Caught on Film

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Craig Muder

In 1915, watching baseball footage in a movie theater would not have been a novelty in the United States.

But for theater-goers in any other country around the globe in 1915, baseball at the movies would be virtually unknown.

Maybe that’s why some Dutch newsreel footage – recently discovered through pure chance – features, among other images, a baseball game between Canadian soldiers and Americans living in London played at the historic home of cricket: Lord’s Cricket Ground in England.

It is believed to be some of the earliest known footage of baseball being played on foreign soil.

Screenshot of some of the earliest known footage of baseball being played on foreign soil. (Europeana 1914-1918)

“We are currently researching if there still exists earlier movies of baseball games played overseas,” said Tom Shieber, Senior Curator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, who dates the footage as being played on Sept. 11, 1915, at Lord’s. “But what we can state for certain about this footage is that it was definitely shot at Lord’s and it’s definitely baseball.”

Newspaper accounts of the game, including one in the Winnipeg Free Press dated Sept. 13, 1915, confirm that the game was a benefit played for widows and orphans during World War I. With the aid of Neil Robinson, Library and Research Manager at London’s Marylebone Cricket Club, Shieber was able to place the game at Lord’s thanks to a distinctive shadow on the field cast by the famous Lord’s Pavilion, built in 1889 and 1890 and still standing.

“The game was the first baseball game played at Lord’s since Hall of Famer Albert Spalding’s famous World Tour that took place over a quarter of a century earlier,” Shieber said. “Back on March 13, 1889, two teams of major league ballplayers faced each other at the historic cricket grounds with some 7,000 curious spectators in attendance. Future Hall of Famers such as Ned Hanlon, Cap Anson, and Johnny Ward played in that game!”

None of Shieber’s conclusions about the 1915 footage, however, would have been possible if the film itself had not been found.

Located on the history website Europeana 1914-1918, the footage was unearthed recently by a University of Illinois-Chicago graduate student doing work on Chicago-related World War I propaganda. The student, Jeff Nichols, told the Chicago Tribune that he stumbled upon the soundless footage (with Dutch subtitles) of the salvage efforts of the SS Eastland, a passenger ship that capsized while docked in the Chicago River in 1915, killing 844 passengers and crew in what remains the largest loss of life via a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

As the clip made its way through the social media universe, Hall of Fame staff members were alerted to the baseball footage within.

“In 1915, film newsreels were the only source of moving image news, so clips were often featured prior to feature films,” Shieber said. “There are many clips on this one newsreel, including shots of Dutch royalty reviewing troops and even a parade in front of City Hall in New York City that appears to be from July 4, 1912 – three years before the newsreel was shown.

“It’s a hodgepodge of clips from a number of different years. And it’s almost certain that the film was never shown in the United States ... that is, until it was made available on the Web.”

The footage was originally shot by a British news service, so Shieber was able to find more information about each of the separate news stories at a British film archive. This resource, combined with scouring contemporary newspapers, allowed Shieber to determine details of nearly every clip on the reel in its raw form. A Dutch company then likely licensed the footage for use in theaters in the Netherlands, adding their own title cards.

“Though a version of baseball called Honkbal had been introduced to the Netherlands just a few years earlier, most folks in Dutch theaters would have been quite bewildered by the footage. The title card that introduced the footage even referred to the game as a ‘new kind of cricket,’” Shieber said. “Now, it’s a time capsule of history – a moment from nearly 100 years ago – captured before baseball had become the international sport that it is today.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series