American film legend Buster Keaton's childhood baseball field is about to go under the bulldozer to make way for a residential development in Bluffton, Michigan. It's hard to imagine how a little patch of land served as a crucible that helped to shape the direction of cinema history, but this tiny parcel of real estate did just that.
Baseball was more than a passtime to Buster Keaton — it was the foundation of his work ethic and integral to the sense of teamwork that enabled him to create a body of cinematic magic that has become a national treasure. We hope that those with the power to preserve and protect this historic location will examine its history in light of the marvels it helped to create, and perhaps think twice about allowing it to be plowed under and replaced with modern development.
A Vaudeville child star who appeared with his parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, Buster Keaton spent his early childhood without a place to call home. His parents did their best to provide a normal upbringing for Buster and his younger brother and sister, but life lived between performances and rail travel from city to city prevented Keaton from enjoying himself like other kids his age. It wasn't until 1907 that the Keatons discovered Muskegon Michigan, and the tiny suburb of Bluffton nestled along the Lake Michigan. Joe Keaton recognized in it a paradise suitable for the hot summer months when the family was not on the road. Keaton Sr. was instrumental in founding the Bluffton Actors' Colony — one of America's few such residential endeavors populated by professional performers seeking a more pastoral way of life in the precious months of the Vaudeville off-season.
While Buster may have enjoyed the occasional sandlot baseball game while on the road with his Vaudeville act and avidly followed his favorite team, the New York Giants, it wasn't until the family settled in Bluffton that his love of the game really flourished. Situated next to Bullhead Pascoe's Tavern was a suitable baseball field that was soon monopolized by actors' colony residents and their offspring. Buster, along with fellow colony residents Mush Rawls, Lex Neal, Joe Roberts and his father, Joe Keaton Sr., plus others lost in the mists of time, formed a capable ball team that often played against local Muskegon factory teams for charitable endeavors. When Buster wasn't swimming, he was playing ball on the Bluffton field, and the game became his first love.
Keaton enjoyed the idyllic life in Muskegon until 1917 when the family act broke up. Good fortune smiled in the persona of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who invited Buster to join the cast of a short film, in the filming of a "The Butcher Boy." The rest, as they say, is history. Keaton's acting, filmmaking and directorial skills took him straight to the top of Hollywood's promised land, and from 1920 to 1928, he made some of the most memorable films in American history.
But how does baseball fit into filmmaking greatness? The game was crucial. Keaton assembled a crack team of writers, cameramen, cast and other crew to work on his early films, and it is said that his studio employment application consisted of only two questions: "Can you act?" and "Can you play baseball?" A yes on either question qualified you for a job with Keaton. In addition, Keaton often hired professional major and minor ballplayers... or people who would go on to become pro ballplayers... to fill out his filmmaking crew. Luminaries like Mike Donlin, Ernie Orsatti and Byron Houck all found employment with Buster Keaton, and many made their mark in films as well as on the ball field.
Most important, baseball became a crucial part of Keaton's filmmaking process. When stuck for an idea or gag, it was common for Keaton's crew to drop what they were doing and pick up the bats and balls. A few innings were often all it took to give Keaton a moment of inspiration that got the process moving forward again. It was common to see the Keaton team on location playing ball wherever there was space enough to accommodate a quick game. Indeed, pictures survive of Keaton's crew playing ball atop railcars during the filming of his greatest film, "The General."
Clyde Bruckman, Keaton's top writer and good friend, had this to say: “Buster was a guy you worked with — not for. Oh, sure, it’s a cliché, like the ‘happy family.’ But try it some time. I even hate to mention the playing. It sounds like a buildup. But late afternoons we chose sides and had our ball game — fights, arguments.... And we made pictures... Oh, we’d get hung up on sequences. Throw down your pencils, pick up the bats. The second, maybe third, inning — with a runner on base — Bus would throw his glove in the air, holler, ‘I got it!’ and back to work. ‘Nothing like baseball,’ he always said, ‘to take your mind off your troubles.'
While the Keaton's career changed over the decades — from silent film to "talkies," short films to features, summer stock, theater and television — his love for baseball never waned. His passion for the game was so well known that he was awarded with a lifetime season pass to any major league ballpark in the nation. Often, he and his film crews played local teams while on location throughout the country, and Buster was instrumental in organizing and playing in the extravaganza Hollywood charity games that attracted thousands and raised funds for childrens' hospitals and other worthy causes. In short, film may have been Buster's forte, but baseball was his religion.
Buster Keaton is more popular today than ever. Take a few moments to check the number of fans who have expressed their admiration and inspiration on social platforms like Facebook, tumblr and twitter. Luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, Jim Carrey and Jackie Chan cite Keaton as a major influence in their work; and the new crop of filmmakers take inspiration from the small man with the stone face who entertained generations of movie-goers. Silent films are returning in popularity, and Keaton's are at the forefront in their cinematic beauty, unbelievable stuntwork, stunning camera effects and side-splitting comedy. Keaton has inspired plays, songs, art projects, documentaries and film restoration efforts across the globe. Because of his importance, the preservation of his childhood landmarks should reflect our gratitude for his life's work.
Buster's baseball field is a reminder of an era when we laughed easily, enjoyed one another's company, and participated in community life with relish, glee and a sense of joy. In this age of technological wizardry and electronic over-stimulation, it might benefit the children of the Muskegon area to be able pick up a ball and bat and play a few innings on the same ground that fostered the creative genius of one of America's finest cinematic minds. If we remove the places we set aside for children to play, we leave them to the mercy of the computer or video game for entertainment. We urge those with the power to preserve this tiny bit of real estate in Buster Keaton's name, and in the name of those kids who might enjoy an outdoor experience on this hallowed field of dreams.