Movie: Safe At Home (1962)
Starring: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bryan Russell, and William Frawley, with cameos from Ralph Houk and Whitey Ford.
Plot: Nine-year-old Hutch tries to impress his little league teammates by claiming he and his father are friends with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, then runs away to Spring Training to try and convince the Yankee superstars to attend his team’s awards banquet. Hijinx ensue, sort of.
Signature Quote: “Gosh! Gee!”
I discovered the existence of Safe at Home purely by accident a few months back, when I was, for reasons that now completely elude me, searching for information on Joe Pepitone. In an old Sports of the Times story, I came across an Arthur Daley account (sadly expensive now that "Times Select" no longer exists) of lighthearted batting-cage banter regarding Mantle and Maris’ upcoming movie premiere, and did a double-take -– Mantle and Maris starred in a movie? How come I’d never heard of it?
I can now report that this question has an easy answer: because it’s really, really bad. But it’s the middle of the offseason, and if I never hear the words “growth hormone” again it will be too soon, so I’ll sit through most any baseball movie right now. There are surprisingly few really excellent ones, anyway; Bull Durham and Bad News Bears, sure, but I’ve never been able to really get into Field of Dreams, and while I know I’m probably in the minority here I really, really can’t stand The Natural.
(Long digression: This is not so much because The Natural is long and humorless, or because Robert Redford appears to have slept through several crucial weeks of filming, but because I read the Barnard Malamud book first. And I didn’t even like the book very much, but if you read it, and then watch the end of the movie… I don’t want to ruin anything, but let’s just say that in the book Roy Hobbes doesn’t hit a home run and live happily ever after. At all. In fact –- and on second thought, I’m gonna go ahead and ruin it — Hobbes strikes out, the Knights lose the game, he tries to return the bribe money but it’s too late, everyone realizes the fix was on, his reputation and career are ruined, he’s maimed Iris with a foul ball, and the woman he loves tries to shoot him. It’s a story of failure, doom, weakness, and disgrace that makes Dostoyevsky’s more downbeat works seem like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Last line: “…he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.”
So. Then you watch the last scenes of the movie, and as people around you are tearing up at the beautiful imagery and swelling inspirational music while Redford circles the bases in slow motion, all you can think is you have got to be fucking kidding me. It has to be one of the most cynical betrayals of the source material ever put to film, the equivalent of ending a Hamlet adaptation with a cheery wedding between the prince and Ophelia. )
That said, The Natural is a much better movie than Safe at Home, in part because it turns out that Wonderboy is able to convey a far wider range of emotions than Mickey Mantle. It seems mean-spirited to rag too much on the acting in this movie: the kids are, after all, just kids, while Mantle and Maris and Houk are amateurs. But the end result is that only one of the movie’s main characters is actually played by a capable actor, and the whole thing resembles nothing so much as 84-minute version of an old Post Cereals ad.
Our protagonist, Hutch, is played by Bryan Russell, who has apparently not acted since 1967’s The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffen. He’s recently moved from New York to Florida with his father, who now owns a charter fishing boat. Hutch cooks, cleans, and takes care of his father’s laundry, which was almost enough to make me want children; but it’s made clear that in fact Hutch’s dad is putting too much adult responsibility on him. And, in a subplot never seen on the big screen before or since, is missing his Little League games because of work! When a bully starts giving Hutch crap about his father, he claims that his dad is pals with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The lie spins out of control, and eventually Hutch sets out for Fort Lauderdale to meet Mantle and Maris and enlist their help.
Safe At Home came out in 1962, but its heart is completely in the 50s. It takes place in a world in which every single human being is cheerful and friendly (even the bully is fairly polite), and crime is nonexistent; nothing this idyllic ever shows up on movie screens these days except at the beginning of horror films. Hutch sneaks into a spring training game, then into the team hotel (the Yankee Clipper, a pretty sweet looking ship-shaped building which apparently still exists), and no one is ever mean to him, nor do they call the Department of Child Services.
Mantle and Maris take a liking to him, and they’re really perfectly likeable onscreen, but they appear to have seen their lines for the first time five minutes before filming began. Hutch also endears himself to the obligatory crusty old Coach — William "Fred Mertz" Frawley, the lone capable actor mentioned above; meanwhile, Whitey Ford’s advertised cameo consists of just one completely expressionless sentence (“Houk wants to see you right away”). They should’ve got Yogi.
Hutch sneaks into the Yankees’ spring training stadium at night, and into the locker room, where he takes a shower, puts on one of Mantle’s jerseys, and goes to sleep. Try this little trick today and you’ll be tackled by 25 armed security guards, strip searched, and shipped off to Gitmo. But just before this, the movie has its one and only surprising scene: Hutch is pretending to catch and hit on the darkened field, and accidentally sets off some loud equipment – I think it’s a pitching machine – when suddenly, he starts hearing explosions, and a loud onrushing train, which the audience never sees; his eyes widen in terror, and it pursues him around the batting cage. Then he heads into the locker room as if nothing were wrong, and the incident is never mentioned again, leaving me to spend the rest of the movie wondering if the character had suffered a complete psychotic break. No idea what the hell was happening there; it’s like David Lynch came in to shoot three minutes of footage.
Anyway, eventually Hutch explains his situation to Mantle and Maris. Though they have no other plans, they refuse to come to the banquet, because Lying Is Wrong. After a stern and decidedly judgmental lecture — “you can’t make a foul ball fair by moving the baseline, it’s just not in the rules!” — that leaves Hutch near tears, the kid agrees to tell his teammates the truth, just as his dad shows up to comfort him. (And if I were a hardworking widower fishing boat captain, I’m not sure I would take as kindly as Hutch’s dad does to parenting tips from The Mick, but never mind).
However! after Hutch makes his painful public confession, his father declares that Hutch now has two new friends — and they’ve invited the whole little league team down to meet the Yankees and watch spring training! Everyone is thrilled, Hutch is a hero, and I try to remember why it was again, exactly, that lying was supposed to be bad and harmful, instead of totally awesome.
Next up: Rhubarb: The Millionaire Tomcat, about a cat that inherits the Brooklyn Loons baseball team. Starring Ray Milland… and a cat. Can’t miss.