When it was a Game: The Good Ol’ Days

Do you remember the good ol’ days? Back when a family was a family, and a man could smack his wife if she defied him; back when lynchings were in style and young girls were dying in back alley abortions… back when we had morals and standards (insert incredibly sarcastic eye roll here).

I don’t mean to make light of these tragedies; it’s just that these thoughts flow through my head whenever anyone talks about how good things used to be. I wonder, “When? When was this glorious time that was so much better for people?” I can understand that a certain subset of the population was better off, but that was at the expense of numerous powerless and disadvantaged people. I recall Jon Stewart’s interview with Bernard Goldberg, who expounded on the decline of modern culture, claiming that 50 years ago, the drunk in the bar wouldn’t have dared to say “fuck” in public. Stewart’s glorious reply: “Well Thomas Jefferson used to fuck slaves. I think things have improved.”

I had a similar feeling while watching When It Was a Game (1991), an HBO documentary chronicling baseball for the years 1934-1957 using strictly film taken by fans and the players. I should point out that I am an voracious baseball fan. I learned the game 4 years ago, and have become more enthralled and in love with it with each season. In fact, we were thrilled when this DVD arrived, as playoffs had just finished and my hostage and I were in need of a baseball fix. I just don’t think this was it.

I understand the nostalgia for the time. A time before free agency, which, while a marked improvement for players and necessary in a lot of ways, ran out of control (in my opinion). The steroid scandal had just broken, leaving many fans disillusioned with players and the game. Baseball was in trouble. I completely sympathize with the need to see the game as we once imagined it was: this pure, honourable sport filled with heroes, playing for the love of baseball and relishing every moment. I just don’t understand how a film can portray this particular time period of baseball as the ideal, since it requires that one ignore the treatment of African-American players and the Negro league. Which is exactly what happens in When It Was a Game. I did not expect the film to dwell on it or make the discrimination of black players the central focus, but I did expect more than an off-the-cuff remark about how Jackie Robinson overcame great odds and won the people over.

Perhaps this omission was highlighted even more so by two other baseball related documentaries I’ve watched recently. The first is Babe Ruth (1998), another HBO offering, and similarly neutered. I greatly respect Babe Ruth as a baseball player, and believe he was a genuinely kind person, but I also know that his behaviour wasn’t always kind. While Babe Ruth somewhat acknowledges his transgressions, it’s much in the same way a grandparent will criticize his/her grandsons; very affectionately, with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Such whitewashing is in direct contrast to what is found in Ken Burns’ Baseball: A Film in 9 Innings. Beyond the fact that Burns provides us with 18+ hours of baseball history, stories, footage, and commentary, he does not shy from the faults and injustices people involved with the game have perpetrated over the years. He spends considerable time on the exclusion of black players from the major leagues, yet he does not allow it to diminish his adoration of the game; it is merely a historical fact that must be acknowledged in order to truly comprehend where baseball came from and where it is going. Ignoring it reminds me of funerals – how no one seems comfortable in recognizing the deceased person’s flaws. I know many people would think, “well they’re dead, why dwell on the negative?” To me, it has always seemed that to only speak of the good is not to respect and honour the person as who they were, but who we wanted them to be. It’s disingenuous. We love people, flaws and all, while they are with us; why do they not deserve the same respect in death?

And ultimately, that’s how I felt coming out of When It Was a Game. It felt as though the filmmakers were ashamed themselves of how baseball has treated people in the past, and wanted it to be better than it was. And that comes across as disingenuous to me, especially in a film intent on portraying this as a golden age of baseball.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of good film and wonderful quotes in the documentary. The home movie footage is extraordinary, giving you a more personal view of the players, and allowing you to see a side most people would never get a chance to observe. Where else can you witness legendary players in action? Pepper Martin juggling baseballs? The Gashouse Gang’s “colourful” antics in general? It is great fun to catch a glimpse of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the stands. And there are fantastic bits of trivia; for example, all the players used to leave their gloves on the field when taking their turn at bat. In general, the film is incredibly well done and vastly interesting for any baseball fan. I suppose my negative reaction is in part to the potential I think When It Was a Game had to be a truly remarkable piece of baseball filmmaking, had it not erased a significant and important part of that era.

Mostly, it just whet my appetite to rewatch Baseball. I think I’ll do that.


p.s. I recognize that the 18+ hours of Burns’ work permits greater exploration of this issue, but even if we were to break it down to the percentage of each devoted to the discrimination, Burns greatly outweighs HBO’s attention to the matter.

~ by K. Harker on November 22, 2010.

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