HBO’s When It Was a Game isn’t quite like any movie or documentary ever made about baseball. Assembled by Steve Stern and George Roy of Black Canyon Productions, the program is a one-hour meltdown of more than 50 well-preserved hours of 8- and 16-millimeter film, all of it shot between 1934 and 1957 — and, most remarkably, all of it shot by fans and the players themselves.
The show was written by Stern, but its most incisive commentary comes from great baseball writers such as Ray Robinson and Donald Hall, who — perhaps because they knew many of the players — refrain from gushing over them. It’s a good thing, because what we see demythologizes the likes of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, to say nothing of Ty Cobb and Cy Young. These are not gods or idols but men making a precarious living playing an extremely difficult and often hazardous game.
Like ghosts, Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, and New York’s Polo Grounds materialize again. Fenway Park seems unformed without its Green Monster in left field, and Wrigley Field looks almost naked with its ivy-less walls. When It Was a Game cuts the great players and their parks down to human size, but only a cynic would say that these images take away more than they give back. If you’re taping, leave room for the second edition HBO is planning for next year.