Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. - Babe Ruth in the outfield, taken from a newly discovered film taken by an amateur photographer.
Joe Porciello, right, a producer at MLB Network film archives and Frank Caputo, the video library manager, looking at archival baseball footage.
There's video in the story
October 9, 2009
Babe Ruth Like You’ve Never Seen Him Before
By JOHN BRANCH
SECAUCUS, N.J. — Babe Ruth has struck out looking. Displeased, he leans on his bat, right hand on his hip, and looks back at the umpire. He utters something that can only be imagined. Lou Gehrig, on deck, leans on his bat, too, as if he has seen this act before. Ruth finally shuffles away, head turned to the umpire, dragging his bat through the dirt.
The scene, along with eight seconds of footage of Ruth playing the outfield, was found by a New Hampshire man in his grandfather’s home movie collection. It provides a rare look at Ruth, a showman even in defeat.
No American sport has a past as deep and cherished as baseball’s. But precious little of the sport’s history is preserved in moving images. Much occurred before the television age, leaving only grainy, scattershot clips culled from newsreels and home movies — and rarely do the clips show a player of Ruth’s stature.
The newly arrived Ruth film is part of the video collection of Major League Baseball Productions, the league’s official archivist, which spans more than 100 years and includes about 150,000 hours of moving images. Most of the collection is stored in plastic cases that line metal shelves of a room labeled “Major League Baseball Film and Video Archive.” The overflow is stored a few miles away in Fort Lee.
Pieces of the collection receive wide circulation during baseball’s postseason each fall. Fans will see clips sprinkled through this year’s television broadcasts, including highlights of the 1959 World Series (won by the Los Angeles Dodgers) and Dodgers Manager Joe Torre playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, his team’s first-round opponent. Older clips will be seen repeatedly on commercials from the likes of Pepsi and Budweiser, which are corporate sponsors.
The latest Babe Ruth film, unseen publicly until now, is part of a 90-second clip shot from the first-base stands at Yankee Stadium. There is no sound. But there are sweeping views of the park. And there is Ruth, obvious by his shape and waddle.
He is shown in right field, hands on his knees, glove on his right hand. To a casual fan, it appears unremarkable. But it represents the archive’s only game action of Ruth playing in the outfield — where he spent more than 2,200 games — other than a between-innings game of catch.
Nick Trotta, baseball’s manager of library licensing, took a look at the newly arrived Ruth clip first. He realized it was something he had not seen before. When others saw it, it was “wow, wow, wow,” Mr. Trotta said.
The trick with the Ruth clip was to decipher when the film was shot and who else appears in it. That is where Major League Baseball’s video library turns into “CSI: Secaucus.” The archivists Joe Porciello and Frank Caputo — Yankees fans from Queens and Brooklyn — have starring roles.
Mr. Porciello, 47, began his baseball archivist career as a teenager 29 years ago. His main role is to fill the steady requests for clips, often for movies, television shows and commercials. (Varying fees are charged for such commercial requests.) Networks covering baseball often make last-minute requests — none more than MLB Network, which broadcasts from just down the hall.
Ask Mr. Porciello for a clip — say, of the Chicago White Sox wearing shorts for one game in 1976 — and he will have Chet Lemon, in shorts, on his screen moments later.
But to learn the names of every other player in the clip, ask Mr. Caputo.
“I probably know better how to find things,” Mr. Porciello said. “And he’s better at knowing what it is. He’s more the Rain Man.”
Mr. Caputo, 54, was a Wall Street credit analyst who hated his job but loved history. In 1995 he answered a call for a sports librarian, and got the job.
Now he mostly scrolls through forgotten film, perhaps found by a team in a ballpark closet somewhere or discovered by Mr. Caputo himself as he scrounges through the Fort Lee facility.
A 1970s-era regular-season game between the Cubs and the Giants was plopped into the machine to demonstrate how the video detectives work. Within 30 seconds they determined the game took place in 1975. The feat was even more amazing because the material was viewed on fast forward, a blur on the screen.
“Wait!” Mr. Caputo said. “That blond kid might be Nick Swisher’s father.”
Sure enough, in the dugout was Steve Swisher, then a 23-year-old catcher on his way to journeyman status. Five years later, in 1980, he became the father of Nick Swisher, now a member of the Yankees.
“We’ll use this for the playoffs,” Mr. Porciello said, making a mental note to pass it on to television producers.
It was not until 1998, when Major League Baseball took over the archives from a long string of licensees, that every pitch of every game was archived. Now, the collection grows annually by about 10,000 hours.
By comparison, all the well-worn images of Ruth — hitting home runs, trotting bases, mugging for cameras — fit onto an hourlong tape.
The latest Ruth clip requires further examination to understand more about that particular game. Mr. Porciello, Mr. Caputo and others have not investigated fully, but they believe, as does the film’s donor, that it was shot in 1928.
The players have no numbers on their backs; the Yankees began wearing them in 1929. (Most other teams started in 1932.) Gehrig took over as a starter (famously, from Wally Pipp) in 1925. Advertisements in the outfield, including on the fence, match photographs from 1928.
The seats are full and the shadows long, so archivists think it might be opening day or the World Series. The opposing team is not clear, so uniform designs will be studied and various team rosters will be examined for heights and weights of players at particular positions. Archivists sometimes will compare body language to other clips of the era.
To learn the game’s exact date, archivists will look at newspaper accounts, weather reports and box scores to see when Ruth struck out. They know that Ruth struck out in Games 1 and 2 of the 1928 World Series, both at Yankee Stadium, against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Whatever the final analysis, it eliminates another clip from the lengthy wish list of Mr. Porciello and Mr. Caputo.
“But we still have no footage of Babe pitching for the Red Sox,” Mr. Porciello said, referring to Ruth’s early years as an accomplished pitcher.
Mr. Caputo turned around. An argument ensued. Trips were made to the shelves. Black-and-white images whizzed by on monitors.
In the end, Mr. Porciello was right; Mr. Caputo was thinking of a clip showing Ruth pitching for a barnstorming team.
There is no film of Ruth pitching in a game for the Red Sox. Or, other than for some warm-up pitches, for the Yankees, either.
Not yet, at least.