By Matt Singer
In honor of the start of the 2008 baseball season, IFC.com has been paying tribute to the national pastime’s long relationship with the movies every day this week by giving you everything you’d ever want to know about the odd little quasi-autobiographical ditties in which baseball players have played themselves. Peanuts and crackerjacks not included.
“Safe at Home!” (1962)
Directed by Walter Doniger
As Themselves: Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle
Game Story: A young baseball fan living in Florida named Hutch (Bryan Russell) boasts to his Little League team that his inattentive father is, in fact, best friends with Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. When his teammates call his bluff, Hutch hitches his way to Fort Lauderdale and sneaks into the Yanks’ spring training complex, where he’s befriended by who else? Maris and Mantle, over the objections of coach Bill Turner (“I Love Lucy”‘s William Frawley). Though the Bronx Bombers admire Hutch’s determination, they refuse to return home with him in order to teach him a lesson about the dangers of lying, shortly before they throw all that out the window by inviting Hutch’s Little League team to train with the Yankees back in Fort Lauderdale. And thus did a generation of young baseball fans learn that it’s okay to run away from home, break into private property and harass baseball players.
On-Field Achievements: Maris is best remembered for breaking Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs in a single season with 61, much to the chagrin of many in baseball, including those who would have preferred that the record belong to Mantle, who was then the most popular Yankee. The record has since been broken twice more, first by Mark McGwire in 1998 (70) and then by Barry Bonds in 2001 (73). Mantle never did top the Babe, but he still holds the career records for the most home runs and RBIs in the World Series.
On-Screen Achievements: Does sheltering a minor who’s run away from his loving family count as an achievement?
Errors Committed: In his attempt to convince Bill Turner not to turn their underage guest over to the authorities, Mantle tells the coach that Hutch reminds him of a bunch of kids “who couldn’t get enough of baseball and used to follow the players around wherever they went,” implying that he and Maris were boyhood chums, a blatant fabrication probably designed to combat reports in the press that the two didn’t get along at the time. Not surprisingly, there’s no mention made of Mantle’s legendary off-field debauchery, though the movie does pause long enough for a few maids at the Yankee hotel to look at a framed picture on the Mick’s nightstand and remark, “That Mr. Mantle sure has a lovely family!”
Discoveries: Based on the brief glimpses we get in “Safe at Home” since the movie takes place during the spring, there’s lots of conditioning drills and not a lot of competitive play Mickey Mantle may have had the prettiest swing in baseball history.
Substitutions: The rivalry between Maris and Mantle during the 1961 season and the fight to claim Babe Ruth’s record was captured, with a good deal of eloquence, by Billy Crystal’s telefilm “61*” (the asterisk represents the one that was allegedly going to be placed after Maris’ record by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick because he accomplished the feat in eight more games than Ruth). Mantle was played by Thomas Jane, Maris by Barry Pepper.
Final Score: Baseball fans would expect Maris to be a poor actor he was quiet by nature and never particularly good with the press and he doesn’t disappoint. But it’s a bit surprising to see that the famously magnetic Mantle perform about as badly. Sure, he’s got that great smile, but his line readings are delivered just as blandly as his less photogenic co-star.
Extra Innings: “Seinfeld”: The Boyfriend (1992)
Directed by Tom Cherones
As Himself: Keith Hernandez
Game Story: Jerry meets former New York Met first baseman Keith Hernandez in a health club locker room and the two become friends, much to the chagrin of Kramer and Newman, who claim that Hernandez spit on them after a particularly painful loss. Jerry and Keith’s relationship is tested when Keith becomes interested in Elaine, while George is busy trying to extend his unemployment benefits by claiming that he’s close for a job as a latex salesman at an imaginary company named “Vandelay Industries.”
On-Field Achievements: Hernandez was a member of the 1986 Mets team that defeated the Red Sox for the franchise’s second (and, thus far, last) world championship. As Jerry and George repeatedly mention, he played in the legendary “Game Six,” where the Buckner Ball helped propel the Mets to the title. Though his bat was always strong, Mex’s reputation wrests on the quality of his defense at first base, where he won eleven consecutive Gold Glove awards. From my subjective perspective, he had one of the best gloves of any first baseman and unquestionably, the single finest mustache of the 1980s.
On-Screen Achievements: Hernandez isn’t a natural thespian the former first baseman has recounted how “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David had to provide him with line readings for his immortal line “I’m Keith Hernandez!”. But he’s better than a lot of the other guys we’ve looked at this week, and he fits into the “Seinfeld” ensemble pretty nicely. He makes out with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (the action that prompts the aforementioned declaration) and takes part in the show’s classic spoof of “JFK”‘s “Magic Bullet Theory.”
Errors Committed: Kramer and Newman explain that the infamous spitting incident took place on June 14th, 1987 after a home game against the Phillies. In fact, the Mets were in Pittsburgh on that date, where they beat the Pirates by the score of 7-3.
Discoveries: Roger McDowell the real expectorant in Kramer and Newman’s story has five-tool saliva glands.
Substitutions: Sadly, there is no “Keith Hernandez Story” to speak of, and the 1986 Amazin’ Mets haven’t gotten their own movie yet, either. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed for that one but hey, ya gotta believe. The Hernandez casting would be crucial to any such endeavor that would be some big facial hair to fill.
Final Score: Hernandez’s mustachular contributions help make the two-part “Boyfriend” saga one of the finest episodes in “Seinfeld” history.
[Photos: Poster for “Safe at Home!”, Columbia Pictures, 1962; “Seinfeld” – The Boyfriend, Castle Rock Entertainment, 1992]