A Pitcher, a President and a Home Movie
President Franklin D. Roosevelt walking into the stands of Washington's Griffith Stadium before the 1937 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. This remarkable image was taken from a home movie filmed by Senator's pitcher Jimmie DeShong. PHMC / MG-254 / PA State Archives

By Richard C. Saylor
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XL, Number 3 - Summer 2014

In November 2013 the Pennsylvania State Archives was contacted by Mrs. Judith Savastio regarding a home movie that her father filmed. She had questions about preserving the film and was interested in finding a repository for its permanent care.

Mrs. Savastio's father, Major League Baseball pitcher James "Jimmie" DeShong (1909-1993), shot the film on his new 8mm home movie camera in the summer of 1937. At the time DeShong, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was playing for the Washington Senators in the American League. Their home ballpark - Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. - hosted the 1937 annual All-Star Game between the American and National Leagues. This gave DeShong extraordinary access to the field that day. He was able to film close-ups of star players from both teams and footage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's arrival at the game, including about eight seconds of the disabled chief executive walking in a public setting.

Roosevelt, who had been paralyzed from the waist down by polio in 1921, is seen in this rare film walking up a ramp from the ballpark's field into Griffith Stadium's stands. He is helped along by an assistant whose arm he holds with his left hand while grasping a stadium handrail with his right. His gait belies the fact that his legs have metal braces on them. It is one of only two known extended film clips that show President Roosevelt walking post-polio.

Film footage of Roosevelt struggling to move from place to place is extraordinarily rare because the United States Secret Service prohibited filming of the president while he struggled to walk. In some instances they confiscated cameras and film to protect his image. Roosevelt wanted to limit the public's knowledge that he required the aid of metal braces on both legs and the use of a cane to walk. The press complied with the request not to film him walking, as they agreed that it was important for Roosevelt to be portrayed as a strong and virile man during the tumultuous years of his presidency. This severely disabled president led the United States through two of the most difficult periods of the twentieth century, the Great Depression and World War II.

Presidential attendance at Major League Baseball games was not unusual. In 1892 Benjamin Harrison was the first United States president to attend a Major League game while in office. He was later followed by William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. In 1937, however, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to attend a Major League All-Star Game and throw out the first pitch. His throw from the stands caused quite a skirmish as players on the field scrambled to retrieve the ball as a souvenir.

Major League players and executives easily identified in the film include Bob Feller, Wes Ferrell, Al Simmons, Charlie Gehringer, Spud Chandler, Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Commissioner of Baseball), Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Cecil Travis, Mel Harder, Eddie Collins (general manager of the Boston Red Sox), Tom Yawkey (owner of the Boston Red Sox) and Joe McCarthy (manager of the New York Yankees).

The starting lineups for the 1937 All-Star Game were, for the American League, Red Rolfe (third base), Charlie Gehringer (second base), Joe DiMaggio (right field), Lou Gehrig (first base), Earl Averill (center field), Joe Cronin (shortstop), Bill Dickey (catcher), Sam West (left field) and Lefty Gomez (pitcher). For the National League, Paul Waner (right field), Billy Herman (second base), Arky Vaughan (third base), Joe Medwick (left field), Frank Demaree (center field), Johnny Mize (first base), Gabby Hartnett (catcher), Dick Bartell (shortstop) and Dizzy Dean (pitcher). The combined starting lineups featured no fewer than fourteen future Hall-of-Famers. The American League defeated the National League by a score of 8 to 3. Lou Gehrig hit the only homerun of the contest, a two-run shot, and had the most runs batted in. Lefty Gomez picked up the win while Dizzy Dean took the loss. Fan attendance at the game totaled 31,391.

Archivist Rich Saylor met with Mrs. Savastio, DeShong's only child, and discovered that the film contained footage from the 1937 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking, and family and hunting scenes taken throughout Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania State Archives was determined to be the most appropriate institution to receive the film due to its rare political, sports and Pennsylvania-related content. Mrs. Savastio generously donated the film and all of its associated copyrights to the Pennsylvania State Archives so that the archives could conserve, preserve, interpret and make it accessible to the public in perpetuity. Subsequently, the original film has been cleaned and digitized into high definition files.

Print of Washington Senator Jimmie DeShong shown demonstrating part of his pitching motion. Published originally in a 1937 edition of Baseball Magazine. PhMc / MG-254 / PA StAte ArchiveS

Shortly after receiving the DeShong film the Pennsylvania State Archives was contacted by Florentine Films - the production company of filmmaker Ken Burns - who were extraordinarily pleased to find this previously unknown footage of Roosevelt. They will include it in their forthcoming documentary, The Roosevelts: an Intimate History, which will air on PBS this September.

James "Jimmie" Brooklyn DeShong was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 30, 1909. From a young age he enjoyed playing baseball and as the years passed it became evident that he had a good deal of talent for the game.

In 1928 at the age of 18 DeShong began his professional baseball career with the Frederick Hustlers in the Blue Ridge League. The next few years he played minor league ball in Harrisburg, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Sacramento, California.

At the age of 22 DeShong made his major league debut on April 12, 1932, with the Philadelphia Athletics. In his first big league season he pitched in six games for the Athletics, all in relief.

The New York Yankees purchased his contract from Sacramento in 1933 and optioned him to the Newark Bears. Despite his fine pitching in Newark he did not play in a major league game that year.

In 1934 DeShong played alongside Babe Ruth in the Bambino's final season with the Yankees. Jimmie pitched in 31 games, including 12 of which he started. The Yankees finished second to the Detroit Tigers in the American League that year. The following year he pitched in a total of 29 games with three starts, helping to bring the Yankees to another second place finish.

In January 1936 the Yankees traded DeShong to the Washington Senators where he compiled his best record in his major league career with 18 wins, 10 losses and two saves. His Senators fought to a third place finish that year. He pitched full seasons for the Senators during the next two years as well.

DeShong's major league career ended when he pitched his final game with the Washington Senators on June 10, 1939, at the age of 29. For his major league career DeShong won 47 games while losing 44 with an ERA of 5.08.

The Yankees purchased his contract from the Senators in late June 1939 and optioned him to the minor league Newark Bears. In 1940 Jimmie pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. In his last season of professional baseball DeShong pitched for the Allentown Wings and the Lancaster Red Roses in the Interstate League.

Thereafter, DeShong retired from professional baseball and worked at the York Safe and Lock Company during World War II. After the war he moved to Walnut Street in Penbrook, working for many years as a car salesman at Blake Cadillac-Oldsmobile on Paxton Street in Harrisburg. Later he moved to Susquehanna Township where he was a two-term tax collector. He spent the last ten years of his working life employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. DeShong died on October 16, 1993, and is buried in East Harrisburg Cemetery.


The DeShong Film

First Lady Susan Corbett posing with members of Jimmie DeShong's family, after the press conference announcing the donation of the film to the Pennsylvania State Archives. (L-R) Owen Ladd, Amy Ladd, Cameron Ladd, First Lady Susan Corbett, Patti Savastio, Judy Savastio (Jimmie's daughter and the donor of the film), Michael Savastio, Ellen Savastio and Thomas Savastio. PhMc/Photo by don GileS

It is one of only two known extended film clips in existence showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking. It is so rare that filmmaker Ken Burns is using it in his upcoming documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History which will air on PBS beginning September 14, 2014.

"We were thrilled with the discovery of a new piece of film footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking. Any film of him struggling to get from one place to another is extremely rare, as the Secret Service either prohibited or confiscated cameras whenever FDR was making an attempt to propel himself from his car to anywhere else," said Ken Burns. "The President wanted to minimize the public's knowledge of the devastating effects polio had had on him - he was completely paralyzed from the waist down and he could not walk without the aid of a cane and braces on both legs. The press in those days complied with his request not to be filmed"


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania's Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2010.