baseball movies

Movie Review: When It Was a Game 2 – Hank Aaron Didn’t Use Steroids

Long before the days of baseball superstars, many of the players were ordinary folk like you or me. Only instead of Dad heading off to work at the factory or the office every day, Dad headed off to the ballpark. I can remember being totally baffled when I learned that a member of the 1969 New York Mets World Championship team lived the next town over from me when I was growing up. In the age of the mega-salaries, it was something hard to comprehend.

In 1953 a player was typically paid $700 a month! That seems hard to believe. A letter is read from one player to his owner disputing this figure and asking for $850. In 1928, a player made $375 for the season and thought he was doing pretty good.

Like its predecessor When It Was A Game 2 goes a long way to understanding that difference. It consists of 8mm and 16mm home movie footage taken by baseball players and fans from 1925-1961. The footage is mostly before games or off the field entirely and shows them away from the image they projected and cutting loose. In other words, more human rather than the larger-than-life legends many of them have become.

When It Was A Game 2 also manages to clarify some facts about the game then versus now. A hot topic currently is the ability of some clubs to sign superstar free agents while other clubs can’t afford them. The problems of some clubs being wealthier than others existed “back then” as well. It’s long been romanticized that it was different “back then”, but it really wasn’t. One year the St. Louis Cardinals drew a measly 86,000 in attendance for the entire season.

The footage used in When It Was A Game 2 has been digitally restored. The interference has been cleaned up a lot, and the color seems a lot richer and more vibrant than I would expect it to be after all these years. Yet, the picture is still grainy and has the feel of home movies. It gets washed out in the sun, and faces get lost in the shadows. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is the second in a series of three documentaries under this title from HBO. Color footage of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Lefty Grove, and, of course, the Babe. It’s nice to see color footage of the Babe as well as a recording of him.

I liked seeing the old stadiums as well. Wow – they actually used to allow banners in Yankee Stadium before Steinbrenner took over. There’s more talk of the minor league system as well as spring training. Before Major League teams moved out west, players in the Pacific Coast League often had higher salaries. “Moving up” to the Majors meant taking a pay cut.

If there is a downside, it’s that much of the time is spent with a few teams of the era, since that’s where the superstars were. There is a lot of time spent on the Brooklyn Dodgers and how the rivalry with the Yankees came about. It doesn’t mean there isn’t good footage of the famous players from other teams, it just means that fans in other cities have to sit through a lot of footage from cities like New York and Boston.

The soundtrack is excellent as well. The music evokes days long past without distracting from the footage. It’s narrated by Peter Kessler with Ellen Burstyn, Billy Crystal, Joe Mantegna, Jack Palance, Jason Robards, and Roy Scheider. Many of the players still alive comment on what it was like to play back then as well.

When It Was A Game 2 is one of those baseball documentaries that only fans will appreciate. If you don’t “get” baseball, then you probably will be bored to tears. If you spend each winter counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report, you will be thrilled.

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