baseball movies

Movie Review: When It Was a Game – Baseball Legends, Wool Uniforms & Stadiums Without Lights

When I hear people talk about the business of sports, the cynic in me wonders if there ever really was a time when it was “just a game.” Thinking about the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919 seems to say no. Money was always a part of it, although more so on the part of the owners in years past than on the part of the players.

When It Was A Game takes fans back to a time before free agency. It was a time when players moved around much less than they do now, and then it was at the whim of the owners or the front office. A player could not take his career into his own hands, and he generally earned what the owner decided he would earn.

This was an era when there were just eight teams in each league. “The west” was St. Louis and the Giants and Dodgers were still New York residents. Players hitting .300 still had to worry about having a place on the team each spring – it was that competitive.

When It Was A Game uses footage strictly from 8mm and 16mm home movie films taken by Major League Baseball Players and fans from 1934 to 1957. Most of it is not game footage, but instead of the downtime before a game, during practice, spring training, between games of a double-header, etc. I loved seeing this footage. Legendary players who I’ve seen in archived footage and carefully orchestrated situations are shown here in a more casual mode. There are terrific moments with the likes of Pepper Martin, Ralph Kiner, Hank Greenberg, Yogi Berra, Lefty Gomez, and more.

Narrated by James Earl Jones, Roy Scheider, and Jason Robards, When It Was A Game fills in some of the gaps of what was different between then and now. For instance, gloves were left on the field in between innings. Players ran out onto the field and picked up their gloves from where they had tossed them at the end of their previous half-inning in the field. Many of these facts have gotten lost in the commentary over the years.

During this time, it seemed like there was a different relationship between the players and the fans. This is reiterated and reinforced by some of the players still alive from that era who talk about what it was like to be a baseball player. The players wanted to win games and pennants, for the fans who came out and supported them day after day. It seemed to be more of a feeling of “we’re all in this together.” Fans saying “We Won!” and beaming with pride at a championship seem like a natural extension of the teams themselves.

In addition, there are also plenty of clips of the old stadiums. Some are no longer around, such as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. Others aren’t in the same condition. I found it fascinating to see Wrigley Field without the ivy on the wall or the bleachers in the outfield. Seeing the billboard in the outfield and all around the stadiums with some of the sponsors (such as beer companies who are no longer around) was a step back in history as well. This was a good homage to the old stadiums, as I watch two stadiums in New York prepare to meet the wrecking ball.

Other than knowing the story behind A League of Their Own, I didn’t know much about the effect of a world war on the game. A part of this film shows how baseball continued throughout the second world war, despite talk of suspending it. I was also fascinated to see Max Patkin at games, crowned “baseball’s clown prince.” I didn’t realize he had been involved with the game this long – I can remember seeing him!

Just when I was thinking as a montage of “great players” was being shown that if they were going into the 1950s shouldn’t there be some pictures of the black players as well, the subject does turn to that.

It didn’t erase the years of injustice, but only reminded us of what we missed…

The era of the color barrier being broken down is depicted nicely and without becoming too preachy.

I really enjoyed this rough footage over some of the more polished films. The films have been restored and look nice and crisp with little to no interference. I didn’t realize color home movies had been around this long, either! It was a nice treat to see some of the game greats playing in color off of footage found in someone’s garage or attic. I heartily recommend When It Was A Game to all baseball fans, even cynics like me who think money has always been a huge part of it.

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