February 26, 2007

The Innovations of Lew Fonseca: Partially inspired by this thread, a look into the man whose fingerprints dot the blueprints for sports training films, highlight films, sports broadcasting... even the speed gun.

The following is a written version of an oral presentation I gave at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The recent resurfacing of the kinescope of Don Larsen's Perfect Game in 1956 was a gentle reminder of how fortunate we are to have preserved for us so many of the great moments in baseball that pre-dated television broadcasts or videotape.

You probably don't think of him when you see a modern World Series highlight clip. He is unlikely to cross your mind when you see a satellite broadcast of a distant ballgame. When you think of baseball players studying hitting mechanics on film, you certainly consider Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs long before his name comes up. Yet all of these innovations can be said to have originated from the purchase of a $50 16 mm motion picture camera, a purchase made by a man whose name you may never have heard.

Lew Fonseca broke into the major leagues as a second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds in 1921, and from there he fashioned a distinguished 12-year major league career. A knowledgeable and versatile ballplayer, Fonseca would eventually see action at every position on the baseball field but catcher. He enjoyed his greatest success in 1929, when he led the American League with a .369 batting average and amassed 209 hits, 44 doubles, 15 triples, 19 stolen bases, and 103 runs batted in. Unfortunately for Fonseca, there was no official Most Valuable Player Award given that year, but he did top an unofficial Player of the Year poll of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was the pinnacle of a career fraught with injuries and salary disputes.

Fonseca's reputation as a student of baseball led him into the role of player/manager for the Chicago White Sox in 1932. Shortly thereafter a torn ligament in his leg would cause him to drop "player" from his title, but in his new career as an instructor Lew Fonseca began a legacy that would change the face of baseball -- the way it is played and the way it is watched -- as much as any other individual in the game.

A trained opera singer as a youth, Fonseca drew the attention of Hollywood studios casting baseball films in the off-season. In 1927, while playing winter ball in California, he was asked to help out in the production of "Slide, Kelly, Slide," a film that featured such big name ballplayers as Bob and Irish Meusel and Tony Lazzeri. It was during the making of this film that Fonseca discovered an interest in motion picture cameras. A few years later, having recently taken over the helm of the White Sox, he purchased a 16 mm camera with which he shot several reels of game footage. It was while watching the unorthodox batting style of Al "Bucketfoot" Simmons, though, that Fonseca became inspired to pioneer a new application for celluloid.

Simmons' nickname sprang from his ungainly batting style, during which he always appeared to step away from the approaching pitch. His great success with this awkward motion stymied those who, like Fonseca, were preachers of a more “pure” hitting formula. Fonseca was determined to discover how Simmons was able to sustain such an unorthodox swing at the major league level, so he grabbed his camera and filmed Simmons during batting practice. He later viewed the film in slow motion and carefully watched his player's reactions to each pitch. What he discovered was that, while Simmons did indeed step toward third base when a pitch was thrown in close to him, he did not "step in the bucket" when a pitch was out away from him, thus allowing him to reach the outside pitch with his bat.

This discovery infused in Fonseca a desire to try his camera with other players. When White Sox pitcher Ted Lyons appeared to be struggling with his pitching delivery, Fonseca again pulled the trigger and filmed Lyons in action. Using the film, he was able not only to analyze Lyons' delivery[,] but to show the flaws therein directly to his hurler. The film apparently made an impression on the pitcher, and further impressed upon Fonseca the power of his camera as an instructional tool.

Despite his innovative teaching technique, the White Sox fired Fonseca in 1934. This apparent setback failed to douse Fonseca's love of film, and in fact inspired his entrepreneurial ingenuity. With his camera tucked under his arm, he approached Will Harridge, the president of the American League, with an unprecedented proposal -- the creation of a league motion picture bureau. Fonseca's notion was to promote baseball through the distribution of highlight films. Harridge acquiesced to a 30-day trial run, during which Fonseca would make appearances at social and educational forums and exhibit a 45-minute film he had assembled himself. Lugging his own film, projector and screen, he made 100 appearances during the trial period and reached 20,000 viewers. His film, a highlight reel of the 1934 American League season, was such a huge success that Fonseca received a one-year deal with the league.

In 1935, Fonseca produced his first sound movie. It was a newsreel-style film that included some instruction, highlights of season play, and about five minutes on the World Series. Fifty prints were made of the film, and Fonseca's audience reached 350,000. By 1938, he had firmly established himself as a director, and his films had included such big name baseball stars as Mickey Cochrane, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx, and Charley Gehringer.

To understand why Fonseca's proposal was so warmly embraced, it is important to understand the political environment that surrounded both the game and the country. It was the Depression Era, and baseball was struggling to market itself. Ford Frick, president of the National League, was leading a jingoistic effort to whitewash baseball's checkered past -- a past that included the Black Sox World Series scandal and rumors of baseball's unsavory British ancestry -- and make the game more palatable American fare. Frick himself was instrumental in the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Established in 1936, the Hall of Fame's doors officially opened in 1939 in Cooperstown, NY, an event that in effect institutionalized the promotion of baseball and corroborated the myth of the game's invention by Abner Doubleday in that small, rural, American town. The employment of Lew Fonseca by the American League was not a revenue-generating venture per se, but an opportunity for the league to exert editorial control over its projected image and increase the game's popularity.

Fonseca's ingenuity and promotional savvy were sometimes manifested in quite unconventional forums. In 1940, pitcher Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians was widely regarded as perhaps the hardest thrower in the major leagues. It was almost impossible at that time, however, to gauge exactly how fast Feller was capable of hurling the baseball, radar guns having not yet been invented. Fonseca proposed to determine at least a rough idea of Feller's velocity by conducting a test. He arranged to have Feller pitch to a target while a motorcycle paralleled the trajectory of the ball at a constant speed. By filming the ball's flight against the motorcycle, Fonseca was able to draw the scientific conclusion that Feller's fastball travelled at roughly 104 miles per hour. The test provided an answer to a lot of bar bets, as well as tremendous exposure for the game, and Fonseca added the label of "scientist" to his many accomplishments.

Fonseca's production team may well have hit its high water mark in 1943. That year the American League's Motion Picture Bureau released its first full-length instructional film, "Inside Baseball." Proving far more important, however, was the production of baseball's first World Series highlight film. With the U.S. having entered World War II, an opportunity had been presented to promote baseball while supporting our servicemen overseas. Previous highlight reels included only a few minutes of World Series play, but Fonseca suggested making an entire film of the series and distributing prints throughout the Armed Forces, all over the world. His concept was quickly adopted, and from 1943 to 1945 an estimated 10 million military personnel had an opportunity to view the pinnacle forum for their national game.

After the war, the league, seeing no point to continuing these films, determined to quit production of the World Series highlights. Fonseca showed greater foresight, though, as he alone believed that the films had merit even beyond the war. In 1946, the Motion Picture Division of baseball joined the National League in a cooperative venture, and, through Fonseca's determination and vision, the first post-war World Series highlight film was produced. Its success kept the feature in production, and Fonseca's works have preserved some of the series' greatest moments on film, moments that included Al Gionfriddo's catch of Joe DiMaggio's long drive in 1947 and Jackie Robinson's steal of home in 1955. The film was produced every year until 1968, when baseball's marketing to the television, radio and print media, combined with their expansion into licensing and merchandising, made the Major Leagues’ Motion Picture Division no longer viable.

Lew Fonseca directed 60 films over 35 years. By 1965, over 225 million people had seen his films in a variety of venues -- minor league towns, high schools, colleges, amateur baseball clubs, veteran's hospitals, recreation centers. In that time he showed himself to be an innovator, a master promoter, a scientist, an instructor, and a preservationist. It would not be a stretch to link the popularity of his earliest productions to the monumental broadcast revenue enjoyed by baseball today. Certainly, it is not mere coincidence that in 1948 -- three years after the last of Fonseca's overwhelmingly popular Armed Services distributions, and two years after his successes landed him in the role of film director for both leagues -- Baseball Commissioner Albert B. Chandler issued this prophetic statement: "We are very close to the day when the World Series telecast will be sold to theaters all over the nation, and fans sitting in comfortable structures in San Francisco and Los Angeles will watch actual play in New York or Boston, Chicago or St. Louis… Video's financial possibilities now are beyond calculation." This was indeed the destiny of baseball, a destiny conceived by a $50 camera in the hands of Lew Fonseca.

posted by The Crafty Sousepaw to commentary at 12:20 AM - 0 comments

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