When eight cans of nitrate film arrived at the Library of Congress in August, a staffer began a routine inspection to see what sort of physical condition the film was in. Without even watching the footage, she quickly noticed a headline screaming out from one of the newsreels: “SENATORS WIN WORLD SERIES,” it said. “40,000 frantic fans see American Leaguers take 12-inning deciding game, 4 to 3.”
And when archivists from the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation watched the reel, they found nearly four minutes of footage from that 1924 World Series, footage that somehow had remained in nearly perfect condition for 90 years. Bucky Harris hitting a home run, Walter Johnson pitching four innings of scoreless relief, Muddy Ruel scoring the winning run, fans storming Griffith Stadium’s field: It was all there, and it was all glorious.
“You’ve got to understand: Nitrate film, sometimes it looks great, sometimes it doesn’t. We never know what we’re going to get,” said Mike Mashon, the head of the Library’s moving image section. “The fact that it looks so great is a miracle. It’s just a miracle.”
The back story is just as miraculous. The mother of one of Mashon’s Packard Campus colleagues was recently named the executor of an estate left behind by an older neighbor outside of Worcester, Mass. While preparing the house for sale, her family found these eight reels of film — “in the rafters of the detached and not climate-controlled garage, a space we archivists would not normally recommend for long term storage of motion picture film.” Mashon wrote in an e-mail.
That it was nitrate film made the process even more fraught with peril: Such film is flammable and degrades quickly, so archivists had faint hopes for the find. A friend at the Harvard Film Archive retrieved the reels and used a hazmat shipper to send the film to the Packard Campus in Culpeper; “they were in astonishingly good shape,” Mashon wrote.
The first newsreel wasn’t thrilling apart from the baseball footage; “famous dignitary visits local community,” and the like. Reels like these would have been shown in a theater for a few weeks at a time, before the next update was created, Mashon said. These reels dated from 1919 to 1926; archivists don’t know whom they belonged to, or how they wound up in a Massachusetts garage, or why they happened to remain in pristine condition for 90 years.
“If I knew that, believe me, I would share that with the rest of the archival community,” Mashon said with a laugh. “It’s always a crapshoot. And just at this particular time, that footage of the 1924 Senators shows up? I can’t make it up.”
Indeed, while footage of prior World Series exists, Library officials aren’t aware of any other clips from the 1924 clincher. And with Nats playoff fever building, they expedited their conservation of this particular reel, prepping and cleaning it to allow for digital transfer, creating a new 35 mm copy, and photochemically preserving the original, which should now be safe for hundreds of years.
[Read more about the preservation process, and more about the history of the reels, in this blog post written by Mashon.]
Composer and pianist Andrew Simpson — a professor at Catholic University (and a Nats fan) — agreed to provide a musical scoring for the silent film, and the final result is seen here: surely the best look at the 1924 World Series the vast majority of living baseball fans has ever seen.
“Absolutely this is the prize find,” Mashon said. “I don’t think there’s anything as spectacular on the rest of the reels. This is definitely the find of that batch.”
And the past few weeks have just made it better. The Nats’ season-closing hot streak has drawn ever more comparisons with that 1924 team. And now Washington will again be facing the Giants in the postseason, as they did in 1924.
“It just works out perfect,” Mashon said. “Of course I’ve read Shirley Povich’s account [of the clinching game], but just to see the crowd surge onto the field, I loved that. I just loved that. And I hope we get to recreate that in a few weeks.”