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Beyond The Box Office: The first baseball films

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The first in a weekly series designed to look a little closer at the history of baseball and film history. You can read the introduction here.

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STAR WARS

Alright, now that I have your attention, I can get right to this first installment of what now appears as a relatively ill-timed series about the intersection of baseball within film history. And in any case, that's a lot more exciting than spaceships and lightsabers, right? Well, that might not be the best way to put it. I mean, when I was a kid you had to choose between sports and Star Wars (I chose the lame one, which is why I'm currently writing about sports and not playing them). These days, teams are hosting Star Wars night at the ballpark and outfitting their poor minor leaguers with the same gaudy printed shirts that used to get me beat up by the baseball players as a kid. We're through the looking glass here, people!

This is no accident, though. Aside from why or how George Lucas' pet project from 1977 has blossomed into the most lucrative cultural property of our generation is the simple fact that in its appropriation by the game of baseball, we learn something about the game itself. We sort of implicitly know this, too--aside from sports science and the number game and Instagrams of rehabbing relievers with hashtags like #NODAYSOFF is...well...a game. An urban game which borrows from an entirely invented rural aesthetic (sorry Field of Dreams, not having it today) which can then be packaged and turned into a commodity for popular consumption. Kind of like that thing we are all going to see in a darkened theater this weekend.

Beginnings

The discipline of film history has had a long struggle with 'firsts.' You don't even have to be well familiar with the mythology to know what I'm talking about here either--the patrons of the Lumière brothers' first film screening in 1895 fleeing from the sight of an animated train rushing at themAl Jolson ushering in sync sound in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first this the first that. None of it exactly true, but a handy myth nonetheless, celluloid's own Doubleday assuring its contemporary users that their work has a legacy, a foundation upon which to build and with that a future towards which to strive for. So yes, it's a problematic narrative, and we can all agree upon that, but for all intents and purposes, this is probably the first baseball film in existence:

The year was 1898 and Thomas Edison was out with his rag-tag group of scientists just filming random crap. Seriously, this is what he did for around a decade--after concocting an amalgamation of other peoples work which he could brand with his already popular name, Edison built "the first" movie studio in 1893 which utilized a rotating base following the sun in order to experiment with light, shadow, and movement. By 1895, the Lumière brothers in France had taken the apparatus of Edison's camera to produce their own, solving two of its biggest limitations in the process--one, they shrunk the bulky technology to get it out of the studio, and two, they figured out how to make it project its image for an audience rather than display it through a single peephole. This was the time of the invention of the mass consumer class, after all.

And that is what's so interesting about this "first" baseball film. "Cinema" loves to imagine itself as the platonic ideal of the work of art produced for mass culture, but in producing this narrative history we so often forget to think about what mass culture might have looked like before there was even the idea of cinema. In America, at least, these were members of an emerging middle class of consumers, the more well off of them suddenly having both disposable income and time to kill. Eventually, as that class was subsumed by the growing media and entertainment industries, more groups had to be made into consumers in order for capital to continue to flow. I mean, just look at this chart of total attendance growth in baseball parks during the last decade of the 19th Century:

1890 1891 1892 1893 1894 1895 1896 1897 1898 1899 TOTAL
776,042 1,122,162 1,691,428 2,171,069 2,352,573 2,797,271 2,767,973 2,741,632 2,242,700 2,432,269 21,095,119

(data courtesy ballparksofbaseball.com)

There are a lot of moving pieces even in these summary numbers--massive yearly attendance spikes followed by the failing Players' League, controversies and labor disputes. But one thing seems patently obvious--a lot of people were going to baseball games. And not only a lot, but based on the growth between 1890 and 1893 alone, a lot more people were going to baseball games.

This brings us back to our "first" baseball film, up there before all this expository text. After the Lumière brothers took the camera out and filmed an "actuality" of workers leaving a factory at the end of the day (to go home and, undoubtedly, consume some form of entertainment), Edison spent the last couple years of the 19th century with his company doing much the same. It's no mistake that one of his subjects here was of an industry bringing in 2.5 million paying customers through its gates each year.

The Ball Game wasn't even shot by Edison, but rather one William Heise, director of one of the most famous silent shorts ever produced, The Kiss (NSFW, it's real steamy). Heise showed up at an amateur match between the Atlantic League's Newark Colts and the Reading Coal Heavers on May 20th, 1898, plopped his camera down behind first base, and let it roll. The finished product, just under thirty seconds, was later exhibited in peep-show houses on kinetoscopes, sold with such remarkable advertising flair that you kind of almost want to be thankful for Intentional Talk these days:

Very exciting. Photographed from one camera position behind home plate, the film shows a baseball game in progress. The Reading pitcher has just let a Newark batter walk to first. He gets up on his toes, ready to head for second base. The next batter up cracks first ball pitched for a two bagger, and races for the base with a burst of speed. The first baseman just misses a put-out. A man on the coaching line yells, the umpire runs up to make a decision, and a small boy runs behind the catcher, close to the stands, where there is a great commotion. A most excellent subject, treated brilliantly.

This description, or something close to it, was produced by the Edison company in their film catalog to describe the events of the film to eager consumers or distributors looking for an attraction for their parlors. But aside from the fact that they actually put the camera behind first base and not home plate, there's something really interesting going on here, I think.

Note how colloquially the unnamed author describes these events. The pitcher has "let" a batter walk to first, a steal is described through any other language, a "two bagger" is immediately hit, whatever a "put-out" is is taken for granted. These small but fundamental details of how the game of baseball works are presumed to be understood by the audience, and in this scenario function as the common grounding in order to make something as strange as a thirty second clip of moving images seem normal. Baseball, to whoever saw this short film, was the normal part of the whole thing.

One year later, Edison's company would return with another baseball film, this quite obviously staged for the camera in a "retelling" of Casey at the Bat, that famous poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer which became just this insane massive hit. I don't know, man, the 1890s were an interesting time. But this time around, all they borrowed was the final line, where dear Casey strikes out. Rather than the solemn state of "no joy" as described by Thayer, our ridiculous Casey here dives for the umpire and what results is our first ever baseball brawl recorded for all posterity. You can see part of this film, Casey at the Bat, or the Fate of a "Rotten" Umpire here or in Kino Lorber's great Reel Baseball DVD set which I definitely recommend.

Curiously, and in that same box set, is a later film from 1922 made before the invention of the sync sound technology which would go on to be used by the film industry. Using an experimental technology produced by one of the inventors of radio, this Casey at the Bat, featuring renowned stage actor DeWolf Hopper, is a simple retelling of the poem that everyone knew but HOLY CRAP THERE ARE SOUNDS COMING OUT OF HIS MOUTH WHAT IS HAPPENING? Keep in mind it would be nearly ten years before this would become normal, and also keep in mind there is a reason this didn't catch on. You can see a clip of it, as well as the Edison company short, here with some weird narration (and you'll probably also recognize it from Ken Burns' doc):

Transitions

Eight years after our first depiction of the Newark Colts and the Reading Coal Heavers, Edison's company produced a baseball film which speaks much more to the kind of mass culture fascination one might expect from this era. In How the Office Boy Saw The Ball Game, Edwin S. Porter (who would later go on incorrectly to be identified with the invention of continuity editing) gives us six minutes of a young office worker faking a family emergency so he can go to the ballgame.

Note as you watch how the game itself is framed. Rather than as an actuality event, Porter uses a framing device of a telescope here to signify certain points of view as belonging to a specific character rather than as our own, or that of the stage. Some might read this as a necessary aesthetic move--how else do you convince audiences that a cut to a different space could be comprehensible?--but I'm not so sure. Even better is simply that we get this image of the Office Boy perched on the phone lines with his telescope:

1

Which can somehow produce this vantage point:

3

And this one, with the film's "star," Christy Mathewson:

2

All of this is to say that in this mobile--and impossible--view signified by the iris mimicking the telescope, it should be obvious that all these films have more in common than it may seem. Baseball, even just by the attendance charts above can attest, was a radically popular cultural object which needed no help from film to grow into maturity.

But with the telescoping eye of the office boy's telescope, suddenly expanding out from the ballpark and to the tops of phone lines and into theaters, barbershops, and eventually the private homes of fans through radio, it certainly didn't hurt, either. It would be a few more years until baseball narratives really began to fully emerge, after this early period which film scholar Tom Gunning has called "The Cinema of Attractions," and maybe, just maybe by next week, I'll find a great early one to feature here.

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You can buy the great DVD set featuring some of these early shorts by Kino Lorber here.

For more on early baseball films, check out this brief rundown over at Fandor.