Baseball and the movies are a natural pairing. Our two great national pastimes, they have come together in any number of stories over the years. Some of them are honey-tinged tales of dreams made real (The Rookie, The Natural) while others focus on the tobacco, spit and clubhouse antics of groups of grown-up boys (Bull Durham, Major League). A few dig deeper, exploring our history of segregation and cheating (42, Eight Men Out). In other words, movies about baseball are—in some way or another—movies about America.
But even if you’ve seen all of the above movies, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything quite like the show that touches down at Amherst Cinema this Tuesday evening for a one-night only screening. Rare Films From the Baseball Hall of Fame is the title of Dave Filipi’s program, but that doesn’t do justice to the scope of his presentation. Filipi, who is Director of Film and Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, has worked with the Baseball Hall of Fame to carefully curate a collection of films that is about far more than balls and bats.
Because movies have been around almost as long as professional baseball, the two have matured together. And what began as documentation of the game turned out to be the documentation of a larger culture still in the process of growing up. Included in Filipi’s program—for which he will be on hand to present a live introduction—is footage from a 1945 Look magazine photo shoot set up to announce Jackie Robinson’s historic signing with the Dodgers, as well as some incredibly early footage shot in 1898 by the Edison company.
Alongside those milestones are lighter moments that are culturally relevant in their own right: vintage commercials with baseball legends like Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Pete Rose (a man whose rise and fall could be a presentation in its own right). Filipi brings something to the table not just for cinephiles or baseball fanatics, but for anyone interested in our shared American history. Filip recently shared some of his insights with the Advocate.
Valley Advocate: What was the genesis of your project? Was there an “aha” moment that made you focus on these films first, or did the film component come as an addition to earlier presentations?
David Filipi: It’s kind of a long story, but in 2004 I wanted to do a baseball-themed film program but not do the obvious thing like show Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, et cetera. I contacted the Hall of Fame to see if I might be able to show some of the films they held in their vault. We worked it out, and from 2004 to 2011 I presented programs with nearly all of the content coming from the Hall. The programs in 2012 and 2013 were comprised of material from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Any particularly wild discoveries in the Hall of Fame archives?
Lots of great discoveries. The many, many interviews Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff did with dozens and dozens of players in the 1950s and early ’60s have been an especially rich source of good material. I’ve included interviews with fellow Hall of Famers like Harmon Killebrew and Ted Williams, but also lesser players like then-Kansas City Athletic left-handed catcher (and future Hall of Fame manager) Whitey Herzog. But there are a trove of great Gillette commercials from the ’50s and ’60s and many other clips that proved to be both enlightening and entertaining.
When you watch these films, how do you feel about baseball today? What has changed?
One thing I would say is [that] the most obvious change is the money involved. Quite literally. There are clips I include where players talk about their off-season jobs and another that shows four Washington Senators sharing a small apartment. Never happen today.
Public reaction seems to be enthusiastic—I saw that you’re selling out multiple days at Brooklyn Academy of Music. What sort of crowds are you drawing? Film fans, baseball fans, history buffs?
The program has been very popular since day one back in 2004... The crowds are largely comprised of baseball fans, but we do get some people who are as or more interested in film or history in general. And people love to share their reactions to the material as well as individual memories that are stirred by what they have just seen.
What is it about the game that you think so captures us as Americans, more so than football, basketball, et cetera?
Well, I’d say football has easily surpassed baseball in terms of broad interest, but there is something special about baseball and I would say it is the sport’s history. It’s the one sport where a person can just as easily enjoy the past as the present, as, relatively speaking, little has changed in the game over the past century. I’m putting a similar football program together for August and one of the clips is a Giants-Bears game from the mid-1930s. There are a handful of players on the field without helmets. That’s how much football has changed in 80 years, where baseball in the 1930s was fairly identical to the game played today. Obviously the color barrier no longer exists; players are bigger and faster and they get paid to a degree probably unimaginable in the 1930s; but the basics of the game are the same.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I certainly enjoy taking the program around the country and talking with all the people who come to the event, but I’m equally pleased that the project essentially activates these archives. I’m helping to share with the public films that would otherwise be unavailable and I get a lot of satisfaction from that.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.