Although I often, to my detriment, have several baseball projects ongoing, last fall (2015) was taken up by two of them.
About a year ago, Dan Levitt and I submitted a bid to the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to write a timeline of their history, part of their plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Marvin Miller’s taking the union to prominence in 1966. As it happened, we got the contract. After about three months of work, we submitted 150 pages of heavily annotated chronology, a compilation of events that collectively show how the union achieved and maintained its tremendous place in the baseball business.
While that project was ongoing, I made an agreement with The National Pastime Museum to write a 10-part series on the Topps baseball card monopoly (1956-1980). Although the series did not run until the spring, I had to submit it all in early January and it kept me busy over the holidays. But I’m not going to lie: it was a great deal of fun for this lifelong collector.
Although the two projects were quite different in scope and purpose, there was one place where the two stories overlapped. Shortly after Miller took over, he convinced the players that they were underpaid in their individual contracts with Topps and he got them to boycott the company’s photographers. After an 18-month standoff, the two parties reached a lucrative licensing agreement that helped bring legitimacy to the union and forged a long and fruitful relationship between the MLBPA and Topps that lives on today. Having studied this story from both sides, last March I attended the NINE Spring Training Conference in Phoenix, and gave a presentation on the MLBPA-Topps conflict.
Last February, about the time I was putting together the slides for my talk, I happened to watch the 1966 movie Penelope, starring Natalie Wood. I watch a LOT of movies, and I love Natalie Wood, but I had never even heard of this one. I occasionally scan through my Turner Classic Movies guide and find a handful of films to record, and this one was an easy call.
In Penelope, Wood’s title character is a bored housewife who robs her husband’s bank at the very start, and then spends the rest of the film outwitting her husband, blackmailers, a police detective (Peter Falk), and her analyst (Dick Shawn), among others. But, really, the entire purpose of the movie seems to have been to outfit Natalie Wood in the latest fashions. The producers even made a four minute film clip about Wood’s Penelope outfits, many of which she did not actually wear in the movie. Edith Head, who won eight Oscars for costume design in her long career, stars in the clip.
There are two reasons this film should be viewed. The first, already covered, is Natalie Wood. The second is the scene below. Pay particular attention to Peter Falk’s left hand starting about 12 seconds into the scene.
The entire exchange about the baseball cards, and about gum chewing, is completely unnecessary to the plot of the movie. However, as the scene relies on one of my all-time favorite actresses opening a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1966 — precisely the year my Topps-MLBPA story begins — it all seems to have been written specifically for me to discover, albeit 50 years later.
During my talk at NINE I mentioned this scene, and even showed a still photo of Wood, one of many stills taken for publicity purposes only.
The talk went pretty well, and people seemed to like the Penelope story. Rick Huhn, a fellow movie lover, suggested that I expand Wood’s role when I gave the talk at the SABR convention in July in Miami, and to show the actual clip of her opening the cards. I agreed, though I had to figure out how to create the clip.
I did not have a DVD of the movie, nor did my library, or Amazon, or ebay, or any other on-line merchant. My first attempt was to replay the movie on my DVR and film the scene with my phone. This sort of worked, though it was a bit shaky and the sound was too low.
Enter serendipity. For the past 15 years or so I have taken part in a Predictatron, in which a group of a few dozen baseball geeks try to predict, in March, each major league baseball team’s final won-less record and the entire post-season. (My performance in this league is pretty mediocre, though I am doing pretty well this year.) As it happens, one of the members of the league is Ben Mankiewicz, who is also one of the hosts of Turner Classic Movies. At some point it clicked in my head that I should ask him where TCM got the movie. It turned out that TCM owns the movie, and within a few days Ben had generously sent me my very own copy. Just like that.
I then had to get the movie loaded onto my laptop, and then create a clip of this single scene from the entire movie. Then I had to embed the clip (not the one above, a condensed 20-second version) into my Powerpoint presentation; the clip would be the very first slide and would kick off the story of the MLBPA-Topps boycott. Then I had to upload the full presentation to Google Drive, and make sure the SABR presentation coordinators were able to download the talk in good order.
As it happens, when it came time to play the video, it did not work. The software on the presentation laptop could not play the embedded video. Instead, I summarized the scene and gave the rest of the talk, which I think went well. Natalie Wood was weaved into the talk in a few other places, and I am certain she added to the enjoyment of the proceedings, as she so often did.
Most importantly, I got home and uploaded a longer version of the clip to YouTube, where it will live forever, or at least until I am taken to prison for violating the copyright of the film. When considering the pleasure that I will be providing, this seems a small price to pay.