When dominoes fall, opportunity often knocks. Larry Foley knows this better than most.
Foley, chair of the University of Arkansas Department of Journalism and a five-time Emmy winner, had never considered documentary filmmaking until a fortuitous concurrence of exits dropped an odd assignment into his lap.
“It was a classic example of opportunity knocking and being the only one in the room,” Foley said. “Man, I’m glad I was there to answer.”
In August of 1979, KATV, ABC’s Little Rock TV affiliate, found its sports department stretched thin, and the deadline for an hour-long special on college football barreling down hard. Desperate, the suits called Foley, who was KATV’s morning news anchor and assignment editor at the time, to the plate. The move proved to be a home run for Foley’s career.
What: “The First Boys of Spring” – Screening event
When: Sunday, Oct. 25 (2 p.m. lecture, 3 p.m. screening)
Where: Fayetteville Public Library
“Sam Smith, our lead sports anchor, had left to become the voice of the San Antonio Spurs, and then our back-up sports anchor Ray Tucker left to be the voice of the Memphis State Tigers,” Foley said. “Bob Steel, our back-up, back-up sports guy was busy shooting our Razorback football special in Fayetteville. Clyde Gray, our sales manager, came down to the newsroom a nervous wreck because he didn’t have anyone to do a news special on all the college football teams in the state except for the Razorbacks.”
Jim Pitcock, KATV news manager, and Gray converged on Foley’s desk, and Pitcock told Foley that since he knew sports and could write, he would take on the Herculean task.
“They gave me two weeks to put together a one-hour show, and I loved it,” Foley said.
Since then Foley, who sidelines as the press box announcer for the Razorbacks’ football statistic crew, has produced dozens of films, specials and TV programs. His latest documentary “The First Boys of Spring” makes its Northwest Arkansas debut at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Fayetteville Public Library.
The documentary details the robust and sordid history of spring training in Hot Springs, Ark., and how the Boys of Summer trained and indulged in all manner of vices in and around the famous bath houses from 1886-1955. The Red Sox, Pirates, Dodgers all trained in the Spa City. Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Mike “King” Kelly and Satchel Paige all worked out in Hot Springs by day and gambled and partied there by night.
Central to the story was Ruth’s monster, 573-foot home run that landed in the Arkansas Alligator Farm as well as Ruth’s infamous “Bellyache Heard ‘Round the World.”
Longtime collaborators Dale Carpenter and Jim Borden worked as editor and director of photography on “The First Boys of Spring,” and James Greeson composed the score.
Hot Springs native and Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton, a devoted baseball fan and reportedly fine high school player, narrates the documentary.
“I don’t know what I would have done if Billy Bob had said no,” Foley said. “It was his voice I heard while I was writing the script. It seemed like the perfect project for him with his roots in Hot Springs and his love of the game.
“You want to have a script ready before you ever approach a name like him. I called in some favors and made connection with him through [film and television producer and native Arkansan] Harry Bloodworth Thomason. I was just thrilled when I got his answer.”
Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson provided the voice of Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige.
“It was a perfect role for Mike,” Foley said. “He is from Birmingham and so was Paige. It was an authentic choice, and he did a great job.”
In conjunction with the showing, historian and author Phil Dixon will give a presentation on the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest-running franchise of the Negro Leagues. The Monarchs also trained in Hot Springs.
Producing the college football special for KATV in 1979 was sort of a Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp moment for Foley. Long-form reports, specials and documentaries became a major part of his life’s work. Before working on the special, the longest story Foley had produced was a three-minute package for Neilson sweeps. However, with that football special in the can, Foley never looked back. He knew he had found his passion in long-form. KATV noticed, too, making him producer for the Lou Holtz and Eddie Sutton Razorbacks coaches shows and other sports specials.
“People ask me how many projects have I done, and I don’t know,” Foley said. “I don’t want to count. It might wear me out. But I love doing them.”
Foley carved a niche in long-form news projects, and it eventually led him away from KATV in 1984 to form his own production company, under which he continues to write, direct and produce films today.
“Forming my own company was a risk, but it gave me more time to write, research and develop a project,” Foley said. “It really let me get into the heart and soul of the story. In the news business, you’re lucky to have two hours to work on a story. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the name of the game. Television news is really a headline service. At that time, if you wanted the full story, you picked up the newspaper. Today we read it on the web.”
Foley garnered contracts with AETN and Arkansas Game and Fish as well as working on various freelance projects when he went solo. AETN respected his work so much that they hired him. While still working on his own projects through Foley Productions, he worked his way up to associate director at AETN before joining the UA Journalism Department in 1993.
“Faculty appointments at the UA include 40 percent teaching and 40 percent research,” Foley said. “What I have done with my research time is research, write and produce cultural documentaries.”
While on the UA faculty, Foley proved instrumental in developing, building and directing an academic center for television reporting and production. In 1996, he founded the campus television station, UATV.
“Journalism is a worthwhile profession,” Foley said. “It’s work that matters, and it should be dependable and reliable. That’s what we endeavor to teach in the journalism department of the UA.”
While journalists are front-line historians, Foley enjoys the depth that the long-form storytelling brings to the viewers of his documentaries.
“Whether the subject is set 1820 or 1986, I want to put you in the middle of that period,” Foley said. “What I’m really trying to do is transport you in time by telling the stories. I’m a reporter, and I teach reporting. If I’m going to tell you about Babe Ruth’s home run into the Arkansas Alligator Farm in March of 1918, I’m going to go back to the original document written by Paul H. Shannon in one of the Boston papers that tells about that home run. If they are fining Babe Ruth $10 a ball for hitting too many home runs out of the ballpark, that’s a quote I’m going to give you.”
Detailing those stories adds richness to the history that sometimes news stories are unable to provide, Foley said.
“The facts are the facts,” Foley said. “You don’t mess with that, but we do use some movie-making techniques to breath life into that story. Documentaries are history through stories because the stories are captivating. A good story is, you know, forever. It’s why we go back and read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn or The Bible.”
The fact that Hot Springs became the hub of spring training during the early decades of the 20th century may be surprising to those who trek to Florida, Arizona and other sites each year to follow their favorite clubs. Foley said Major League baseball went to Hot Springs for the same reason other tourists of the day of the day did.
“The therapeutic baths were famous, and Hot Springs could be reached by train,” Foley said, “but it was still out of the way, secluded. You had the racetrack and the nightlife. African-American men traveled there for seasonal work. It was a place you could go to meet the famous, infamous and the infirmed.”
More options, friendlier weather and the threat of scandal all played a role in Hot Springs’ slow demise as host to teams for their annual training camps.
“At the beginning, Hot Springs was a resort of national renown, and Florida was a swamp” Foley said. “They didn’t have DDT to kill the mosquitos. As Dee Brown wrote in his book ‘The American Spa,’ baseball players went to Hot Springs for spring training before Florida was invented.
“But as Florida began to drain the swamps and actively recruit the teams, it became more attractive. The idea originally for teams was to go to Hot Springs, take the baths and get in shape. Well, many years the weather wasn’t all that nice. It could be really cold. Sometimes it snowed. It could be really wet. Florida became more dependable.”
The Yankees’ ban on Ruth visiting for his annual spring flings was another blow.
“The Red Sox trained in Hot Springs, but the Yankees didn’t,” Foley said. “When the Babe was sold to the Yankees, he continued to go, as did others as kind of a pre-spring training, training session. But in 1925 when Babe was told not to go back, that was it.”
Teams trained in Hot Springs as late as the mid-1950s, but the environment would never be the same without the Sultan of Swat.
“Babe was the moneymaker for all of baseball,” Foley said. “He was the show wherever he was. When Babe wasn’t there, that was the beginning of the end. Plus, the Major League owners began to really dislike the gambling and the prostitution. Couple that with the undependability of the weather, and it just began to fade. Some teams continued to train there, especially the pitchers and the Negro Leagues because there were plenty of fields, but it was fading. The last team to train in Hot Springs was the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues in 1955.”
Foley’s continuing work as a documentarian only helps him in the classroom as he trains young journalists in their craft.
If I’m working on a story, I’m working with the same obstacles and challenges that my students are when they are working on a documentary or even a television news story,” Foley said. “Access, images, deadlines, bringing the story to life, coming up with interesting and unusual angles, finding interesting people to interview, everyone working on a story deals with that. The challenges that I have in the field, I take right back with me into the classroom and use them to teach. It keeps me fresh. In scholarship, it’s called being actively engaged in the field that you teach, and for journalism professors, it’s critical.”
Subjects for his documentaries come to him in a variety of ways. Some Foley develops from his own ideas, while other are brought to him or as with his first effort, fall in his lap. However, Foley is picky about the projects he selects.
“If I’m going to work on a project, it’s two to three years of development, research, writing, fundraising, and then finally shooting it,” Foley said. “For me to take a project on, I’ve got to feel like it’s going to be a great story and something that merits a long-form production. I also like to find one that interests me and keeps my own attention. It doesn’t have to be something I know a lot about, but I do have to be interested enough to want to know a lot more.”
Baseball is near and dear to Foley’s heart, but he had never broached the sport in a documentary because he had not found the right story opportunity. That changed with “The First Boys of Spring.”
“I’m a huge baseball fan and big baseball history buff,” Foley said. In the beginning, I didn’t know if there was enough of a story there. Is there enough there to really tell it? Will it hold up? And how will I tell it? Those were questions I had to answer to make this film work. There is no film of baseball spring training from Hot Springs because there was no sound film before most of them moved on to other sites. The Major League teams have been gone that long. Babe Ruth last trained with the Red Sox there in 1919, almost 100 years ago. He didn’t go back after 1925.”
However Foley believes he found more than enough material and is proud and eager to tell that to history buffs and baseball fans alike.