Sunday, August 17, 2014

You Know How to Whistle


On August 13, 2014, one day after Lauren Bacall passed away, my friend and longtime baseball PR executive, Marty Appel, posted the following note on his Facebook page:
Never noticed it before but in the famous "you know how to whistle" scene in "To Have and Have Not," there is a baseball photo behind Lauren Bacall. Rest in peace Ms. Bacall, a resident of New York's famed Dakota.
Accompanying the post was this image of Bacall in her role as Marie "Slim" Browning in that classic movie from 1944. The baseball photo to which Marty was referring is visible at the left of the frame:



You can view the scene at YouTube.

My first reaction to Marty's posting was embarrassment. How did I miss this? I love this movie. I own this movie. I've seen this movie countless times. I've long been interested in ties between baseball and classic movies. (See my blog posting on a baseball mystery in "The Maltese Falcon.") How did this baseball picture elude me?

At first I thought it might have something to do with the ridiculously alluring woman in the same frame. Perhaps I was a bit distracted by her? I could be excused for that, right? But no. The baseball picture actually made its first appearance in the movie half an hour before the "You know how to whistle" scene, when we first see the interior of the room occupied by Humphrey Bogart in his role as Harry Morgan. Note that there's no Bacall to distract me:



There was no getting around it. Like an easy two-hopper that skipped under my glove, I simply missed the baseball picture in this movie. Thank goodness Marty did not.

It's tough to get a good look at the picture from screen grabs. This publicity still from the movie provides the best view of the picture:



And here's a contrast-enhanced detail from that still:



One main thing about the baseball photo jumped out at me: the grandstand in the background. It is unquestionably the Polo Grounds in New York. Compare the structure's various characteristics with those seen in the following photograph of the famous ballpark from 1908. (I discuss this particular image in my blog posting titled "When Wall Street Occupied the Ball Park"):


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-00475

About an hour after his initial posting about the picture in Harry Morgan's room, Marty Appel added a comment to his original Facebook posting:
Almost looks like a Honus Wagner photo, Tom, but of course, very hard to tell.
Indeed, the batter in the picture did have something Wagnerian about him. I searched various images of "The Flying Dutchman" at bat and finally came across this one:



It's a perfect match with the picture on Harry Morgan's wall. Marty's hunch was dead on.

As noted above, the location is clearly the Polo Grounds. But what else can we tell? On Wagner's left shoulder is an interesting symbol. It is an intertwined "PBC" standing for "Pittsburgh Baseball Club." (Or, more accurately, "Pittsburg Baseball Club," as the correct spelling of the city at the time lacked the final "h." Here's a web site that gives the details behind "How To Spell Pittsburgh.")

This particular symbol was worn on the Pirates' uniforms in 1908 and 1909. The Giants catcher wears light-colored stockings with a single dark stripe and an all-dark cap. For the seasons of 1908 and 1909, only the Giants of 1908 wore uniforms that matched this criteria. Thus, the photograph is of Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner batting at the Polo Grounds in 1908.

A quick check at retrosheet.org shows that the Pirates played a dozen games in New York in 1908: June 9, 10, 11, 12; July 24, 25, 27, 28; September 18 (doubleheader), 19, 21. After a good deal of digging around, trying to track down contemporary images of these various games, I found our photograph in the September 20, 1908 issue of the New York Times:



The picture depicted action from the September 19th game between the Pirates and Giants. A quick glance at the box score revealed the third man in the image, the home plate umpire, future Hall of Famer Hank O'Day.

Incidentally, this action took place just four days before one of the most celebrated contests in baseball history: the Giants-Cubs game in which Fred Merkle failed to touch second base, September 23, 1908. Keith Olbermann explains it all here.

A few years later, the photograph of O'Day, Bresnahan and Wagner at the Polo Grounds was republished as a supplement to the October 7, 1911 issue of the National Police Gazette newspaper. Here's what the Police Gazette version looks like:



The title of the print reads: "READY FOR THE WALLOP. Hans Wagner, Pittsburg Club, Well Set for the Coming Ball; Bresnahan, St. Louis Nationals, Behind the Bat." (Note the lack of the final "h" in "Pittsburg.") The photo certainly shows Bresnahan as a member of the Giants, but by the time the image was reproduced in the Police Gazette, Roger Bresnahan was playing for the Cardinals, having been traded to St. Louis prior to the 1909 season.

It is my hunch that the picture on Harry Morgan's wall was a framed, slightly cropped version of this Police Gazette supplement, not the original photograph. Take a look at this still from the movie, showing a different wall in Harry Morgan's room:



Note the two framed pictures in the background, not of baseball action, but of a boxer (at far left) and another athlete (perhaps a boxer) just to Bogie's left. I suspect that these pictures were also framed pages from Police Gazette supplements, but will leave it to other researchers to track down the names of these men and just when their pictures were published.

For now, I'm happy to know two things: Just what that picture is hanging on Harry Morgan's wall ... and, of course, how to whistle.

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 retrosheet.org, 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 the Ruth ground out 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. (Also on the bench, but at the right side of the frame, is Yankees center fielder Earle Combs). Enjoy.

video

Friday, January 24, 2014

Babe Ruth at Happy Hollow


Babe Ruth is one of the most photographed athletes of his era ... or any era. He was, of course, an immensely popular celebrity, but he was also genuinely fond of having his photo taken. This combination means that today there is a wealth of images of the Bambino.

Some of my favorite pictures of Ruth are less-than-obvious shots: pictures taken away from the park, in unfamiliar settings. (As an example, see my post titled "A Majestic Mystery.") Here's a photograph of Ruth that I found especially intriguing:


Robert Edward Auctions

This real photo postcard was made available at Robert Edward Auction back in 2006 and sold for $696. The lot description reads:
Unique real-photo postcard of Babe Ruth with two attractive young ladies and a very interesting story. The family from which this postcard originates claims that their grandmother operated a "house of ill-repute" in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s, which catered to ballplayers who visited the area for spring training. One of the women in this photograph is allegedly the grandmother of this family, and this souvenir photograph of Babe Ruth at his most dapper was found among her effects. A sign identifies the location as "Hot Springs." The Red Sox went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years. Judging from Ruth's slim physique, this photograph appears to date from Ruth's days with the Red Sox, though Ruth enjoyed Hot Springs SO much that it is well documented that he continued to visit Hot Springs for "pre-spring training" in the 1920s even after joining the Yankees, who practiced spring training in Florida. It is interesting to note that Ruth would often get sick in Hot Springs, though it is not clear if this was due to hard living or the steam baths which made him more susceptible to illness. In any event, he certainly looks to be in good spirits in this postcard. As Ruth's stardom grew, he took great pride in his appearance and became well known for his grand style of dress. This real-photo postcard, in addition to being accompanied by a very unusual story, displays Ruth's personality and style off the field in a very unusual setting which certainly relates to his larger-than-life legend.
I decided to delve further into the story. First, let's take a look at the reverse of the postcard to see what can be learned:



A canceled postage stamp would have been helpful in dating the postcard, but the pre-printed information on the reverse can still be helpful. According to numerous real photo postcard dating guides on the Web (for example, check out this one at playle.com), a "PLACE STAMP HERE" stamp box surrounded by the letters "AZO" featuring two triangles pointing up and two pointing down has a date range of 1918 to 1930.

Now let's take another look at the front of the card. The sign below Ruth's hand clearly says "HOT SPRINGS" and, below that, while difficult to discern, are the words "WATER WAGON." In the upper left-hand corner of the picture, the letters "OME" are visible on what appears to be the corner of a faux log cabin. Given this information, it seems safe to say that the picture was taken in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The lot description notes that Boston "went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years." Indeed, during Ruth's tenure with the club (1914-1919), the Red Sox trained at Hot Springs in each season except for 1919, when they trained in Tampa, Florida. Thus, it would seem likely that the postcard dates from 1918, as the lot description suggests. However, another possibility is that the photo was taken the following decade, while Ruth was with the Yankees. As noted in "A Majestic Mystery," Ruth (and some other Yankees) often participated in pre-spring training workouts at Hot Springs in the early 1920s.

The lot description also notes that Ruth is shown with "two attractive young ladies." And goes on to note that one of these two "operated a 'house of ill-repute' in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s." The clear implication is that the photo is somehow related to this "house of ill-repute," but this seems quite unlikely.

First, beginning in 1917, the Red Sox not only allowed players' wives to come to spring training, but they actually encouraged the practice. According to a note in the February 17, 1917, issue of Sporting Life, "President Frazee, of the Red Sox, is adopting a new plan to get his players in line. He will invite the wives of all players to Hot Springs as his guests, providing hubby signs a contract at once."

Second, though I cannot state it as a certainty, the woman just to the right of Ruth appears to be none other than Ruth's wife, Helen. Here's a photo of Ruth with Helen for comparison:



Where in Hot Springs was this "Water Wagon" photo taken? Given that the scenery in the picture appears to be created as a "photo op," I figured that other people may have had there photograph taken at the same spot. Indeed, that appears to be the case.

Research on the Web has revealed that there were other incarnations of the "water wagon." Here's one:



... and another:


Harvard Art Museums

And here's a picture that shows the same building as seen in the Ruth photograph:


VintagePackRat

We now can see that the "OME" in the Ruth version of the "photo op" is the far right portion of "OUR SUMMER HOME" as seen in the above picture.

And here's a photograph of the same scene that features one James Hackett (far left), a mobster who had twice been kidnapped by the College Kidnappers:


Blue Island Bang-Up

Each of these photographs was taken at Happy Hollow, also known as McLeod’s Amusement Park, located in Hot Springs, the spring training home to numerous big league clubs over the years, not just the Red Sox. No doubt Ruth was one of many ball players who eventually made their way to this local attraction ... one that certainly had nothing to do with a "house of ill-repute."

In fact, here's another shot taken at Happy Hollow years earlier, showing three Red Sox players on horseback. Left to right: Jack Thoney, Bill Carrigan and Pat Donahue.


Happy Hollow in Hot Springs

In summary, the real photo postcard of Ruth was taken at Happy Hollow in Hot Springs, most likely in 1918 with his wife Helen.