actor. By a great stroke of luck, Leslie also hires Randall the very same day. D’Orville and Randall become popular movie stars and fall in love, but D’Orville is reluctant to ask for Randall’s hand in marriage because of his disability. One day, the now-married Borden and Brosio pass by a movie theater where one of D’Orville’s pictures is playing. Brosio is reluctant, but Borden, unaware of her husband’s evil spell, insists they go in. The film, titled “The Unseen Power,” is about hypnotism and during a scene in which D’Orville puts Randall in a trance, Brosio has a heart attack and dies. Meanwhile, D’Orville happens to be at a baseball game and an exciting moment occurs at precisely the same time that Brosio drops dead. D’Orville rises to cheer and is surprised when he makes a sound. Overjoyed, he telephones Randall, asks her to marry him, and she gladly accepts.

Seriously, I really did try to keep it short. Though the plot was terribly convoluted and implausible—the hypnotism from afar was especially ridiculous—I found the movie to be surprisingly entertaining and fun. I recommend it.

A few words about the actors in the movie before I delve into the baseball scene at the end and its connection to Jim Bluejacket:

Gerald D’Orville was played by Robert Warwick. Coincidentally, Warwick was trained as an opera singer, but eventually moved into a career in motion pictures. With nearly half a century in movies and television (he debuted in film in 1914 and last appeared on TV in 1962), his acting career was easily the most successful among those cast in the “The Stolen Voice.” Though he worked in some 250 productions, he may be best remembered for his role as the Shakespearean drunk, Charlie Waterman, in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” (1950).

Gloria Graham, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Warwick in “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

Marguerite Randall was portrayed by Frances Nelson. Her career on film lasted from 1913 to 1921, with 1915 her busiest year as she had roles in 19 films including “The Stolen Voice.” In an eerie echo of their scripted rise to fame as an acting duo in “The Stolen Voice,” Nelson and Warwick appeared in two others films together: “The Sins of Society” (1915) and “Human Driftwood” (1916).

Dr. Brosio was played by George Majeroni. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Majeroni’s film career ran from 1912 through 1922. Is it me, or is this guy a dead ringer for comic actor Sasha Baron Cohen (at right)?

In May of 1924 it was reported that the actor had contracted tuberculosis. He was sent to recuperate in Saranac Lake, New York, where pitching great Christy Mathewson was also attempting to recover from the same malady. Majeroni died in August of 1924, 14 months before Matty passed away.

Belle Borden was played by Violet Horner, who appeared in films from 1912 through 1917. In 1916 she had a small role in the controversial film “A Daughter of the Gods” starring Australian swimming legend Annette Kellerman. In the film, Kellerman became the first major actress to appear nude in a film. The movie was reportedly the first with a million dollar budget.

Dick Leslie was portrayed by Bertram Marburgh. Highlights of his film career, which lasted from 1915 through the mid-1940s, include small, uncredited roles in classic movies such as “Kitty Foyle” (1940) with Ginger Rogers, “The Lady Eve” (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck, “The Heavenly Body” (1944) with Hedy Lamarr, and “The Lost Weekend” (1945) with Ray Milland.

Billie Dove (left) and Bertram Marburgh in “An Affair of the Follies” (1927)

Now let’s turn our attention to the baseball scenes at the end of “The Stolen Voice.” Actual game action starts about 59 minutes into the video:

The giant right field wall full of advertisements and the buildings seen in the distance match perfectly with Brooklyn’s Washington Park, home to the Dodgers prior to the construction of Ebbets Field. But in 1914 and 1915, the park was home to the Brooklyn Tip Tops (sometimes called the Brookfeds) of the Federal League. Here’s another photo of the park that clearly confirms this identification.

Opening Day at Washington Park, April 10, 1915

As the home team, the Tip Tops are seen wearing the lighter colored uniforms. But the visitors’ distinctive dark uniforms, with two-tone stockings, matches only that worn by the Buffalo in 1915. Here are the uniforms as found at the uniform database of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s online exhibit “Dressed to the Nines”:

Brooklyn Federal League, 1915

Buffalo Federal League, 1915

In 1915, Brooklyn hosted Buffalo in three separate series, only two of which occurred prior to the early August release of the movie: a three-game set played April 10, 12, and 13; and a four-game series played July 6, 7, and 9 (doubleheader).

The play that caused such excitement for D’Orville is captured in the final baseball scene. With a right-handed Brooklyn batter at the plate, a runner from third attempts to steal home.

The home plate umpire calls the runner out. One would think this would result in groans, not cheers from the home crowd, but the movie director could not be bothered by such trifles. He used this opportunity to have D’Orville and the nearby fans go nuts with excitement.

So, in researching the game, I am left looking for a failed steal of home in one of the above noted seven games played between Buffalo and Brooklyn. Happily, I found an account of the July 6 game in the following day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle with the following description:

[Brooklyn’s Claude] Cooper started proceedings in the first stanza be singling to center. He took second as [George] Anderson beat out a bunt to [Buffalo pitcher Fred] Anderson. Both advanced on [Al] Halt’s sacrifice. Cooper came over as [Buffalo shortstop] Roxey Roach tossed out [Hugh] Bradley, but [George] Anderson died a moment later in an attempt to steal home.

Most assuredly this is our play. A check of the box score at reveals that we are seeing Brooklyn’s Fred Smith (a right-handed batter) at bat and George Anderson speeding home. The following other individuals are on the field for Buffalo: pitcher Fred Anderson, catcher Walter Blair, first baseman Hal Chase, second baseman Baldy Louden, and (far in the distance) center fielder Clyde Engle and right fielder Benny Meyer. The home plate umpire is Barry McCormick and the on-deck batter for Brooklyn (with a pair of bats in hand) is Fred Smith.

One other baseball scene occurs just about half a minute prior to the in-game sequences. It features George D’Orville greeting a player wearing a Tip Tops uniform outside the dugout. After the two shake hands, the movie star heads to his seat in the grandstand and the player heads onto the field.

The player D’Orville greets is none other than Jim Bluejacket! Compare this still from the movie with these photos of the handsome pitcher.

While I love the fact that we are seeing what are assuredly the only known moving images of Jim Bluejacket, it is not clear just why this shot was included in the film. The character of D’Orville has no known prior relationship with a baseball player, let alone Jim Bluejacket. Having D’Orville meet a ballplayer in no way helps further the plot. Why not just have D’Orville walk in to the ballpark and take his seat? (Better yet, why not have D’Orville and Marguerite go to the game together so that when his voice returns they can celebrate together?)

I can think of only one reason that this otherwise meaningless shot was included in the film: That day the film company took lots of footage of Bluejacket and they felt compelled to use at least a few seconds of it. Why did they have lots of footage of Jim Bluejacket? The answer is found in a story in the July 7 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle with the headline “Blue-Jacket [sic] Poses for the Movies As He Beats the Lowly Buffeds”:

Chief James Blue-Jacket, huge Shawnee twirler of the Brookfeds, is now a moving picture star. If he combines his film poses with the business of pitching baseball as he did yesterday afternoon at Washington Park, when he defeated the Buffalo Blues by a score of 5 to 1, Chief James is going to be a great help to Lee Magee during the remainder of the season. ...

Please believe that this is no press agent yarn, but a real newspaper scoop on James Blue-Jacket’s success in the field of his latest endeavor. About a week ago the Shawnee Brave was asked to pose for a local moving picture concern at a nice remuneration. James immediately accepted, and was given a copy of the first scenario in which he was to appear. After reading the manuscript, the Chief suggested that the movie men, in one of the scenes, take him, during the progress of a regular league game, where he was supposed to pitch his club into a championship.

This accounts for the three moving picture machines installed in the grandstand at Washington Park yesterday. They ground out films from the beginning of batting practice until the last Buffed player was retired.

Here we have final confirmation of the game date and Bluejacket’s on-screen presence. But we also learn that Jim Bluejacket was toying with the idea of becoming a movie actor. There was even a short blurb in the July 16, 1915, issue of Variety noting that “Jim Bluejacket, the Brookfed pitcher, is doing some picture work. A feature concern has him under contract.” Now we know that the “feature concern” was the World Film Corporation. Alas, beyond this uncredited cameo appearance, nothing came of these rumors. Whatever footage may have been taken of Bluejacket that day, all that made it to movie theaters was this brief scene at the end of “The Stolen Voice.”

So, in summary, here’s what we have in this silent movie from well over a century ago:

We have a close-up shot of Jim Bluejacket, one of big league baseball’s early Native American players and a “what if” story, both on the field and on film.

We have the excitement of baseball used as a way to resolve the key to a movie plot, as the protagonist’s curse is lifted when he forgets his disability and the emotions of rooting for the home team take over.

And we have the only known motion picture footage of an actual game from the short-lived Federal League, a major league from 1914 through 1915 ... or so one might think. In fact, there is one other old movie that contains Federal League game footage. I’ll be blogging about that footage in my next post, so stay tuned.