Saturday, June 4, 2011

#39 Lew Fonseca

Lew Fonseca was born in 1899 in Oakland, California. A survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Fonseca grew up to be a good hitter, but his impact on the game truly took place off the field.
In his teens, Fonseca trained as an opera singer. He had a flair for the dramatic, but he was also a very talented athlete. After graduation from Saint Mary's, Fonseca signed with San Francisco of the PCL. He was then sold to the Cincinnati Reds, where he broke in as a second baseman, but also played some first base and outfield. He was with the Reds for 4 seasons, but never played in more than 82 games, batting .361 in 81 games in 1922. After the 1924 season, he was cliamed off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies, and in his first full season he batted .319.
After spending the 1925 season with Newark, he joined the Cleveland Indians for the 1927 season, and became their regular first baseman. He batted .311 and .327, picking up a few MVP votes in 1928. In 1929, he enjoyed his best season, winning the American League batting title with a .369 average with 44 doubles. After an injury-shortened 1930, Fonseca returned in 1931 to fine form, batting .370 in the first two months. However, he qwas then dealt to Chicago for Willie Kamm, and finished the season with a .312 average. He tore a ligament is leg in 1932, and his playing career faded quickly. By 1933, his playing days were over, but he finished with a .316 lifetime batting average in 937 games. However, he had been named the White Sox' manager prior to 1932, and it was here that his innovations changed the game of baseball.
In 1927, while playing winter ball in southern California, Fonseca took a job as an actor, appearing in a film called "Slide, Kelly, Slide" which also starred baseballers Mike Donlin, Bob Meusel, Irish Meusel and Tony Lazzeri. It was on the set that he found himself intrigued with movies and film. As manager of the White Sox in 1932, he bought a 16mm camera and began to film his players batting and pitching. He used the films to find flaws in their swings and delivery, and worked with the players on that flaw. Now a commonplace occurence, Fonseca was the first manager to do so.
After Fonseca was dismissed early into the 1934 season, Fonseca decided to further his merging of his two loves: baseball and film. He approached AL president Will Harridge about filming various events and marketing the sport through film. After a 30-day trial, Harridge liked what he saw and hired Fonseca for an entire year. In 1935, he produced his first sound film, a highlight film about with game footage, interviews, tips on playing the game, and World Series highlights. He continued producing and directing films for the American League, and eventually the Nationaly League to, for 35 years, capturing such famous baseball events as Bob Feller pitching vs the motorcycle, and Al Gionfriddo's catch in the 1947 World Series.
He produced the World Series highlight films through the 1960's, until major league baseball determined that with the advent of TV, a movie department was no longer necessary. Fonseca died in Ely, Iowa, in 1989, at the age of 90.
I think Lew Fonseca is a lot like Lefty O'Doul. Both players were great hitters in abbreviated careers in the same era, but both made their mark out of the uniform (Fonseca with his films, O'Doul with his baseball ambassadorship to Japan). Both men are dark horses to make the hall of fame as innovators, but would not be surprised to see either one get elected on that basis.

The Autograph: Clean, sharp penmanship. If only players of today were this neat. Fonseca was another great signer, like most players in this set.

Below: Lew Fonseca filming Chicago Bears legend George Halas (1953) and Fonseca in the 1960's

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