Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Vintage baseball through the eyes of 2 major-leaguers
Posted Dec 10, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:21 PM
In terms of production values, George Case Jr. and Mickey Vernon will never be confused with Ken Burns, who created “Baseball,” the Emmy Award winning documentary in 1994. But while Burns sifted through archival films to produce his 18 ½-hour epic, Case and Vernon were there. On the field, mingling with their fellow major-leaguers, capturing them on color film in candid, relaxed moments.
“Ballfield to Battlefield and Back, from JFK to FDR,” is a 63-minute journey back in time. It’s two movies meshed into one and narrated by the men who filmed them, Case and Vernon, teammates on the Washington Senators. Both men were avid home movie fans and later had the foresight to narrate their films and identify the 70-plus major-leaguers featured — many of whom served during World War II.
“My dad would come home after the season and show these films, and I’d say, ‘Aw, do we have to watch that again?’ ” said Case’s son, George Case III. “But as I got older I realized it was pretty priceless stuff.”
Fans of vintage baseball will find it valuable, too. The “Ballfield to Battlefield” DVD showcases an array of baseball players from 1939 to 1962 and features more than 40 Hall of Famers. It’s available for $29.95 and can be ordered online at www.timelessbaseball.com and also through the Mickey Vernon Sports History Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa.
Case Jr. and Vernon revealed a side of baseball players rarely captured on video. Because the films were being taken by fellow major-leaguers, players were more likely to let down their guard and relax. That’s why Ted Williams’ broad smile looks so genuine; he’s totally at ease as players take batting practice and clown around in the dugout. So are the other players, coaches and managers featured in the film.
“They were players. They were friends,” said Case III, 72, who worked in the athletic footwear business before retiring. “They were ballplayers who knew Dad and were personal friends.”
The elder Case and Vernon were roommates with the Senators, and Case III knew the two-time American League batting champion as “Uncle Mickey.”
“My family and his family were friends for 50 years,” Case III said. “When my dad and Mickey would talk baseball, I’d hear it more from a family perspective. It was not like I was a fan listening, I was family.”
A little history. George Case Jr. played in the majors from 1937 to 1947, mostly as an outfielder with the Senators (he played for Cleveland in 1946). He led the AL in stolen bases (including five straight years, 1939 to 1943, when he also led the majors in that category). In a promotional stunt that only Indians owner Bill Veeck could have invented, Case raced Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in a 100-yard dash in 1946. Owens won by less than a tenth of a second.
Vernon had a 20-year career, spending nearly 15 of them in Washington. He won a pair of AL batting titles, and the first baseman had 2,495 career hits.
As Case Jr. grew older, his son urged him to put narration on his films. “I said you should really identify who these players are,” Case III said. “Apparently that struck home.”
So before his death in 1989, Case Jr. took a tape recorder and recorded his impressions of the scenes and named the players in his films. His son then verified the players’ identities. Vernon would do the same before his death in 2008.
There is nothing slick about these home movies. It’s a hodgepodge of players, venues, batting practice and some game action. But it’s an endearing collection. There are plenty of Florida spring training scenes, including the Senators training at Orlando’s Tinker Field and getting ready for a game in Lakeland. There are wide-angle scenes of 1940s cars navigating the hard sand near the Daytona Beach shoreline, and color scenes of stadiums like Griffith Stadium (Washington), Briggs Stadium (Detroit), Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Crosley Field (Cincinnati).
Players caught on film include the aging Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, and the youthful Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio. Yogi Berra is shown taking batting practice during his rookie year of 1947, wearing a No. 35 uniform that looks so foreign to those baseball fans who remember his iconic No. 8. The smooth swings of Williams and DiMaggio are shown during batting practice, along with Musial’s “peek-a-boo” stance. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy are shown in Washington, throwing out the ceremonial first ball on Opening Day.
Children and even grandchildren of these players have been interested in the DVD, Case III said. He notes that the son of Hank Greenberg, the daughters of Lefty Gomez and Rick Farrell and the grandson of Babe Dahlgren have purchased copies and “absolutely loved it.”
“Of lot of them hadn’t seen their fathers or grandfathers at that stage of their lives,” he said. “I mean, my children knew my father as an older man.”
Case Jr. and Vernon both add clarity (and some humor) to the film with their comments. There’s a classic line from Case Jr. about Pete Fox, a player who “gripped a bat so tight that when you shook hands with him, you shook hands with a callus.” Vernon, meanwhile, observes that Pirates Hall of Famer (and then-coach) Honus Wagner would have difficulty catching a pig in an alley, an obvious reference to the Flying Dutchman’s bowlegs.
Ironically, while the DVD honors players who served in the military, Case Jr. never saw active duty during World War II. He was classified 4-F due to a shoulder separation.
“It bothered him,” Case III said. “He went to the draft board every year during the war, and every year he was classified 4-F.”
That enabled Case Jr. to play baseball (Vernon missed the 1944-45 seasons due to military service), but he also worked a defense industry job, helping build bombers for an aircraft company in his hometown of Trenton, N.J.
The elder Case’s highest annual salary was $15,000 during his playing days (“he made a very good living). Most players were forced to take jobs during the offseason — even offbeat ones, like Vernon playing a department store Santa Claus in his hometown of Media, Pa.
Case III tells a Vernon anecdote about the former third baseman and Tim Murtaugh, the son of the Pirates’ manager, Danny.
“They worked at a clothing store in the offseason and some guy came in to get measured for a suit,” Case III said. “Neither one of them knew how to do that, so they had the guy lie down on the floor. They took some chalk and drew around him.
“The store owner came over and was not happy.”
It was definitely a simpler time.
Case III concedes that “Ballfield to Battlefield and Back” is not an all-encompassing look at baseball history. But he does believe that Case Jr. and Vernon’s efforts offer a genuine peek into an often overlooked era.
“Neither were photographers. My dad didn’t just film baseball, his hobby was duck hunting,” he said. “But it was rare to see places like Fenway Park in color back then.
“My biggest reward out of this is having the record of that time and presenting it as a way to look back.”