StoryThe HBO documentary When It Was a Game (slightly shortened on DVD from the two-part VHS release) is based on a highly original idea: tell the story of baseball from the Great Depression era through the late 1950s using footage from home-movie cameras shot by fans and players. The result is a marvelous retelling of baseball in America as seen from the ground--the culture of stadiums, the ritual of afternoon games, the spiritually sustaining rivalries. Somewhat enthralled by the images at its disposal, the film has a way of almost stepping back from itself, waxing poetic at a sighting of the St. Louis Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang," or a glimpse of Bogart and Bacall in the stands, or the legendary contests between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Among the truly unexpected sights is color footage of the 1938 World Series (Cubs versus Yanks), not only from inside the stadium walls but from the street as traffic cops, crowds, and vehicles amassed. Of course, there are the heroes, too, often caught in relaxed, unselfconscious moments through the lens of a teammate or a true believer in the bleachers. A great experience all around.
Arguably more defined and even more lyrical than its predecessor, the second installment of When It Was a Game moves from a general celebration of baseball culture in America to a specific focus on various facets of the game's history. Once again using footage compiled from the 8mm and 16mm collections that players and fans shot over decades, this sequel follows, among other things, the special relationship between game announcers and fans and takes a fascinating trip through the story of the farm-team system during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s (particularly the near-alternate world of the Coast League). The working-class commonality of players and fans is examined, too. Imagine taking the subway home from Ebbets Field and finding yourself looking back on the day's game with a Dodger outfielder. (It could, and often did, happen.) Brooklyn's assimilation of the Dodgers into their community identity, a story often told, is covered quite winningly here, as is the heartbreak of the team's desertion to sunny California. Closing in on its final minutes, the film takes us on a tour of some of the game's legends and presents a touching tribute to the extraordinary Babe Ruth. --Tom Keogh
|When It Was a Game|