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In the Cinematic Shadows

By Rob Neyer, May 14, 2015

I’ve been following this site’s “My Dream Game” series with great interest, because it’s a question I’ve long considered: “If I could hop in a time machine and see a baseball game, any game at all, which one would I see?”

My colleagues here have come up with some outstanding candidates; in fact, some of their choices have been on my list over the years. Ultimately, though, I’m looking for something I can’t otherwise see, or imagine, really, in any great detail.

I don’t mean to question the passion of someone who has chosen a Yankees game in 1947 or a Dodgers game in 1956 or Bill Mazeroski’s home run in 1960; I would love to see those games too!

For a long time, though, I wanted to use my time machine to solve mysteries. With a time machine, I could find out if that baseball Johnny Evers used to force out Fred Merkle at second base was really the game ball; if not, the Giants wuz robbed! With a time machine, I could decide for myself if the Babe called his shot. With a time machine, I could find out who really ended up with Bobby Thomson’s home run.

The list of mysteries for a time-traveling baseball detective—and yes, this is a great idea for a television miniseries, and you can have it—is a long one, and I would love to solve all of them.

Just one game, though? I’ll eschew the singular mysteries, and I’m also going to avoid games for which we have voluminous, easily accessible newspaper accounts and even, in some cases, plenty of film.

No, instead I’m going to choose a game of great interest but was, nevertheless, just casually documented at the time, and probably not filmed at all.

Which means, for me, black baseball.

All those incredibly talented pre-Integration players, and what do we have? Some of the great black players of the early 1920s appeared in a 1921 film starring boxer Jack Johnson, but alas, no print of that movie has been seen in a long, long time.

On YouTube—and at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City—you can see the Indianapolis Clowns’ Goose Tatum . . . well, clowning around for eight minutes at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in 1946. This relatively long clip tells us a great deal about Tatum’s comedic talents, and about the Reds’ old ballpark. It doesn’t tell us much at all about the great Negro League players of the time, like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

Actually, we have pretty good ideas about Satchel, because of course he pitched in the 1948 World Series—not to mention all the vivid eyewitness accounts that have since been committed to paper.

Gibson, though?

Watching “Shadow Ball,” the fifth part of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, we see wonderful clips of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig taking their cuts, and of course there’s film, easily found today, of Major League Baseball’s World Series games going back to the 1930s, largely made for newsreels that were later shown all over America in movie theaters.

Of the Negro Leagues though? Burns shows just a few brief, unidentified clips in “Shadow Ball.” The episode includes a lovely segment about Satchel Paige, but we see him throwing only one pitch, and it’s not at all clear that he’s pitching in an actual game. Photos? Yes. Wonderful memories from Satch’s teammates? Yes. But we have very little of Paige actually pitching during his prime.

Later, another segment covers Josh Gibson. There are quotes, photographs, a biographical sketch, legends, memories, but not a single scrap of moving pictures.

Josh Gibson
Original artwork by Jim Burke

Of course, the same goes for Paige’s and Gibson’s Negro League compatriots, who all played in the cinematic shadows as well.

All those old baseball mysteries that I previously mentioned are endlessly fascinating, but nearly all of them dropped piles of breadcrumbs over the years, allowing us to reach some reasonable conclusions. So while I’d love to see the Babe’s Called Shot, or if Joe Jackson was really trying his hardest in left field during the 1919 World Series, given a time machine I would set my sights even higher.

Given the chance, I would travel back to August 26, 1934. On the South Side of Chicago, Comiskey Park hosted the second East-West Game, reportedly featuring the best black ballplayers in America. In practice, this was largely a contest between the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Chicago American Giants, with a few players from other teams sprinkled among both rosters.

The 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Credit: Robert Edward Auctions, Photo by James VanDerZee

Fortunately, this hardly resulted in a shortage of talent. The Crawfords were beginning a three-season run as arguably the greatest team in Negro Leagues history, featuring future Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Gibson, and . . . yes, Satchel Paige. Meanwhile, the Giants included Willie Wells, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Foster, and slugger Mule Suttles, all four of them eventually enshrined in Cooperstown too. Oh, and let’s not forget Philadelphia Stars third baseman Jud Wilson, another Hall of Famer, who started for the East.

The 1934 Chicago American Giants featured stars Willie Foster and Mule Suttles.

Despite all the great hitters in the 1934 East-West Game, though, this would be . . . well, here’s William G. Nunn in the Pittsburgh Courier:

Close your eyes if you can for a moment. Comiskey Park, situated on the Southside is a natural amphitheater. The double-decked grandstand extends to the far reaches of right-center and left-center field. Only in deep center are bleacher seats.

Sunday was one of those perfect baseball days. Not a cloud in the sky to mar the perfect azure-blue of the heavens. The greensward of Comiskey Park, with the basepaths, the infielder’s territory and the pitcher’s mound bared, made of the playing field a thing of beauty.

And the lower tier, as far as the eye could reach in all directions, packed with thousands and thousands of people, who came to see the game. The official attendances was 20,882. Figures from the gate, however, informed us that more than 25,000 fans were on hand to witness the game. Of that number, more than 4,000 were white. And this was the setting.

And what a game all those fans saw.

In the fourth inning, Crawfords right fielder Jimmie Crutchfield “threw a perfect strike across home plate” to retire Suttles before he could score the contest’s first run. In the fifth, Gibson fumbled a pitch behind the plate but recovered in time to throw out “Nashville speed demon” Sam Bankhead at second base. “No one but Gibson,” Nunn wrote, “could have thrown Bankhead out.”

But this East-West Game didn’t become legend until the bottom of the sixth inning. After Willie Wells led off with a double, East manager (and shortstop) Dick Lundy summoned Satchel Paige from the bullpen. Again, Nunn: “In the last four innings, Paige struck out five men as his blinding fast ball cut the center of the plate, flirted with the corners and set the fans in a frenzy. No ‘playing’ Satchel was out there today. There was a prayer behind every pill as it burned through the ozone. . . .”

The score was still 0–0 in the eighth when Cool Papa Bell led off with a walk. Moments later, the legendary speedster stole second base, and he scored on a looping two-out single by Jud Wilson.

Meanwhile, Paige was untouchable, going the rest of the way to preserve the East’s 1–0 victory.

As far as I can tell, all that remains of 1934’s East-West Game are the newspaper accounts and the recorded memories of the players who were there. A few photographs, probably. But we simply have very little documentary evidence of Paige in his prime, pitching. Or Gibson in his prime, throwing. Or Bell in his prime, running. I would give three fingers for a wormhole back to that game, and three more for the writing talent to describe all those tremendous players for a twenty-first-century audience.

 

 

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