September 3, 2013

Don't try this at home (plate)

Some time ago, TCM aired a collection of episodes from Screen Directors Playhouse, an anthology series which ran on NBC in the 1955-56 season. The hook was that the series features directors and stars seldom seen on television to that point. I checked out the episodes, which varied in quality and were for the most part entertaining if unremarkable. However, there was one which called for further attention to be paid, as an example of how it can be dangerous to leave some things to amateurs.

The episode in question was “Rookie of the Year,” directed by the legendary John Ford and starring the legendary John Wayne as a sportswriter from a small-town newspaper on the trail of a story that would land him in the big-time: that a rookie phenom is actually the son of a ballplayer banned from the bigs for throwing a game. The story isn’t really the point here, though*: it’s how it’s told that attracts my attention.

*Although if you’re interested, the Duke decides to spike his own story to preserve the young man’s future and let the past rest in peace.

The phenom, Lyn Goodhue (played by Wayne’s son Patrick), plays for the New York Yankees. How do we know that? Well, there’s the comment, made several times by the Duke, that he’s going to Yankee Stadium* to see the kid play. And when you do see Goodhue, he’s dressed in what is clearly a Yankee uniform, right down to the pinstripes and the interlocking NY.

*Incorrectly referred to as “the Yankee Stadium.” Sloppy writing or trademark issues? Based on the information below, I'd suggest the former.

And here’s where things get interesting: when we actually get to see Goodhue in action, he is clearly wearing the uniform number 4.

Now, the number 4, as all but the most casual baseball fans must know, was worn by the great Lou Gehrig. And that number was retired when Gehrig retired, on July 4, 1939 – the first number ever retired by a major league baseball team. As in “nobody on the Yankees will ever wear this number again.”

I have a hard time figuring out how a whopper like this could have been made. I mean, it’s not as if Gehrig was a lesser-known player whose number was retired for some obscure reason. He was one of America’s most famous players – famous enough that the disease which killed him is named after him. Even today he’s considered one of the all-time greats, and keep in mind that when “Rookie of the Year” was broadcast it had been less than 20 years since Gehrig retired, and about 15 since he’d died – not exactly time enough for him to have faded into the mists of time. His number was retired even before Babe Ruth’s. And don’t think that this is some kind of continuity accident having to do with the file footage – when we see Wayne meet the kid in the locker room after the game, you can see that the costuming department made sure his uniform bore the 4 on the back.

Are you trying to tell me that from all the miles of footage of New York Yankee games available to the production staff, they couldn’t have come up with a clip of a player wearing a number that hadn’t been retired by the Yankees? It’s true that the Yankees have retired more numbers than any other baseball team, but at the time this was made they’d only retired three – Ruth’s 3, Gehrig’s 4, and Joe DiMaggio’s 5. Seriously – they didn’t have any other numbers to choose from?*

*Is it any less likely, for example, that fans would have objected to Goodhue wearing Yogi Berra’s 8? As if they’d recognize that, but not Gehrig’s 4?

Back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for shows (and movies, for that matter) to use film shot from multiple games, with the result that viewers might wonder why the two teams had chosen to make complete uniform changes between plays, so at least you have to give the production team credit for using footage that clearly identified the players as Yankees. And I suppose it’s conceivable there might have been a policy against using film of any active player without compensating him for the use, but that seems to be a pretty contemporary spin to my way of thinking. (Besides, without sitting down and studying the footage, I can’t be sure that there aren’t active players appearing in the shot.)

What seems more likely is that this represents a total boneheaded lack of attention to detail. Either they didn’t notice the use of Gehrig’s number, or they figured nobody else would notice it. But whichever option you want to pick, it’s pretty slipshod to me. Is it really that hard to get it right?

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  1. Option 3 -- someone somewhere did know that was Gehrig's number and thought they were paying him honor by using it. That was a MUCH simplier time than now... MUCH simplier.

  2. Exactly...I agree with Hawkeye, sounds like Ford was a big Gehrig fan and thought it would be a tribute.

    1. Hawkeye/Gazzoo, you may be right on that. I'll admit I'm cynical enough that the thought hadn't occurred to me. As ham-fisted as TV writing can be, do you think that if this was the case they would have called attention to it, i.e. "the kid's so great they gave him Gehrig's number!" or would they have been content to simply pay a silent tribute as you suggest? Good thought!

  3. Regarding the use of the term “The Yankee Stadium”—it was not uncommon to place the article “the” in front of “Yankee Stadium.” Here’s a link to a 1939 radio broadcast where the term is used—


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