“There was a time in baseball when there were only eight teams in each major league. They played an orderly balanced schedule visiting each city four times. A trip out West meant St. Louis or Chicago. There was a comfortable rhythm to the season… That time is gone now.”
I might be from the last generation who understands exactly what that means. Some of the best memories of my life were of the lazy afternoons I spent with my grandfather at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia. Over the course of a decade or so we must have attended a hundred games. Mike Schmidt became my idol, outside of my grandfather, of course, who made it all possible. In those days players didn’t get into a ton of legal troubles. It would have shocked my young life to hear that one of my Philly players had been arrested for beating his wife or carrying a gun into a nightclub. Players didn’t argue about contracts, at least not publicly. It was the 1970’s, perhaps the end of that era when baseball really was a game. I treasure those memories. My grandfather is gone now, but he gave me something that will always be a part of who I am. And while this HBO series deals with the years before 1970, I can relate to those earlier generations who felt the same way about their sport and their heroes. Obviously, my grandfather was a part of those generations. And now HBO brings to high-definition Blu-ray a safe place to store those memories.
“It’s been said one reason baseball is so gripping to the American imagination is that certain eras inevitably evoke certain images. Perhaps none more so than the years from the end of the Depression through World War II and into the 1950’s. It was a time when baseball was the focal point of sports in our society, a time when baseball was still just a game.”
When It Was A Game is a three-part series that aired on HBO starting in 1991. The second entry came just a year later, with the third coming in 2000. The concept is a simple and quite clever idea. The footage is made up entirely of 8mm and 16mm home movies taken by fans and players. While there are a few action shots, this is less about the actual game and more about the people who played. Much of the footage shows the players in the dugout or relaxing with their teammates. You see them warming up or winding down. Depending on the episode, the footage ranges from 1925 through the 1960’s. All of the greats are included. You can count on seeing such legends as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and even Abbott and Costello taking in a real game. The stories are told through narration by Liev Schreiber on the third episode and Peter Kessler on the first two. There are also poems and such voiced by such celebrities as Kevin Costner, Billy Crystal, Ellen Burstyn, Jack Palance, Jason Robards, Roy Scheider and Andre Braugher.
If there are flaws, I can name two. There is some footage that is used several times and becomes somewhat noticeable. There is also an unfortunate political statement by Dick Johnson in the third episode that completely killed the magic for me. When talking about the more racially integrated National League, he makes the statement that it looked more like the Democrat Party while the racially exclusive American League was the Republican Party. It was completely unnecessary. The unfortunate statement took away his credibility and called into question any other “facts” he might have delivered. There was no place in this kind of a documentary for such a remark. It’s ironic. While trying to comment on an era of prejudice, Johnson displayed the very characteristic he was condemning.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. Of course, the video condition is going to vary considerably. This is old footage taken with cameras that wouldn’t be classified as high-definition. The best this transfer can do is to deliver the vintage material in as clean and pristine a condition as the source material allows. That’s what you get here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is just there to deliver the narration. There are a few added sound effects, but this is really a plain documentary presentation. Just as it should be.
Anyone with a love of baseball will find this a compelling release. These days are gone forever. We’re in the era of juicing and DUI’s. The game has become a selfish focus on the players and their egos. In those days players made salaries comparable with middle America. They could buy modest homes and live like most of the rest of us. They didn’t make salaries many thousands of times over what most of us will see in our lifetimes. They are spoiled and move from team to team with little regard for the fans. Players frequently ignore kids looking for autographs unless they happen to have an extra hundred bucks in their pocket. “Quaint? Beautiful? Not really. However, when the sun is bright and the air is crisp and your seat seems closer to the diamond than the on-deck hitter, all is forgiven.”