Midway through an early baseball movie Billy Bevan, playing an ace pitcher, is discovered by an irate husband hiding in his wife's bathtub. Bevan's presence there is innocent. To avoid any impression of wrongdoing, he submerges, breathing through a shower tube—the sort of thing that might happen to anyone. But the husband is the pitcher for the rival team, and mixed up with crooked gamblers, too. He holds Bevan's head under the water until Bevan gladly agrees not to pitch, which means throwing the game.
So we see Bevan disconsolately in the outfield, the wrong team winning. The husband hits a long fly in Bevan's direction. Bevan is so inept an outfielder that he cannot even find the ball, which bounces into a tar barrel. It looks like a clear case of injustice triumphant. But wait. All is not lost. The villain jumps exultantly on first base and the base sticks to the spikes in his shoes. He races for second like a man trying to run on one snowshoe. The third-base coach waves him on because Bevan cannot throw the ball. It sticks to his fingers. Finally Bevan gets off a throw to the plate just as the villain, great clouds of dust rising from bases affixed to both feet, slides for home. What happens next is obscure. We see the catcher and the umpire searching everywhere for the ball, which they finally locate stuck in the hair of the villain's head. It all ends happily: Bevan wins. And that's the way it used to be with sport and the movies. Then it got worse. But not for lack of trying. There have been 75 hilarious years of trying.
Bevan's out-of-the-bathtub-and-into-the-tar-barrel scene was a brief sequence in a forgotten two-reel Keystone comedy, but it was representative of a light-hearted view of sport that flourished in the early days of the movies. The Keystone company was the property of a pair of enterprising gentlemen from Brooklyn, Adam Kessel and Charley Bauman, who really did know something about sport. They were bookmakers. In fact, most of the early moviemakers were mixed up in sport in one way or another. Bronco Billy Anderson, the original Western hero, was a baseball enthusiast: he signed movie rights in 1908 with the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers for the first World Series ever filmed. In his early days in Hollywood Charlie Chaplin never missed a Tuesday night fight at the old Vernon Arena, and one of the first and funniest of his masterpieces was The Champion, made in 1915, with its classic portrayal of an alarmed fighter in the ring with a stony-faced giant who obviously possessed no sense of humor. Harold Lloyd's first comedy roles included Lonesome Luke and the Bangtails, filmed at the racetrack in Tijuana, with Lloyd playing a stableboy so astoundingly lazy he would not even lift a bale of hay that had fallen on a recumbent horse owner. He let the horse eat it. Buster Keaton worked a rundown between bases into a scene in College and climaxed the film with a pole vault into the window of a second-story room where the villain had imprisoned his girl. In A Night at the Opera the Marx brothers craftily inserted the music for Take Me Out to the Ball Game for the score of Il Trovatore and sold peanuts to the operagoers. They also won the big race in A Day at the Races by rerouting the track and scored a touchdown in Horse Feathers in an improvised chariot made from a garbage cart.
Plainly, it did not matter in the movies whether you won or lost and certainly did not matter how you played the game. In The Freshman Harold Lloyd became unforgettably entangled with a tackling dummy. W. C. Fields reached into his golf bag for a club and drew out a garden hoe, or played pool with a wavy cue. Consider Giddap, another Keystone comedy. Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan and other unlikely horsemen are playing polo. The ball is knocked over the fence and the horses follow. The game is suddenly a steeplechase, the horses leaping fences and galloping neck and neck down a road, pursuing a bewildered bicyclist. The ball had landed in a basket on his handlebars. Moments later the ball is lost among some cantaloupes in a fruit stand. The players recover it and pound on, and we catch a glimpse of a fruit-stand owner sitting amid appalling wreckage. Whacking the ball ahead of them, the players race into a quiet residential section, where a well-groomed family is sitting down to dinner. The ball rolls through the open door, and in an instant the house is filled with horses and flailing mallets. A lucky shot propels the ball outdoors again, leaving the dazed residents staring wonderingly about them. "The townspeople didn't think very highly of actors as a class," Hedda Hopper wrote in her nostalgic recollections of Hollywood's early days. "When a picture company secured the use of a private home as a location it was left in such a mess." That was something of an understatement.
Sports remained standard movie material for nearly 40 years. Thomas Edison put the first baseball game on film as early as 1898 and made the first comedy, Casey at the Bat, the following year. David Wark Griffith filmed In Old Kentucky in 1909, a melodrama in which the heroine replaces a crooked jockey at the last moment and wins the big race. Home Run Baker became the first famous athlete to turn movie actor when he starred in The Short Stop's Double in 1913. In The Pinch Hitter (1917) Charles Ray, who was a good baseball player in private life, is a country boy mercilessly hazed in college until remarkable coincidences leave him the only player available to bat with two out in the ninth inning.
As the years went on there were hundreds of others. But somewhere along the way sport movies became a special category of filmmaking, not quite as stylized as Westerns or serials, but nearly so. And they also began to form their own record in Hollywood annals—one of fiscal catastrophe. So many bad sport movies were made that they virtually died out as a popular art form. The culmination of it all was probably The Babe Ruth Story. It was so awful—and such a staggering box-office failure—that most of the big movie companies shuddered at the very sight of ball and bat. All told, there were only two baseball movies made in 14 years. When Ted Williams retired, Producer Spyros Skouras was approached with the idea of a film on Williams' career. "No, no," he said. "People wouldn't even go to see a baseball picture with Babe Ruth in it." In 1968 Films in Review analyzed almost a hundred old baseball pictures and commented editorially: "Baseball has been so indifferently dramatized it has practically been sabotaged." During the 1920s and 1930s there were, on the average, films about one sport or another released every other week, many of them with big-name stars and top directors. And almost always they were poison at the box office. Now sport films appear at the rate of one or two a year.
The familiar sport-movie product—the one about the star quarterback kidnapped on the eve of the big game, the boxer who is ordered to throw the championship fight by gangsters who have made off with his girl, the rookie pitcher who gets the big head—has disappeared. The bad repute of sports films is even seen in television reruns. In Los Angeles about 200 old movies are now projected each week on local TV stations. No more than a dozen are sports films. You can sometimes see them if you have insomnia—things like Clifford Odets' insufferably highbrow prizefighter in Golden Boy or Ronald Reagan making a comeback from drink as Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team, with Doris Day and the St. Louis Cardinals standing around looking embarrassed, or Pat O'Brien in Knute Rockne—All-American, with Reagan as the dying George Gipp.
If you prefer to sleep between 3 and 5 a.m. and are willing to pay $20 an hour for a projectionist, the film companies will sometimes dig into their archives and produce one of these turkeys for a private screening. If we had a decent economic system they would pay you $20 to watch them. In any case, after a few hours, no matter how camp your tastes, you are going to conclude that there is some better use for your money. All of which leaves unanswered the engaging, if somewhat esoteric, question: How did Hollywood and sport come to such an unpretty pass?
The first sports film ever made was shown in New York City in August 1894, four months after the first movie house opened. Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing, two lightweights, were filmed in a 10-round fight. It was a real fight—that is, there was no scenario—except that the ring was only 10 feet square so the camera could catch all the action. Leonard caught Cushing with a right to the jaw, Cushing dropped, and that was the end of the picture.
There happened to be an unusual theatrical interest in boxing that year. On the night of Sept. 3, 1894 three plays opened in New York starring fighters and ex-fighters. At Jacobs Theater, ex-champion John L. Sullivan opened in A True American. At the American Theater, James J. Corbett, then the champion, stepped forth in a revival of Gentleman Jack. Down on 14th Street, Steve Brodie, an ex-fighter not then famous for his real or imagined leap off Brooklyn Bridge, made his bow in On the Bowery. All on the same night. And all three were successful, at least at first. "Mr. Sullivan was manly," said a review, "and spoke his lines distinctly."