Skip to main content
Original Issue

Home (Plate) Movies

An HBO documentary featuring amateur footage brings back the glory days of baseball

Your old home movies are probably gathering dust on a closet shelf, next to the Parcheesi game and the Nat King Cole 78s. It's a little too much trouble, after all, to set up the screen and thread the projector when in this age of the camcorder you can just turn on the television and watch yourself.

But there is something that's wonderful about those old 8- and 16-millimeter movies, something that has been lost in time and technology. For some reason, they do a much better job of revealing the subject, of capturing the soul, than videotapes do. That magic is abundantly clear in When It Was a Game, a documentary on baseball that relies on never-before-seen color home movies taken between 1937 and '57. Coproduced by Black Canyon Productions and HBO Sports, When It Was a Game will air on HBO on July 8 from 10:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. EDT, as well as nine other times in July. That the show will debut the night before the All-Star Game seems only fitting because When It Was a Game is, in its own way, a midseason classic.

Pepper Martin performing his baseball juggling routine. Lou Gehrig—not Gary Cooper—rounding first. Players taking batting practice shirtless on a sweltering day. Bogey and Bacall working their way through the crowd at Ebbets Field. Abbott and Costello standing on first. The Green Monster before it was green. Wrigley Field with only a few wisps of ivy. Joe D gliding around the bases. The Splinter unleashing his splendid swing. Jackie laying down a bunt and flashing around the bases....

These are home movies all right, but in When It Was a Game, home is that five-sided slab that's the focal point of baseball. The documentary moves in time from the 1934 World Series between the Gashouse Gang and the Tigers—the only black-and-white footage—to 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants went west. Steven Stern and George Roy of Black Canyon began assembling the footage 15 months ago by tracking down leads and then persuading old players and fans to lend them their home movies. While Stern and Roy found more than their share of pony rides at birthday parties, they were rewarded with such finds as a 16-millimeter film of the 1938 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees, the earliest known Series film in color. They ended up with about 50 hours of footage, which they edited down to one hour. None of the original filmmakers are credited, which is a bit disappointing but also understandable considering their desire for privacy.

As if the visual treats weren't enough, there are also delightful musings from players and writers who were around back then, and their voices carry the theme expressed in the title. Enos Slaughter recalls the days when you "bought your own jockey straps...and you even had to pay for your sandwich between games of a doubleheader." Billy Werber, a third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds from 1939 to '41, talks about the loyalty players used to feel toward the cities in which they played: "When I was playing with Cincinnati...we all, right down to the last man, wanted to win for the people in Cincinnati, and when we won championships and won the World Series, why, we were just delighted that we could do something for those good people."

If When It Was a Game has a star, it's Tommy Henrich, the Yankees' Old Reliable, who tells stories with both passion and poetry. Here's Henrich on New York's rivalry with the Boston Red Sox: "Bobby Doerr says, 'Why didn't we win? Didn't we have a good ball club?' And I says, 'You scared us to death, Bobby. Sure you had a good ball club...[but] I think the owner liked you more than our owners liked us.... I used to walk through your parking lot out there and...most all of the things in there were Cadillacs. We had to bear down more for ours."

There is almost an embarrassment of riches in When It Was a Game. Actors James Earl Jones, Roy Scheider and Jason Robards chime in every once in a while with readings of such pieces as The Old-Fashioned Batter by George Phair, The Ballad of Dead Yankees by Donald Petersen and, at the end, the Grantland Rice poem Game Called. Added to the mix are some evocative baseball songs from the past and original theme music by Ferdinand Jay Smith.

But the movies themselves are the reason to see When It Was a Game. To feel what a spring training camp was like 50 years ago, when it really was a camp. To share in Joe Cronin's horseplay on the bench. To watch the players participate in the outrageous pregame contests that were popular during World War II. To gaze upon the aged faces of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Cy Young and the fresh faces of Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. The tableaux range from the heartening (Willie Mays helping a youngster hit a baseball) to the heartrending (the demolition ball tearing into the stands at Ebbets Field).

Viewing When It Was a Game is not unlike walking into a ballpark for the first time, a moment described in the documentary by the poet Donald Hall: "There they were in the their baggy pants, the players who I had heard about, of whom I had seen photographs. But there they were, really walking around, live people." As Hall says, it was a moment of "absolute enchantment."



The swing of Joe DiMaggio comes alive again.



Pepper Martin is seen doing sleight of hand.



Ted Williams is one of the legends who figure prominently in the show, culled from 50 hours of film.