I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s hard to fathom. So rare is the view that I don’t even want to blink for fear of missing a split second. Did I really just see that?
Recently, at a signing for my new book, “Baseball in Orange County,” an elderly woman and her stepdaughter Carolyn approached me.
Carolyn explained that her stepmom was the daughter of Glenn Thomas, the renowned auto dealer whose father, Walter, founded the Long Beach Auto Co., in 1909. And the women came bearing artifacts: rare images of Mr. Thomas with Babe Ruth taken at a dinner function in 1927.
The Thomas-Ruth connection was no secret to me. In my new book, I feature a popular image of Thomas after a successful duck-hunting trip in 1927 with not just Ruth but also Lou Gehrig, taken at the long-gone Farmers Gun Club in Cypress near where the Los Alamitos Race Course is today.
I am something of a Ruth aficionado, and was thrilled to include the photo (along with some never-before-seen photos of the Bambino playing in a 1924 game against Walter Johnson in Brea). With any baseball books I’ve written, a simple rule applies: The more Ruth the better.
So Carolyn, who lives locally, and her stepmom, who was visiting from Florida, came just to show me the images — a thoughtful gesture and a marvelous surprise. But they also told something else: They had recently discovered home movies of Thomas and Ruth fishing and hunting, and some included Gehrig.
To understand why my jaw dropped, consider the following from a 2011 New York Times piece on the discovery of another Ruth home movie, one that showed him with Gehrig, horsing around before a 1927 exhibition game: “There are so few moving images of Babe Ruth that even Major League Baseball’s monstrous archive contains less than an hour’s worth.”
That’s right. Less than one hour of film exists of Ruth — who died Aug. 16, 1948 — that we know about. What’s more, Ruth was thought to have also hunted right here in Huntington Beach, at the Lomita Gun Club that once existed in Huntington Harbour. Might this newly uncovered footage shed any light on that expedition?
A week after our meeting, on a sweltering night, I found myself, along with my teenage son and fellow history buff, in the home of Carolyn Neilson and her husband, Bob. In their dark and refreshingly cool living room, sepia-toned images flickered forth, casting a honey glow on our faces. Our mouths were mostly agape for the first hour of footage, which included remarkably shot 16-milimeter home movies reflecting the life of the affluent Thomas family in the mid-to-late 1920s.
There was stunning aerial footage around the Long Beach and Los Angeles areas. There was Catalina Island, local oil gushers, sophisticated parties, family functions and more. Much of it was Gatsby-esque in terms of the clothing styles and grand behavior. Home movies from his period are extremely rare, and naturally was something only the well-heeled could afford.
Incredibly, there was carefully crafted footage of Charles Lindbergh, shot documentary-style, telling the story of his famed first voyage.
Then, a scene of two men fishing. One has a large barrel shape. The other is smaller, more modest and businesslike. It is Ruth and Thomas. What follows is simple, yet mesmerizing. Quick cuts of Ruth pulling a fish out of lake, unhooking the fish and dropping it into his saddlebag. Ruth playing around with a small dog, draping a line of freshly hunted ducks around his neck in a silly pose, tossing a ball to a small child, enjoying food cooked over a fire, and just sitting with the men after a long day in the field.
He is relaxed and comfortable with the camera, never turning away and often looking it straight in the eye. In the Orange County wilds, he has never looked happier, perhaps because of his love of the outdoors and getting away from the intense media scrutiny in New York.
The footage seems to span more than one duck club. Might they be in Huntington Beach? I’m going to analyze further with a friend who is an expert in local gun clubs, Dave Carlberg.
After the first reel, we break for dinner and try to process what we watched. We theorize about visual clues in hopes of connecting the dots. Then we go back to watch the second tape, which includes another hour or so of vintage home movies.
There is Yosemite. A trip to Mexico. There are more parties. Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance! And then, the Babe reappears, but this time, he is not smiling. In fact, he seems to be passed out cold. The result of a hard night?
As the Long Beach Police Historical Society reported in 2009 on the hunting trip, “Duck blinds were readied and Thomas said he spent the first night of the hunt in the Babe’s blind. Ruth got so drunk that Thomas was afraid that Ruth might accidentally shoot him. Thomas reported that on the second night of the hunt he stayed with Gehrig in his blind.”
Does this footage document the results of Babe’s bender?
Suddenly, the elegant Gehrig also appears, and is seen picking through the Babe’s hair the way a primate might groom a partner or look for insects in its fur.
Column space prevents me from rambling too much more about what a sparkling historic discovery this is, and what it represents. Carolyn was generous enough to let me shoot a few stills from the footage. We also talked about presenting the footage publicly in several weeks at one of my next events for “Baseball in Orange County.”
I will let you know the date in the hopes that we can all sit together in the dark and bask in the beauty of this startling portal, where beautiful, graceful people dance and cavort; where Lindbergh and Chaplin still live and where the Babe is, well, the Babe.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new “Baseball in Orange County” from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at https://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.