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When It Was a Game: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray Review)

13 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sports Documentary
$29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Just before I began my fresh look at an essential and now combined baseball trio whose new list price and even cheaper Amazon tab amount to acts of generosity, the Minnesota Twins’ gentleman superstar and all-around good guy Harmon Killebrew passed away. And not long after that, a YouTube posting excerpted a subsequent Target Field memorial service held for Killebrew’s family and friends — one that featured an on-field performance by 75-year-old former Twins (and before that, beloved Indians) pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant. With guitar backing by Ric Oliva (Tony’s son), the Mudcat performed a better than imaginable cover of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.

Judged purely as “making grown men cry” material, it had the about the same potency as this set, which is saying something. Because after 20 years (the first Game show aired in 1991), we have never quite re-seen the likes of this HBO series, which was culled from 8mm and 16mm (mostly) color home movies — with a little aspect ratio tinkering to render them as widescreen presentations. Originally aired over a decade as three separate hour-long documentaries, the shows are packed with shots of Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, the Polo Grounds plus players from the same bygone eras those bygone stadiums represent. We see the St. Louis Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang goofing around and a sidelines warm-up by Reds pitcher Ewell Blackwell with his distinctive sidearm motion — also Hank Aaron at the plate getting the most out of his patented wrist snap and Willie Mays making an easygoing basket catch. It’s like seeing walking bubble gum cards — and in color, real color, not fake the computerized kind that has fewer genuine flesh tones than your average android. Early in Game 1, there’s a fleeting dugout shot of … can it be? … yes, Lou Gehrig in color. (Even The Pride of the Yankees is in black-and-white.) And speaking of Hollywood movies, there’s even a shot here of the real Monty Stratton — the White Sox pitcher James Stewart played in The Stratton Story, the one who lost a leg in a hunting accident but still tried to pitch.

Much more than say, a “making of Avatar,” it would be great to see a book on how this project was assembled. The footage obviously had to be collated from all kinds of collections, many obviously belonging to the families of players themselves. Then a script had to be assembled to fit — first cohesively, and then artfully — around mere “snippets.” Some of the narration would have to be fresh material, some would be delivered by familiar voices (Jason Robards, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Costner) reading from published baseball literature, and some would be from recorded interviews of past players talking about something specific — as, say, when player/announcer Joe Garagiola recalls not just what a privilege it was to be a major leaguer but one who played in his own hometown (for the St. Louis Cardinals). You want more? Billy Crystal trots out his always funny imitation of Mickey Mantle’s Oklahoma drawl, and Bob Costas makes the credible case that for every baseball card that got manufactured of a superstar, Topps must have issued a dozen for Jerry Lumpe or (that great friend of crossword puzzles everywhere) Eli Grba.

In those days, the salary differential between players and writers wasn’t that much, so there was more civil discourse between the two. In Brooklyn especially, players often lived in the same neighborhood as the stadium and sometimes even took the subway (scenes we’d like to see today: Alex Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz — or before that, Madonna — chumming with rabble on the No. 4 train to Yankee Stadium). There’s even a shot here of a Brooklyn Dodger or two at a bus stop. Even so, you often get the sense you’re looking at royalty, be it Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson or Roberto Clemente.

U.S. presidents make their expected appearances in the stands (we even get Mantle with Bobby Kennedy), and it’s surprising but hardly flooring to see a couple field shots of Chuck (The Rifleman) Connors because a lot of movie/TV fans remember that he was a player before he became an actor. But what are we to make of Babe Ruth (in twilight) sitting in someone’s modest-looking backyard as hung-out laundry flaps in back of him? Or the sight of a youthful, almost handsome Tommy Lasorda? Or Joe DiMaggio in street clothes behind the wheel of a car? Or if you want to live more dangerously, Joe Pepitone behind the wheel of a car?

You can watch these films over and over and spot something new, but perhaps their greatest beauty is that occasional shot you’ll never forget. For me, it’s a bare-chested Billy Martin tossing a beach ball at someone’s pool party (better not tell him you’re amused by this, though). The other one is an in-the-stands shot of Roy Rogers sitting next to Gabby Hayes, both in sartorial splendor. I’m pretty sure it’s from a World Series — though it would be even more surreal were it a Boston Braves-Phillies game with 852 people in the stands, counting the concession guys.

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