Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Try Major League Baseball’s film library — which preserves the glorious past of the great American game.Photograph Credit: Beth Perkins
A few miles away from the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and bustling Penn Station, out among the swamps and countless factory-outlet stores of Secaucus, N.J., ghosts walk.
And run, and throw, and hit and slide.
It’s here, in an otherwise nondescript office park, where you’ll find Major League Baseball Productions, which houses the film archives of baseball. The iconic images of the great American game — Babe Ruth doffing his cap after parking one in the bleachers, Jackie Robinson stealing home against Yogi Berra, Kirk Gibson limping around the bases, Derek Jeter’s backhand magic — live here, along with thousands more hours of film spanning the decades, from the grainy earliest footage of Christy Mathewson on opening day 1905 to A-Rod’s moments of glory in last year’s World Series.
Baseball, of course, looks to its past more than any of the other major sports. Along with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Major League Baseball Productions, which is baseball’s official archivist, preserves and protects the history of the game. The film library is one of its primary tools for the veneration of the past.
Given all that, it comes as no surprise that the people charged with maintaining MLB’s archives take their mission as seriously as the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the river in New York City. Nick Trotta, MLB’s senior manager of library licensing, speaks of the game as “a living organism,” and it’s his job to keep that organism vital and healthy.
Trotta and his staff are the gatekeepers of baseball’s sacred images. No doubt you’ve heard the famous disclaimer that follows every televised game: “This copyrighted telecast is presented by the authority of the office of the commissioner of baseball. It cannot be reproduced or retransmitted in any form, and the accounts and descriptions of this game may not be disseminated without expressed written consent.” That “expressed written consent” must come from Trotta and his department, and he doesn’t grant it to just anyone.
Big customers like ESPN, Fox Sports, Turner Broadcasting and the MLB Network, which broadcasts from just down the hall, get quick service whenever they need vintage or recent footage of matchups, record-breaking events or notable baseball anniversaries, but outside requests get close scrutiny. “We assess each request to determine if it’s the right thing for baseball,” Trotta says. “Then we work out the business and legal terms to let them use the footage.”
Trotta’s office is littered with scripts from Hollywood producers and TV companies who would like to use some MLB moments in their work. He has fielded requests from American Idol and Ugly Betty, as well as reviewed the scripts of Wedding Crashers and Moneyball, the still-delayed opus starring Brad Pitt. Sometimes producers just want to show their characters watching a few seconds of a game in a bar or a living room, but even those fleeting moments require permission.
But it’s the acquisitions side of the job that really gets Trotta’s pulse pounding. On my visit to MLB Productions, Trotta and his staffers and I were enthusing over one of their most exciting finds in years — a recently discovered 90-second clip that was shot more than 80 years ago, featuring the only known moving images of Babe Ruth playing in the outfield. It was as if the curators of the Louvre had found a lost Renoir canvas in a Left Bank rummage sale.
The new Ruth footage was discovered when a man in New Hampshire cleaned out his attic and found a trunk filled with old family mementos. He watched the film on a home projector and, realizing he might have something significant, contacted MLB Productions.
Once he had secured the film for the archives, Trotta turned it over to veteran researchers Joe Porciello and Frank Caputo, who between them have more than 40 years of experience with MLB. Porciello, now 47, signed on as a teenager 29 years ago and basically created the intricate filing system the library now uses. He combines an encyclopedic knowledge of the library’s holdings with a master detective’s ability to piece together clues that bring old film footage to life.
The Ruth film, shot by an amateur, has no announcer’s voice or labeling that reveals anything about the date of the game, the opposing team or the importance of the game. But after scrutinizing the silent film for hours, Porciello and others slowly built a plausible story about that long-ago day. Among the clues that helped:
*A flagpole standing in center field (among other landmarks) identifies the park as Yankee Stadium.
*Ruth and his teammates have no numbers on their uniforms, so the film must have been shot before 1929, when numbers were introduced.
*The presence of Lou Gehrig, Ruth’s teammate, means the film was taken after 1925, when Gehrig became a regular player for the Yankees.
*Some of the advertisements in the outfield (including a sign touting “The World Champions of Shave League”) match photos from 1928.
*Because the stands are packed and the shadows are long (there were no night games in those days), Trotta and Porciello think the game could be opening day in April or the World Series in October. The Yankees swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 Series.