National Pastimes: The First Baseball Movies

Part of Silent Film Week on Fandor, a weeklong spotlight on silent cinema in conjunction with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 14-17, 2011.

Big Screen Slugger: Babe Ruth stars in "Headin' Home"

Baseball. The Movies. 20th Century American cultural life can hardly be conceived without them. Baseball achieved mass popularity in the United States several decades before cinema was even invented, but by the 1920s both had cemented their places as leisure time pursuits. In 1918, the last year of the “dead-ball era” gave way to a home run-heavy golden age in which baseball became big, multi-million dollar business. At the same time, the film industry had solidified into Hollywood’s production center of factory-like studios, D.W. Griffith had moved the art form into the modern age with The Birth of a Nation, and Charlie Chaplin had ascended to the level of international hero.

By the end of the silent era, cinema had caught up to baseball as a cultural phenomenon. Every so often, these two different forms of entertainment converged in the way of slapstick shorts, local-boy-makes-good melodramas, and myth-making features starring the very athletes who won fame and fortune playing the game in real life. The resulting baseball movies told not only entertaining tales of on-field trials and triumphs, but also reflected the National Pastime’s direct connection to (and influence on) American social values and aspirations.


One wouldn’t suspect baseball to be so important to life in America at the turn of the century by viewing Casey at the Bat, or the Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire, a twenty-second 1899 film produced by Thomas Edison’s studio, and often considered the very first instance of baseball captured on celluloid. If the film aims for mythic proportions by borrowing the title of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s legendary poem, it ultimately falls short due to its brief duration as well as a major divergence from its source material. Whereas in Thayer’s telling Casey stops an angry crowd from killing an umpire who calls questionable strikes, in the Edison Casey an actor playing the disgruntled batter himself attacks the ump.


“Casey” receives a far more faithful adaptation in a 1922 version produced to demonstrate inventor Lee De Forest’s pioneering though unsuccessfully marketed sound-on-film system. Phonofilm, as De Forest patented it, used a sophisticated process to synchronize recorded sound with moving pictures, one of the first to do so. In Casey at the Bat renowned actor DeWolf Hopper, dressed in a tux and standing on a mock stage, performs a lugubrious oration of Thayer’s “Casey.” The animated, over-the-top delivery is entirely intentional—Hopper had been reciting the poem since 1888, and made his name on it.


Watching the 1899 and 1922 versions of Casey demonstrates just how much cinema had advanced technologically within that time. But comparing the two films says nothing about the original stories movies were telling about baseball in cinema’s silent era, nor what methods they used to do so. (The theatrical set-up of Casey 1922 contains none of the storytelling and visual artistry contemporaneously in bloom.) His Last Game, an unusual 1909 short produced by Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America, tells a narrative about Bill Going, an upright Choctaw pitcher tempted by gamblers to throw a ballgame. In a fight Bill accidentally kills one of the men, and in an ensuing series of complicated events is allowed to compete in the ballgame (which he helps win) while another Native American man stands in his stead for his rapidly approaching execution. What remains fascinating about His Last Game is not only the focus on the ill treatment of Native Americans, but the large roles integrity and sacrifice play in a baseball story.


His Last Game would hardly be the last instance of such themes surfacing on big screen diamonds. Reflecting the larger cultural and economic forces transforming America from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one, several early baseball films attempt to resolve the tension between small town values and big city vices, traditional relationships and modern lifestyles. Baseball is the perfect sport to embody these tensions—a heartland game made into mass, cosmopolitan entertainment.

In the incompletely preserved One Touch of Nature (1917), a father (John Henry) rushes to the championship game to root for the son (John Drew Bennett) he disowned for taking up a glamorous life of baseball and marrying an ostensibly undignified woman. Baseball unites them: when young Cosgrove sees his old man in the stands, he hits the game winning home run. Expert employment of parallel editing by Edward H. Griffith (no relation to D.W.), directing for the Edison studio, creates poignant action out of trite material; New York Giant legend John McGraw and the old Polo Grounds lend a realistic atmosphere to the proceedings.


At nearly an hour long, The Busher (1919) has ample time to lend subtlety to similarly melodramatic devices. The story concerns Ben Harding (Charles Ray), a boy from the sticks who receives an opportunity to pitch with a major league team. Ben soon forgets his roots, chasing after vamps while losing his humility (and curveball) in the Big Time; Sent back to the farm, Ben eats a big slice of humble pie before redeeming himself. The Busher’s fear of and partial retreat from the corrupting evils of fast-moving metropolitan culture is put over by its relatively multi-dimensional characters and nuanced performances, including Colleen Moore as Ben’s girl-next-door love interest.


The most exemplary early baseball film to drive home (pardon the pun) the Victorian theme of forthright behavior in a rapidly changing world is Headin’ Home (1920), starring none other than Babe Ruth as a heavily fictionalized version of himself. Coming off the season that made him a superstar (and a year after the notorious “Black Sox” threw the World Series—Ruth would be instrumental in getting Major League Baseball back on its feet after the scandal), a mostly expressionless Ruth plays “Babe,” a Paul Bunyan-like rube (he cuts down trees to make his bats, and frees dogs from the local dogcatcher’s pen) who eventually signs with the majors. The details of Ruth’s life are fabricated in corny fashion. He’s given a country upbringing with a mother and adorable foster-sister when in real life he grew up in a youth detention center on the mean streets of Baltimore. He owns a heart of gold and shows unwavering loyalty toward his, yes, girl-next-door love interest, when by all accounts the true Babe was a hard-living philanderer.


What remains intriguing about Headin’ Home is precisely how the legendary Ruth participates in his own mythologizing. Despite the jokey tone of Headin’ Home—as well as the later slapstick antics of baseball-related films like Felix Saves the Day (1922), Butter Fingers (1925), and Happy Days (1926)—the representation and marketing of baseball was becoming a serious industry, with athletes invested in creating idealized images of themselves to attract media attention and endorsement deals (this in an era when ballplayers were paid generally unspectacular wages by skinflint owners). As the most popular medium of its time, cinema could provide ballplayers a major venue to showcase their talents (or else, as in the case of Ruth, their awe-inspiring presence), even as baseball stars in turn provided the cinema more grist for the mythmaking mill. Movies need stories, and athletes provide recognizable and readymade (or, in the case of Ruth, easily malleable) fables to sell to the public. As we’ve learned in the ninety-plus years since Headin’ Home, the thespian success of the sports star is less important than the selling power and stature his role can guarantee at the cinema.

Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot.


Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.