Long before HBO was tackling sports stories from a different aspect with its Real Sports series (and ESPN undertook bringing fresher views and/or previously anonymous stories of its own with their 30 for 30 documentary series), HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg was still finding his way in making sports stories that were entertaining or interesting in the early 1990s when the network's sports coverage was primarily outstanding work covering boxing (and the weekly Inside the NFL which aired during the football season). When it Was a Game took things in a slightly different direction.
The premise behind the special was interesting. Using 8mm and 16mm film taken by fans who went to baseball games from the mid 1930s to early 1950s combined with clever spoken essays (read from Hollywood's better-recognized names), the documentary helps to show what baseball was like for crowds during the times before multimillion dollar stadiums and players, and when rooting for a team whose community interest was accessible and tangible, and when the game was easier to root for using the simplest boxcar statistics like home runs, runs batted in, wins and losses. The hour-long special turned into three installments, with the first airing in 1991 and the second airing a year later, and the third (focusing on the era from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s before Curt Flood and free agency) in 2000.
Watching the episodes sheds a light on the sport and its players that was previously unseen. You see players like Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio in their younger days (or in some cases stars from the past generation like Ty Cobb and Cy Young) as they get loose for a game or when they are in the dugout relaxing or talking to other players. In fact, the on-field action is given very little time on-screen because this is all the viewer seems to have been subjected to in the past. With cameras focused on the batting cages and dugouts these days, seeing a similar treatment to players of the past is fascinating. The specials are peppered with literary tributes to the sport, read by critically acclaimed actors such as James Earl Jones, Jason Robards, Roy Scheider and Jack Palance. Female voices are given due time as well and served well by Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn and Rita Moreno. There are also remembrances on the time by surviving players such as Duke Snider or Enos Slaughter in the first two installments and Frank Robinson in the third.
While I have a minor qualm about the episodes being a little cookie-cutter in nature, seeing the players in this candid nature remains worth seeing. In Steven Stern and George Roy (the respective writer and editor for all three episodes), the framework for the HBO documentary series was in its infancy, and the two have been responsible for most of the HBO sports documentaries since that time. On the third installment, Liev Schreiber (Salt) provides voiceover, a task that has made him the de facto voiceover man for the HBO sports documentaries since. While the material is fun, experiencing the creative duo find their legs and evolve into more visible roles in future stories is a nice side note when viewing When it Was a Game, as the time was simpler for them as well.
The Blu-ray Disc:
HBO trots out When it Was A Game in AVC-encoded 1.78:1 high-definition transfers cropped from their initial 1.33:1 format. In seeing the episodes again for the first time in years it was nice to revisit the footage and HBO lets it be the main point without providing any tweaking to the print. Colors remain accurate and natural from the source and film grain is present in many sequences. It is hard to judge the disc based on the nature of the material, but it looks like a straightforward presentation without any enhancements of the image.
Two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio for all three installments. There is nothing to really be gleaned from this as everything occurs in the front channels. The score that lies underneath the voiceovers and narration is a little repetitive, but the entire soundtrack is fine and does not require much adjustment. It's solid if unspectacular listening material.
Zip, zero, nada.
When it Was A Game is a intriguing document of a long-forgotten era in baseball where the players seemingly wore the same wool uniform over an extended period of time and grabbed their glove from the field between innings rather than bringing it into the dugout. Seeing the stars either before they got that way or in their later years when they had a chance to enjoy the fame is fun to see, and seeing the creative team that would go onto bigger and better things figure out the formula is a behind-the-scenes nugget of interest for me. Technically it is nothing special and there are no supplements, so unless you're a hardcore baseball fan I'd recommend renting this first before making a purchase decision.