Fonseca Won Batting Title for Tribe Before Becoming MLB’s Movie Mogul
Vince Guerrieri | On 03, Jan 2018
In 1929, the season belonged to the Philadelphia Athletics. After two years of second-place finishes, the “Mackmen” – so called because of their manager, Connie Mack – won 104 games, breezing to the pennant and a five-game World Series win over the Chicago Cubs.
But the batting title – and the MVP award – belonged to a player the Indians had claimed off the discard pile just a couple years earlier.
Lew Fonseca batted .369 for an Indians team that finished a distant third, 24 games behind the Athletics and six games behind the second-place Yankees. It was a triumph for a player who had been sent to the minor leagues just three years earlier.
Fonseca, a native of Oakland, California, broke into the major leagues with Ohio’s other team, the Reds, in 1922. But injuries limited Fonseca, and he was cut by Cincinnati in 1925. He went to the Phillies, where he finally became an everyday player, batting .316 in 140 games.
The following year, Fonseca played in Newark, using film study to change his batting stance, and that September, he was sold to the Indians. The deal reaped dividends quickly, as he hit no lower than .311 in each of the next three years, culminating in his .369 mark in 1929, when he won the team’s first batting title since Tris Speaker in 1916.
The 1929 season turned out to be Fonseca’s best. He went home and caught scarlet fever, nearly dying in the offseason and only playing 40 games in 1930 because of those aftereffects and a broken arm suffered later in the season. Early in the 1931 season, he was dealt to the White Sox for Willie Kamm, and took on managerial duties the following year.
Fonseca retired as a player after the 1933 season, but continued to manage the White Sox. However, they stumbled out of the gate, and he was fired in May 1934 and succeeded by Jimmy Dykes (the runner-up in the vote when Fonseca won the American League MVP in 1929). But his next act turned out to be his real ticket to immortality in the sport.
Fonseca went to the major league owners and pitched the idea of a film bureau. With their support, he went to American League President Will Harridge, who funded the idea on a trial basis. By 1935, it had caught, showing films that demonstrated how to play the game as well as the importance of the game. It was at his behest that Bob Feller undertook one of the first tests of his speed in 1941: Pitching a ball against a speeding motorcycle. His highlight films were shown to soldiers at war during World War II, and went on into the 1950s as Major League Baseball slowly but surely realized the value of film. All told, Fonseca made 60 movies in 35 years as the founder of Major League Baseball’s Motion Picture Bureau.
“Those movies introduced the sport of baseball around the world,” broadcaster Jack Brickhouse said after Fonseca’s death in 1989. “For that alone he belongs in the Hall of Fame for great service to the sport.”