Exhibit preview: Baseball and the big screen at the Wex

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
By Columbus Alive
From the April 11, 2013 edition

The Wexner Center’s annual showcase of rare baseball films, now in its 10th year, has become one of the art space’s most popular events.

A few years ago, when film and video curator Dave Filipi was planning for the Wexner Center’s annual rare baseball films showcase, he was watching an after-school-special-style documentary from the early 1970s called “Baseball vs. Drugs.”

“It was a very dry documentary about how drugs can be lethal,” Filipi said. “I figured it was nothing, but I had to fast-forward all the way to the end.”

The glory he found there felt like when you stomach all the Cracker Jacks to get to an unexpectedly awesome prize at the bottom.

There was Orioles pitcher Pete Richert rocking 1970s casual wear and facial hair talking very sincerely to a classroom of children about why they should say no to drugs.

“He went into such inappropriate graphic detail” about how drugs were bad but accidentally made them sound appealing, Filipi said. “It was so fun in a campy way. I had to include it.”

Filipi has been putting together a roster of rare baseball films for 10 years. He has presented them at the Wexner Center and other art institutions around the country (including the prestigious Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco) as the new baseball season warms up. The program — which faces unique threats of demise — is one of the center’s most popular, drawing 400 to 500 people to its theater over two nights. Fans love hanging out at the intersection of athletics, art and history.

Each edition’s footage includes quirky material like the “Baseball vs. Drugs” clip as well as other historically important footage that viewers would likely never see anywhere else, even with the advent of YouTube.

This year’s installment of the show, which is this weekend, includes shots of Babe Ruth working out, elephants playing baseball in a circus act, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig at batting practice, and President Herbert Hoover bellowing out the game’s rallying cry “Play ball!”

“My mom jokes that I now get paid to study the two things I was into as a little boy — baseball and movies,” Filipi said. “The [Minnesota] Twins were my first love.”

While the program started off as a matter of personal interest for Filipi, he soon began to see it could have broad appeal. The first eight years of the show consisted of Filipi digging through the Baseball Hall of Fame’s cumbersome database for clips to transfer to video.

After a few installments, though, the footage he was digging up was more base hit than home run.

“At one point the machine used to make video transfers was broken,” Filipi said. “We said, ‘This year is the last year,’ a couple times.”

Two years ago, though, Filipi started picking material from the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The university’s database included a lot of newsreels of baseball players being interviewed or of promotional installments the networks did to preview the game.

“It’s a window to the culture of another time,” said Jim Tootle, a baseball historian and author who has attended nearly every showing of the Wexner’s rare baseball films roundup. “Men went to the games in suits and ties, and women wore white gloves and hats. They were smoking! Even if you’re not a real dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan, you really can learn a lot about the time period.”

Most of the films come from the early 20th century, and there are stark contrasts everywhere to today’s American landscape, such as the newscasters calling grown women “little ladies” non-ironically or hearing the baseball players, untrained in media relations, talk about their second jobs in the offseason. Surprising similarities to today can be seen too, such as the product placement of a Wheaties box on an announcer’s desk.

And much like its sporty subject, the event has garnered loyal fans, such as Tootle. Former Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel once attended a presentation in Chicago, and Filipi and Vizquel kept in touch via email for several years sharing facts about baseball history. Audience members will bring Filipi tales of baseball game memories and memorabilia, particularly if it’s of the Twins variety.

“Sometimes this is the only place we can tell a baseball story and people will care,” Filipi said. “It’s like church almost, where people can testify.”

Speaking of sports as a near-religious endeavor, Filipi, inspired by the success of the baseball program, is compiling a new rare-films series for this fall about football.