Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 12, 2011)
For this package, we all three installments of an HBO series called When It Was a Game. “Series” may be an overstatement, though, as this apparently was never intended as an ongoing production. The first episode debuted in 1991; the follow-up came out in 1992 and the final show didn’t pop up until 2000.
Despite the disjointed nature of that run, all three programs work in the same manner. As mentioned by screens that open the first two shows, each one features nothing by 8mm or 16mm home movie footage shot by fans and players. Part One covers 1934-1957, while Part Two spans 1925-1961. Part Three lacks the same text intro to specify its period, but it concentrates on the 1960s. We hear the narration and comments to discuss various aspects of baseball while we watch images from the decades.
We find different commentators on each episode. For Part One (56:31), we get notes from poet Donald Hall, authors Robert Creamer, Ray Robinson, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig, coach/clown Max Patkin, announcer Red Barber, and players Enos Slaughter, Elden Auker, Billy Herman, Tommy Henrich, Burgess Whitehead, Bill Werber, Duke Snider, Whitey Kurowski, Clay Bryant, and Don Newcombe. The episode also features narration from Peter Kessler with occasional voiceovers from actors James Earl Jones, Jason Robards and Roy Scheider.
During Part Two (58:21), we hear remarks from Honig, Creamer, Auker, Slaughter, Henrich, Hall, Barber, author Ralph Schoenstein, playwright Stephen Longstreet, writer Heywood Hale Broun, broadcaster Mel Allen, actor Billy Crystal, and players Dario Lodigiani, Gus Zernial, Harry Walker, Alex Grammas, Joe Garagiola, Mel Harder, Charlie Gehringer, Johnny Beradino, Carl Erskine, and Frank Crosetti. Kessler returns as narrator, and we find voiceovers from Robards, Scheider, Joe Montegna, Jack Palance, and Ellen Burstyn.
Finally, Part Three (56:24) delivers info from Crystal, Honig, broadcasters Howie Rose and Bob Costas, writers Gordon Edes, Samuel Regalado, Charles Einstein, Tom Boswell, Maury Allen, and Leonard Koppett, filmmaker John Sayles, historian Dick Johnson, executives Omar Minaya and Marty Appel, musician George Thorogood, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, author Roberto Echevarria, broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera, actor Robert Wuhl, and players Bill Monbouquette, Joe Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Maury Wills, Frank Robinson, Jim Kaat, Al Kaline, Dick Radatz, Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Dal Maxvill, Mike Shannon, Jeff Torborg, Hank Aaron, Tony Oliva, and Juan Marichal. Liev Schreiber narrates, and voiceovers come from Kevin Costner, Andre Braugher, and Rita Moreno.
Unquestionably, Part Three works best simply because it’s the most coherent. The first two parts are certainly interesting, but they suffer somewhat because they’re so scattershot.
That’s especially true for Part One, where it feels like the episode’s producers are figuring out their formula as they go. At first, the format could be aggravating, as Part One showed visuals with very little explanation. We would see ballplayers and not know who they were or when they were filmed.
Part One also lacks much thematic consistency. It jumps from one era and subject to another without a lot of apparent logic. I don’t expect it to offer a concise A-B-C history of the years covered, but it simply fails to move in a smooth manner, and the absence of identification for the visuals creates frustrations.
Nonetheless, we do see a lot of good footage and get some nice details, and the situation improves for Part Two. In a lot of ways, it comes across as much like Part One, so it has some of the same weaknesses; heck, it spans a broader period, which means it threatens to go off the rails even more often.
However, Part Two simply feels better put together. Maybe I’d simply grown accustomed to the format by the time I got to it, but I don’t think that completely explains why I think the show flows and connects better. I suspect the producers learned from their mistakes and worked harder to develop themes and subjects, and it pays off with an occasionally rambling but usually enjoyable show.
Part Three brings it all together with easily the strongest of the episodes. I suspect it works the best because it concentrates on the narrowest period. This one really does attempt to tell the tale of one particular era, so while it’s still thematic and lacks the A-B-C presentation you might expect – as in 1960-1961-1962, and so on, in order – it works hard to give us a real feel for the 1960s.
And it does so swimmingly. No, it doesn’t deliver basic facts and figures, as even the 1961 assault on Babe Ruth’s home run record barely gets a mention. It does, however, develop important trends such as the decline of the Yankees, the rise of the National League, and the success of certain players.
While I liked aspects of the first two episodes, Part Three is the only one that I think truly delights. It’s too bad the producers didn’t opt for similar decade-specific construction in other shows, as I think Game’s first two episodes would be more satisfying if they benefited from that tighter focus.
In any case, even with some of these flaws, I find a lot to like about When It Was a Game. You won’t get a great overall history of baseball here, but you’ll learn a lot about trends and aspects of the sport, and you’ll see tons of interesting footage along the way.