Video: FDR walks! Pa. museum gets very rare film


In 1937, then-Washington Senators pitcher Jimmie DeShong, a Harrisburg native and a onetime Philadelphia Athletic, toted his 8mm home movie camera to the All Star Game.

He didn’t play that day but nonetheless he scored — with a very rare film of the clunky gait of the man who threw out the first pitch. DeShong’s daughter this month donated the film to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“We were thrilled with the discovery of a new piece of film footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking,” says Ken Burns, who has used it in an upcoming documentary. “Any film of him struggling to get from one place to another is extremely rare, as the Secret Service either prohibited or confiscated cameras whenever FDR was making an attempt to propel himself from his car to anywhere else.”

But, as Matthew Pressman noted in Time last year, FDR’s disability — he was paralyzed from the waist down — wasn’t exactly a big secret.

Although Roosevelt was more likely to be photographed seated in an open car or behind his desk — with perhaps his chin at a rakish angle, a cigarette holder clenched in a welcoming grin — Pressman notes how reporters and their publishers were not afraid of mentioning, or showing, FDR’s wheelchair. Don’t forget that the president was known to visit Warm Springs — the Little White House — whose waters he deemed therapeutic. It was there he died, 69 years ago last month.

His battle with polio formed the essential part of his personal and political narrative. If Roosevelt could wage war against “the insidious and deadly enemy” of infantile paralysis and learn to walk once more (albeit with leg braces and canes or crutches), couldn’t a nation stricken by the Great Depression stand on its own two feet again? Couldn’t we defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?

Yet Roosevelt was keen to project vitality and good health, to the country and to a world on the precipice. It’s not that the press or photographers complied with the president’s wishes, it’s that the Secret Service didn’t hesitate to rip out film that could be used by FDR’s detractors to make the Boss appear unfit for office or weak.

At the 1937 game, Secret Service agents must have been distracted by the all stars, which included Gehrig, DiMaggio and Dizzy Dean.

FDR_PresidentialLibraryMuseumFDR in his wheelchair with a group assembling on the terrace of Springwood in Hyde Park, New York. | Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum. Some rights reserved.