HBO celebrates baseball before television


There is a moment in "When It Was a Game," HBO's elegiac tribute to baseball, that might capture what is is that is so special about the DiMaggios, Williamses, Ruths and Gehrigs, those galloping white-flanneled steeds who always seem to run faster, swing harder, field smoother and play tougher than the pampered millionaires who take the field every spring these days.

It's during a section about the old ballparks. One of the commentators mentions that in the era covered in this documentary -- roughly the mid-'30s to 1950 -- the only way you could see a game was to go to one of these stadiums. There was no television.

Not only did that mean that the fans conjured up their own images when they heard games on radio or read about them in the newspapers -- and players always run faster and play tougher in such dreams -- but it also meant that on those special occasions when a game was actually seen in person, the players strode that immutable diamond like the giants -- and Braves and Yankees -- that they were.

Never was a player turned into a two-inch high figure who went about his business on a screen in the corner of your living room while you got up to answer the phone or fix a sandwich. Never did he compete for your attention with reruns of "Laverne & Shirley" or "M*A*S*H."

No, at their smallest, the ballplayers arrived full-size. And when you saw them, it was in an appropriate setting, not an anonymous, all-purpose, artificial-turfed television studio, but in a unique cathedral dedicated to worship of the home team.

The irony, of course, is that this insight will come to you watching on television, that is if you happen to subscribe to the HBO premium cable service, which premieres "When It Was a Game" tonight at 10 o'clock, on the eve of the All-Star Game.

This hour is a magnificent compilation of original film footage, taken in 8 and 16 millimeter. Some of it seems to be from newsreels, other from team publicity films and much of it home movies.

A great deal of the footage is in color, some of it very early examples of that technology. The shots of the 1938 World Series between the Chicago Cubs -- you know it's got to be old if the Cubs are in the Series -- and the New York Yankees is thought to be the earliest color film of baseball.

Though you learn a great deal about certain teams, like St. Louis' famous Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the early '30s and the Yankees of later in that decade, this isn't a straightforward, linear documentary about this period.

It is instead a dreamlike tribute to an era when baseball was just a game, and at the same time was so much, much more. It was just a game because it had yet to develop its corporate style as an entertainment conglomerate, but because of that, because it was not reduced to balance sheets and box office, it held a much tighter grip on the soul of the country, at least of its men.

Make that its white men. Because, as the documentary does point out, for most of this era, baseball was still a segregated sport. America was a different place after World War II, and baseball was a different place after 1947 when Jackie Robinson became its first black player. You see some early footage of his brilliance.

In addition to people like poet Donald Hall and writer Robert Creamer, and to quotes from people ranging from sportswriter Tom Boswell to intellectual Jacques Barzun read by the likes of James Earl Jones and Jason Robards, "When It Was a Game" features interviews with some of the survivors of this era -- such as Enos Slaughter and Duke Snider.

There are segments on gimmicks used to draw fans during the war years, the long relationship between baseball and comedy, and brief tributes to a dead tradition -- players leaving their gloves on the field -- and a dying one -- the brushback pitch.

The only major quibble with the hour is its inconsistent use of graphics. For much of the program, you are left to your own devices to figure out if the person being discussed is the player you are seeing on the screen. Now and then an identifying caption appears, but not often enough.

The captions are used during the segment on the stadiums. It doesn't take long to visit them all because this was when baseball had only 16 teams and a western road trip meant a train ride to Chicago and St. Louis. You see Fenway back when the Green Monster was the home of colorful billboards and Wrigley Field before the bleachers were built and the ivy was planted.

And you also run down the list of the parks that are no longer there -- Crosley, Sportsman's, Braves, Griffith, Ebbets, the Polo Grounds and, now, Comisky.

"When It Was a Game" glows like a photograph in a scrapbook. The color seems a little unreal, the memory can't always place the name with the face, the place with the date. But it knows with certainty that between the first and third base lines, magic happened every summer.

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