[An ad for Ty Cobb’s 1917 acting debut | Photo found at Our Game]
My girlfriend and I were struck this weekend to find a 1920 silent film that Babe Ruth starred in, Headin’ Home available on Netflix streaming. While we only got through a few minutes of the film, which played like a collection of stock footage and is of interest mainly for having a young, pinstriped Ruth in it, my girlfriend encouraged me afterward to look at other times ballplayers have starred in movies. It’s somewhat of a bygone tradition in baseball.
Baseball players still have cameos or make minor appearances in movies these days, with Wally Joyner making something of a name for himself in Mormon films. Near as I can tell, though, it’s been awhile since a baseball player starred in a film. It’s not like the era of Babe Ruth starring in four films including 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees.” Here are seven other notable players who received star billing in a movie:
Christy Mathewson in “Matty’s Decision,” 1915: Christy Mathewson was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career when he appeared in this film, intended to be the first of several for him with Universal. Save for an appearance in a 1917 baseball documentary, this was it for Mathewson as an actor. The plot, a full synopsis of which can be found here, revolves around Mathewson and his friend Eddie falling for the same woman and her father deciding that whoever triumphs in a pitching game can marry her. Though Mathewson loses, Eddie sees how distraught he is afterward and sends Matty a note saying he can have the girl.
Mike Donlin in “Right Off the Bat,” 1915: I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Mike Donlin, who hit .333 lifetime and might be in the Hall of Fame had he not retired to pursue a vaudeville career with his wife Mabel Hite. He returned to baseball, was never the same player and returned to acting thereafter. Donlin’s IMDB page lists 66 acting credits in films starring the likes of John Barrymore, Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery, though it’s mostly bit roles. One of Donlin’s few starring appearances came in this five-reel comedy, which I learned of through a much longer look at old-time ballplayer actors at John Thorn’s site.
Ty Cobb in “Somewhere in Georgia,” 1917: Ty Cobb had a unique screen career, even receiving writing credits for, get this, a few 1950s television programs including “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” Prior to this, Cobb acted. The New-York Tribune praised his starring turn in the 1917 short “Somewhere in Georgia,” though it may be worth noting that its sports editor Grantland Rice wrote the film. The Tribune gushed:
Ty Cobb and Grantland Rice [debuted] on the screen yesterday via the Sunbeam Motion Picture Company. Grantland Rice furnished the story ‘Somewhere in Georgia,’ which is described as ‘a thrilling drama of love and baseball in six innings.’ It is all of that, and as an actor Ty Cobb is a huge success. In fact, he is so good that he shows all the others up.
Others had nice things to say about Cobb’s acting, though, including the Altoona [New York] Tribune and, as noted at Thorn’s site, Variety Magazine. The latter noted, ““Inasmuch as …Cobb is considered about the greatest ballplayer in the world, it goes without saying that [the film] is going to make a ten-strike with Young America.”
Lou Gehrig in “Rawhide,” 1938: I rarely use pictures on this website, as I’m reluctant to violate copyright laws. I hope my use of the picture at right qualifies as Fair Use. There’s simply no other way to capture the awesomeness of Lou Gehrig’s sole film appearance. Currently available on Netflix streaming, it seems like a must-watch for anyone into kitsch. The premise: Gehrig is “a former baseball champion who retires to a ranch where he helps break up a destructive racket in stock feed prices.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” 1950: Like every player here, more or less, Robinson played himself in his big screen debut. It only makes sense. Robinson was one of a kind, one of the more outspoken individuals in baseball history. While Chadwick Boseman was reasonably passable playing Robinson in the reasonably passable “42” in 2013, there was no replacing the original. That said, one IMDB reviewer noted that Robinson’s costar in his 1950 film debut, the recently-deceased Ruby Dee said Robinson felt out of place in it.
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in “Safe at Home!” 1962: There are many reasons ballplayers don’t star in as many movies today. The main one, I’m guessing: They don’t need the money. Roger Maris is a case in point. In the days before free agency and other factors sent salaries skyrocketing, Maris wasn’t financially set by his historic 1961 season. He and his brother wound up running a beer distribution business after he retired.
Maris resigned with the Yankees in February 1962 for $72,000, about $568,000 in today’s dollars. Around this time, newspapers announced that Maris and Mantle would be filming “Safe at Home!” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, their spring training headquarters at the time. The black-and-white, 84-minute quickie film came out less than two months later. My girlfriend owns a DVD copy and the few minutes we watched were strictly kid fare, save for a wry supporting turn by “I Love Lucy” co-star William Frawley. Maris and Mantle fared better a couple months later with their cameos in the Doris Day and Cary Grant classic, “That Touch of Mink.”