I will tell you right up front that I am not a fan of baseball. In fact, I’ve never been to a professional baseball game in my entire life. Several people have tried to remedy that in recent years but I have declined the offers. Recently though, there has been a lot of talk amongst some of my friends about how well the Dodgers have been playing this year, or at least they were as of this writing. That made me think of Disney’s Goofy “Art of” and “How to” shorts that were made during the Golden Age of animation. I wrote about these wonderful comic “instructional” films several years ago as they stand out as great examples of Disney character animation at its finest.
Goofy’s How to Play Baseball was the first short of the original series of “How To” cartoons produced between 1942 and 1953, ten in all. There were other instructional shorts created during that time period including “The Art of” shorts and several others that fit the same mold like Hockey Homicide and The Olympic Champ among others.
In 1942, a year after beloved Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), The Pride of the Yankees produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Gary Copper as Gehrig was released to a nation that mourned the loss of a sports legend. While the film was in production, Goldwyn “sent Disney a script on the picture to read with the idea of creating” a cartoon specifically to be released with his baseball picture. Walt immediately envisioned Goofy “as the animated counterpart to Gary Cooper,” according to company documents.
How to Play Baseball featured Goofy as the everyman playing all positions and explained in comic terms the rules of the game. The cartoon describes all the basics of the game including the quirky actions of the pitcher and other players, and then moves onto a fictitious World Series game in progress between the Gray Sox and the Blue Sox. The studio had a technical advisor in story artist George Stallings whose father managed the then Boston Braves and he had spent a summer helping to manage the team. The short concludes with a play too close to call at home base, which leads to an argument between the umpire and two rival players, which George likely had some experience with!
This short showcases some wonderful animation by four of Disney’s Nine Old Men– Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, and Marc Davis, as well as Disney legend Vladimir “Bill” Tytla and several other animators.
Near the beginning of the short as the narrator describes some of the baseball terminology, Tytla displays his animation acumen in a group of hilarious action scenes with Goofy swinging at various curve balls, bunting, and a terrific scene with a spit ball that actually spits in Goofy’s face.
Marc Davis by contrast was charged with more subtle and expressive acting scenes like Goofy frowning and taking a bite out of the baseball instead of a block of chewing tobacco.
There is also a great sequence of scenes animated by Ward Kimball in which Goofy as the pitcher beans the batter in the head with the pitch. Cock-eyed dizzy, a large bump pops out of the top of the batter’s head. In a punchy way, he staggers and then somersaults down the baseline picking up bats and other equipment along the way towards first base eventually landing upside down. It shows off Kimball’s masterful comic timing.
Art Babbitt, who helped develop Goofy, described the character as “a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless…. good-natured, dumb bell what thinks he is pretty smart… He laughs at his own jokes because he can’t understand any others… He talks to himself because it is easier for him to know what he is thinking if he hears it first.” Goofy has all those characteristic traits that truly make him the everyman, an amalgam of flaws, foibles, quirks, and idiosyncrasies that we can relate to.
All of those traits are on full display in How to Play Baseball, a quintessential Goofy cartoon that one critic in 1942 called a “…deliciously confused Disney cartoon, a goofy burlesque….” It’s not the first time that Disney created a cartoon based on a popular event, pastime, or individual, which has touched the nation psyche. The 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon Plane Crazy capitalized on the popularity of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, the 1928 Steamboat Willie was a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr., and the 1949 Goofy Gymnastics, which came out a year after the summer Olympics in London. So it was no surprise that Samuel Goldwyn asked Walt Disney to create a baseball themed Goofy cartoon to open at the head of his picture The Pride of the Yankees. Now it’s time to, play ball! Well not really for me, but you go right ahead.