Hollywood hopefuls: Bruce Petway, Jack Johnson, Sam Crawford
Archivists at the University of Georgia have uncovered what seems to be the earliest known footage of African Americans playing baseball, dating from 1917. It’s not professional or even semi-professional, but rather a game between two plantation teams in rural Georgia.
There are at least a couple of examples of actual Negro league teams being filmed around this time. As I wrote a couple of years ago, on opening day at Giants Park in St. Louis in 1919, there were plans to film a game between the St. Louis Giants and the Mexico (Mo.) Grays, a white semipro team. Although the game was rained out, it was played the next day (May 12, 1919). If this film was shot, it hasn’t surfaced anywhere, so far as I can tell.
But even more intriguing than the Georgia film or the possible St. Louis Giants footage is another film project that came to fruition in 1921.
In April of that year, the news emerged that former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson had agreed to make a movie for the Kansas City-based Andlauer Film Company:
(Kansas City Star, April 3, 1921, p. 20)
Although the Andlauer Company is often said to have been black-owned, that seems not to have been the case. Founded by William Anthony “Billy” Andlauer, a (white) movie theater manager, photographer, and filmmaker, the company would become best-known for industrial, technical, and educational films of mostly local interest. The Jack Johnson project may well have been the studio’s only foray into black-cast films for black audiences, at least as far as I’ve seen. It was originally called The Heart of Jack Johnson, but was later retitled As the World Rolls On.
The New York Times article above refers to the film, saying that it contained “footage of an all-black Kansas team in the background.” In fact, As the World Rolls On featured footage of actual NNL games involving the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and Chicago American Giants. The games are integrated into the plot, and Negro league players, notably Sam Crawford, Bruce Petway, and Cristóbal Torriente, had roles in the film.
As the World Rolls On was extremely ambitious, especially for a race film at the time. A detailed plot summary appeared in the Chicago Defender (August 20, 1921, p. 7). An “industrious youth” named Joe Walker, who is “subject to sudden heart attacks,” vies for the hand of Molly, loyal assistant to the respected physician Dr. Saunders. His romantic rival is the vicious bully Tom Atkins, who leads a gang of hooligans and enjoys beating up on the “weaker, smaller” Joe. During one such beatdown, the former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson just happens to be nearby, taking his two nieces for a walk and lecturing them on frontier history in front of the Cyrus E. Dallin statue The Scout, in Kansas City’s Penn Valley Park.
Johnson, hearing the disturbance, rushes to help Joe. He easily dispatches the assailants—being Jack Johnson and all—and leaves them “all stretched out motionless on the ground, due to the whipping Johnson has given them.” There follows a Karate Kid sequence in which Johnson takes on Joe Walker as his protégé and sparring partner. He gets Joe to quit smoking and teaches him “physical and breathing exercises.” In the course of all this the ex-champ “displays his powerful superhuman strength and scientific boxing ability.” Joe, meanwhile, “becomes a healthy man and an athlete.”
And now baseball enters the picture:
“About this time the National Colored League baseball games are in progress at the ball park. In a game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Detroit Stars (actual scenes) Sam Crawford, captain of the Monarchs, sprains his arm and finds himself in a tight place owing to illness and injuries to his pitching staff. He does not know how the game can be completed without a pitcher. Accidentally glancing in one of the boxes, to his pleasant surprise he sees Joe with Molly. Knowing Joe’s ability as an amateur pitcher, he appeals to Joe to finish the game. Joe agrees, puts on a uniform, pitches a wonderful game and knocks a home run in the ninth inning which wins the game.
“The Elks’ lodge of which Joe is a member is so enthusiastic over Joe’s triumph that the members invite him as the honored guest to a reception given the following Sunday at the ball park. The Chicago Giants are the Monarchs’ opponents (actual scenes). During this reception Nelson Crews, editor of the leading Colored publication, presents the Monarch players with silver monogramed [sic] buckles and belts on behalf of the Elks.”Nelson Crews was the editor of the Kansas City Sun; it’s actually Rube Foster’s American Giants, not Joe Green’s Chicago Giants, who appear in the film. The plot continues with romance, conspiracy, a trial scene, gunfire, and more fighting before Joe finally vanquishes Tom and marries Molly. Jack Johnson provides his blessing and a thousand-dollar check for the newlyweds.
A piece in the Baltimore Afro-American (December 9, 1921, p. 5) provides a little more information about the film’s baseball content:
“This picture was made by W. A. Andlauer in Kansas City early in September of this year. Besides an all-star cast of colored actors, Johnson is supported by the famous Negro big league teams with Rube Foster and his Chicago Giants, Sam Crawford and his Kansas City Monarchs, and the Detroit Stars.”
Along with Jack Johnson, Blanche Thompson (Molly), and Reed Thomas (Joe Walker), cast listings also include Sam Crawford, Bruce Petway, Rube Foster, and “Torrientti”—Cristóbal Torriente, touted as “the Black Babe Ruth” in one ad for the movie—all playing themselves.
We can narrow down the possibilities for which games feature in the film. It so happens that both the Detroit Stars and the Chicago American Giants visited Kansas City only once in 1921. The Stars played a five-game series there, starting on July 23. The Monarchs swept the series, with Sam Crawford securing complete-game victories in the first game (a 5 to 1 win on July 23) and the last (5 to 2 on July 26). Since the plot involves Crawford pitching, it seems like a good bet that footage was shot in one or both of those games.
The American Giants played six games in Kansas City from September 3 through September 8, taking four of them.
According to sources at the UCLA Special Collections Library, “following the film’s early showings, Andlauer added 500 feet of baseball footage and ‘made one reel all baseball and parades taking all of the shots pertaining to players and parades out of the story’ to make a one-reel supplement. Andlauer wrote, ‘This makes the action better and we know improves the film’.”
(New York Age, September 10, 1921)
As the World Rolls On was released on September 10, 1921, and played all over the country, including New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Richmond, Baltimore, Louisville, Dallas, and Philadelphia, well into 1922. Oddly enough, it was apparently never shown in Chicago, despite the appearance of Rube Foster and the American Giants.
Today, as far as I’m aware, there are no extant prints of As the World Rolls On, which is an enormous shame. From a baseball perspective, this was an astonishing document of Negro league history, a real treasure. What wouldn’t you give to see actual footage of these teams—not mention watch Sam Crawford, Rube Foster, or Bruce Petway act in a movie?
I was able to find one final clue that might be useful to anyone trying to track down a copy of the film. In November 1923, Andlauer Film Productions placed an ad in the Chicago Defender trying to sell three prints of the film, along with title cards and other materials (it was a silent film, of course), for $850.
(Chicago Defender, November 24, 1923, p. 6)
UPDATE 3:26 pm I created a separate page with the entire plot summary of As the World Rolls On from the Chicago Defender (August 20, 1921, p. 7).