Monday, March 28, 2011
The Bustin' Babes vs. The Larrupin' Lou's
A recently discovered video of Babe Ruth [far left] and Lou Gehrig [far right] is the latest example of motion-film images from baseball's pre-digital history.
One of the great thrills I get - that don't involve some form of sexual act - is watching old-time baseball players on film. Those short-films with Ty Cobb [asshole, though he was], Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig et al truly fascinate me. Those films of actual games are even better. About ten or fifteen years ago PBS raised a lot of money with a series called When it Was a Game - images culled together from personal collections of color film that players took of one another before games during the 1930s. It was fabulous.
So, I was excited to hear about the latest discovery of a short film from 1927 capturing Ruth and Gehrig during a moment of rest on one of those baseball barnstorming tours that stars of the day used to do to make some real money.
Something I was surprised to read was that - despite my memory - there really are very few moving images of Babe Ruth. Indeed, even Major League Baseball’s large archive contains less than an hour’s worth. The recent discovery points out that there may - in fact - be a bevy of Ruth footage still buried in basements or stashed in attics across the country.
The discovery of which I write came from a cellar in Illinois. It shows Ruth in his prime and is shot from close range, sitting atop a pony while wearing a child’s cowboy hat and muttering into a home movie camera. It also captures an incredibly young-looking Lou Gehrig - known for his dignified demeanor - holding children and unabashedly smiling like a little boy.
The images were part of eight reels of 16-millimeter film found in excellent condition. It included three-and-a-half minutes of Ruth and Gehrig wearing the uniforms of their barnstorming teams. The film is thought to have been shot with a high-end home movie camera in or around Sioux City, Iowa, on October 18, 1927 — 10 days after the Yankees completed a four-game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Part of the charm of finding the film is that it occurred immediately in the aftermath of what may be the greatest season a baseball team ever had. The 1927 Yankees finished 110-44. Ruth, 32-years old at the time, hit 60 home runs that year, a record that stood for 34 years. Gehrig, who was 24, hit 47 home runs — more than anyone to that point other than Ruth — and was the American League Most Valuable Player.
Of course, the film finding also brings home the reality that much of baseball’s history predates the digital age. Because of that, some of the sport’s best players and moments were captured only through stories and still photographs. Recently, though, there have been some jewels discovered. In 2009, Major League Baseball received a few seconds of video of Ruth playing right field at Yankee Stadium, something archivists had not seen before. Just last week, the MLB Network unveiled newly received clips thought to be a sort of instructional film from 1924 with Ruth, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. And last year, the only known full copy of the television broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, featuring Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run that pushed the Pirates past the Yankees, was found in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar.
Yet, even as thrilling as such discoveries are, most of them tend to be grainy and shot from a distance. On those films, Ruth is often identifiable only by uniform number or his unmistakable barrel shape or his famous swing. This most recent discovery is different. Standing outside a large brick home - or perhaps a public building - in the shade of large trees, Ruth and Gehrig posed and chatted among a dozen or two well-dressed men, women and children. There is a rare close-up of Ruth without his hat, talking to the camera. Behind him, Gehrig held a small boy and gave him a peck on the cheek. Christy Walsh, who managed the tour and was considered the first major sports agent, is seen in a few seconds close up, too. At one point, Ruth recoiled from a backpedaling pony and laughed. He pulled the cowboy hat off a young boy dressed in Tom Mix-era cowboy regalia and mugged for the camera. The portly Ruth climbed aboard the pony, which looked barely sturdy enough to support him.
The film came to light thanks to R. C. Raycraft, who bought the films for an undisclosed amount from an antiques dealer who purchased them as part of an estate sale. Raycraft, whose family runs the 3rd Sunday Market, an antique show in Bloomington, Illinois, told the New York Times he had not decided if he would sell the film. He may donate a copy to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, if the Hall thinks it can be put to good use. Neither the Hall nor Major League Baseball have seen the film, but each is interested.
It is uncertain just how rare or valuable the film is, but a photograph of Ruth’s and Gehrig’s barnstorming teams, the Bustin’ Babes and the Larrupin’ Lou’s, from a game in Des Moines and dated October 17, 1927, sold in December for $33,000. And that was just a photograph.
The 1927 tour began two days after the World Series and consisted of 21 games strung from Providence, Rhode Island to Los Angeles. It was so big that local schools actually closed for the occasion so that the kids could see heroes that they could only otherwise read about or listen to on the radio.
The tours were pure bedlam.
Indeed, thirteen games had to be called early because the mobs disrupted the action. "Every time a fly or grounder went past the infield, there was a race between the outfielder and the spectators on the fringe of the crowd," the New York Times reported from one game. Ruth, who occasionally pitched, had a .616 batting average and hit 20 home runs. Gehrig hit .618 and had 13 homers. The tours were a way for big-name players to cash in on their popularity. While Ruth earned a $70,000 salary from the Yankees in 1927 [the equivalent of $857,388 in 2009 dollars], he matched it on the cross-country tour. Gehrig, too, reportedly doubled his $8,000 [$97,987 in 2009] salary, though he was about to get a new Yankees contract paying him $25,000 [$306,210 in 2009] a year. The men signed thousands of baseballs, tossing them to fans in the stands and occasionally from their train as it rolled through towns across the country.
The Sioux City Journal of October 19, 1927, described a chaotic scene at the previous day’s game. About 5,000 people crammed into the minor league park, and “2,000 youngsters became so unmanageable in their desire to get a close-up that the game was called early in the ninth inning." Indeed, during a rush of fans in the seventh inning, "Lou probably saved the life of a little fellow who was trampled to the ground in the rush by carrying him across the diamond to safety," the Journal reported.
In Nevada last week, Ruth’s grandson Tom Stevens, now 58, watched a portion of the film a few times. Stevens is the only child of 94-year-old Julia Ruth Stevens, one of Babe Ruth’s two daughters (one each from two marriages) and the only one still alive. "My mom is the best living authority on him from a personal standpoint, certainly," Stevens told the Times.
But Stevens is a Ruth encyclopedia, too, and a close guardian of his grandfather’s reputation and myth, as passed from his mother. "That’s really pretty good video of him," Stevens said. "But it’s not remarkable that he’s out and about with people. He commonly did that. That’s part of the reason people felt as affectionately about him as they did." Stevens was born four years after Ruth died in 1948, but enjoyed the portion of the film showing Ruth playing with the children. "I think he was most comfortable and most at home with kids," Stevens said. "They say he was just a kid at heart. And I think that’s true."
And, in this latest video clip, he still is.
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