HARRISBURG, Pa. — Rare film footage featuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt walking to his seat at a baseball game helps dispel the myth that he completely hid his disability and shows the courage it took to go about his daily life, experts said Friday.
The clip shows FDR, who was paralyzed from the waist down by polio in 1921, grasping a rail with one hand while being supported on the other side by an assistant. FDR used a wheelchair because he could walk only with braces on his legs and the support of a cane.
“Here is FDR going to a stadium full of people,” said Bob Clark, deputy director of FDR’s Presidential Library and Museum. “Even the simple act of going to a baseball game required a great deal of logistics and preparation.”
Former Major League Baseball player Jimmie DeShong shot the film at the 1937 All-Star game in Washington. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg announced it had acquired the clip from the family of DeShong, a native of the state’s capital city.
Relatives allowed the footage to be used in an exhibit at the FDR library in Hyde Park, New York, where it has been on view for about a year as part of a montage, Clark said.
Filmmaker Ken Burns calls the footage “one of the very best pieces of film that so clearly shows what a brave struggle it was for FDR to move.” Burns plans to incorporate it into his upcoming documentary on the Roosevelts, which is slated to air on PBS this fall.
The footage is rare in part because not many people had personal movie cameras in those days. The press generally did not film FDR struggling to move under his own power, as the Secret Service did not want to publicize the president’s vulnerability, experts said.
While the lack of historical imagery gives the impression that Roosevelt actively concealed his paralysis, in reality he tried simply to minimize it to make the public more comfortable, said Clark.
The FDR snippet is about eight seconds of DeShong’s silent footage, which overall is nearly three minutes long.
The rest of the film, shot with an 8 millimeter camera at Griffith Stadium, features a slew of baseball players, including Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Dizzy Dean.