“This was the year after he hit 60 home runs,” Trotta says. “He had the highest salary in the league, so he didn’t have to get a second job in the offseason like most players back then. He spent a lot of time working out with boxers and rich people, so he was really in good shape at the time.”
Baseball is a game dominated by vital ghosts; it’s a fraternity, like no other we have, of the active and the no longer so, the living and the dead. — Richard Gilman in The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball
The archivists’ excitement over the Ruth discovery underscores the fact that for all of the library’s vast riches, with approximately 10,000 hours of footage being added each year, much of MLB’s early history has vanished into the mists of time. That’s because up until the 1960s, filming every game was simply out of the question; it was too expensive and cumbersome, and besides, who needed it?
That’s why all the existing film of Ruth, probably the most famous person of his era (along with Charles Lindbergh), will fit on a one-hour tape.
That seems incredible today, but it’s true. Before the TV age, most day-to-day baseball footage was captured either by amateurs or by newsreels, and the newsreels tended to keep only a few highlights and tape over the rest of the footage. That’s why there are gaps in the footage of historic games like Jackie Robinson’s breaking the baseball color barrier in 1947 and Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game that’s ever been thrown in a World Series. (Even though Larsen’s game is missing the first inning, it’s actually one of the most comprehensively captured pre-1960 legendary moments.). Nor is there a complete document of Joe DiMaggio’s immortal 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
That same year, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox went into the last game of the season batting .3996, which made him, mathematically at least, only the eighth player in history to reach the .400 plateau. His manager offered to let him sit out the double header to preserve his average, but Williams, always a proud maverick, insisted on playing both games. He got six hits, raising his average to .406 — a number that hasn’t been equaled since. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to watch those two games in their entirety today?
David Gavant, MLB’s vice president and executive in charge of production, has his own personal wish list of famous missing footage. He’d love to own the video that would tell us, once and for all, whether Ruth really “called his shot” against the Chicago Cubs in the 1933 Series, pointing to center field and then blasting a homer (the footage that does exist is inconclusive as to whether Ruth was really calling his shot). Also great would be complete footage of Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters from 1938, a record likely to stand forever.
But Gavant says that future fans and baseball historians will have fewer “what if’s” to lament. Since 1998, every game of every season has been filmed and preserved. That means that all the games ever played by Rookies of the Year like Albert Pujols (2001), Ryan Howard (2005) and Justin Verlander (2006) will exist in pristine HD condition, to be savored and dissected by fans yet to be born.
I ask Gavant something I’ve wondered about since attending game two of the 2009 World Series in New York, where I shot some pretty dandy footage, I thought, with my trusty Samsung camcorder. With everyone packing cameras these days, won’t MLB soon be inundated by fans hawking a zillion super views of just about every play?
Well, no, Gavant explains. In the first place, there’s that “express permission” clause on the back of game tickets. Beyond that, many people don’t realize that the TV broadcasts of the games use as many as 20 cameras — hence those multiangle replays. In addition, many regional sports networks have their own crews shooting on-site for local broadcasts. At the end of each game, MLB Productions gets a melt reel, a compilation of all the great shots from all the cameras used in the broadcast.
Given so many official eyes on the game today, it’s highly unlikely that Joe Bleachers in Sec. 303, Row 17, Seat 5 will snag a sequence MLB doesn’t already have — especially if Joe has five drunken, shirtless dudes trying to start the wave in front of him.
The strongest thing that baseball has going for it today are its yesterdays. —Lawrence Ritter, author of The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It
With all that said, it’s time for the main event — the library itself, which contains some 200,000 hours of content here and in an overflow warehouse in nearby Fort Lee, N.J. Nick Trotta walks me past shelf after shelf lined with boxes of tapes, the alphabetical arrangement — Hank Aaron to Barry Zito — blending yesterday’s stars with today’s. The big names, from Bonds and Clemente to Mantle, Mays, Williams and Yastrzemski, have their own dedicated tapes, while other tapes contain milestone events — batters reaching 500 home runs or 3,000 hits, pitchers winning 300 games.