Spring Training, Safe at Home!, and Baseball-on-Screen in Florida
This article was published in the 2016 The National Pastime.
Occasionally, baseball films spotlight sequences or storylines that are Florida-centric. Not surprisingly, they primarily are linked to spring training—and some even have real-world connections. Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927), for example, features the New York Yankees working out in Delano—and highlights guest appearances by Mike Donlin, Bob Meusel, Irish Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. Big Leaguer (1953), starring Edward G. Robinson as ballplayer-turned-talent evaluator John B. “Hans” Lobert, is set in a New York Giants tryout camp in Melbourne. In Fear Strikes Out (1957), Boston Red Sox rookie Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) heads for spring training in Sarasota.
Others are fictional. Kill the Umpire (1950) stars William Bendix as an ex-ballplayer, loudmouth, and diehard fan who resides with his family in St. Petersburg, where he sneaks off to Grapefruit League contests between the New York and St. Louis nines. Strategic Air Command (1955) toplines James Stewart as a B-29 bomber pilot-turned St. Louis Cardinals all-star third sacker who trains in St. Petersburg; in the film’s first shot, a car pulls up outside Al Lang Field, the designated “Winter Home (of the) St. Louis Cardinals.” In Major League (1989), a menagerie of has-been and never-were ballplayers shows up for Cleveland Indians’ spring training (albeit in Arizona, rather than Florida). But there is a Sunshine State connection: The snooty ex-showgirl who has just taken over team ownership schemes to move the Tribe to Florida. The city of Miami has promised her a new stadium, a Boca Raton mansion, and a Palm Beach Polo and Country Club membership. So how can she refuse?
In Fever Pitch (2005), the following dialogue is spoken between Ben (Jimmy Fallon), a Boston Red Sox fanatic, and Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), his new girlfriend:
Ben: “...every year during Easter vacation...uh, me and my friends, we go down to Florida.”
Lindsey: “You and your buddies go down to Florida for spring break? At your age?”
Ben: “No, no, no, not spring break. Spring training with the Red Sox.”
Lindsey: “Oh, you get to train with the Red Sox? Are you allowed to do that?”
Ben: “Well, we don't actually...We watch the games.”
Lindsey: “Aren’t those just practice games?”
Ben: “Yeah, yeah, but there’s more to it than that. We scout the players. We...We say which players they should keep...which they should get rid of.”
Lindsey: “And the Red Sox ask your opinion?”
Ben: “Well, not yet....”
Ben heads south and, later on, Lindsey tells him: “I saw you on ESPN.” He responds: “Oh! We looked like morons, didn’t we?” And his excuse: “Well, it’s very hot, you know, it’s Florida.”
Of all baseball films with Sunshine State/spring training connections, however, the one that most typifies the Grapefruit League world is not one of the first-division sports yarns. Far from it. For indeed, the best that can be said about Safe at Home! is that it is an innocuous kiddie film—and despite its spotlight on the New York Yankees, one need not wrap oneself up in pinstripe pride to savor it. The film (which was released in 1962) is a must-see if only because it stars the M&M boys themselves, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The previous season, of course, Maris had whacked 61 dingers to top Babe Ruth’s single-season record, while Mantle chimed in with 54 round-trippers. Unlike Slide, Kelly, Slide and countless other films which feature real-life ballplayers in cameo appearances, these genuine American heroes not only shag flies and smash fastballs but also are called upon to act.
Safe at Home! is the saga of Hutch Lawton (Bryan Russell), a motherless, baseball-mad ten-year-old Little Leaguer who has moved to Palms, Florida, with his father, Ken (Don Collier), a struggling charter boat operator. Henry, a fellow Little Leaguer and patronizing banker’s son, harasses Hutch because the elder Lawton is immersed in his work and unable to watch the team practice. Hutch responds by bragging that his dad not only is more baseball-savvy than any other parent but is best buddies with New York Yankees players—and specifically Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The youngster even claims that Ken Lawton is “Roger Maris’s best friend in the whole South.”
Hutch of course is dumbfounded upon being pressured to bring the ballplayers to a league dinner. What will he do? “I’m gonna go see ’em,” he declares. “That’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna ask ’em to help. They just gotta say yes.” So the youngster sneaks off to Fort Lauderdale, then the Yankees’ spring training home, by hiding in the back of a fish truck operated by a friend’s father. Upon his arrival, he sneaks into the Mick’s hotel room and Fort Lauderdale Stadium; showers in the same stall where the ballplayers clean up; falls asleep in the team’s locker room while garbed in Maris’s jersey and employing Mantle’s as a blanket; and is confronted by Bill Turner (William Frawley), a quick-tempered yet sympathetic Yankees coach. As any young fan might, Hutch imagines himself a flychaser who is cheered on as he smacks base hits and makes circus catches. Plus, he endlessly sighs, “Mickey Mantle… Roger Maris…Gosh…Gee….” In the tradition of happy-ever-after Hollywood finales, Hutch realizes that fibbing is bad business, Ken learns that his son requires attention and understanding, and Hutch and his teammates get to visit Fort Lauderdale and spend quality time with Mantle, Maris, and their teammates.
Robert Creamer, writing in Sports Illustrated, observed that Safe at Home! “was designed for cheap, quick filming, a [spring training 1962] release date and a fast buck.” The previous summer, as Mantle and Maris were smashing dingers, Tom Naud, the film’s eventual producer and story co-author, conjured up the idea of starring them onscreen. He contacted Frank Scott, the ballplayers’ agent, and a deal quickly was struck. In the original storyline, Mantle and Maris were to play deaf-and-dumb siblings—perhaps because they could not read lines believably—but the concept was nixed by Scott. What then emerged was the scenario that was used in the film and, by November 1961, all was in place for the spring shooting schedule.1 The New York Times added that Safe at Home! was produced by Columbia Pictures “on a comparatively modest budget” of “about $1,000,000,” with Mantle and Maris “dividing a guaranty of $50,000.”2
On February 7, 1962, the Times reported that the duo was “heading for Fort Lauderdale…but not for baseball. For the next few weeks they will be here strictly as actors, appearing in the Columbia picture ‘Safe At Home!’ Scenes will be shot at the ball park and at the club’s quarters in the Yankee Clipper Hotel.”3 A week later, it was announced that star hurler Whitey Ford and skipper Ralph Houk had been added to the cast. The paper also noted a bit of off-camera drama: “…during the filming of the preliminary shots at nearby Pompano Lake, there was quite a to-do when one of the camera men, Irving Lippman, lost, or thought he had lost, a valuable ring. Mantle sailed right in and spent some fifteen minutes trying to find it in the loose dirt. When the cameraman returned to his hotel, he found the ring on top of his dresser. He was all apologies but Mickey assured him he should ‘think nothing of it. The exercise did me good.’”4
On February 15, the Times ran a feature on the production. “The Yankees went Hollywood today, and for more than four hours, Manager Ralph Houk’s well-regulated training camp became a merry shambles,” wrote John Drebinger. The scribe noted that the otherwise “obliging” Houk, certainly a novice at moviemaking protocol, gave the film’s director, Walter Doniger, full control of the ball park. However, “by the time the field was well-cluttered with sound trucks, cameras, ladders, wires and whatnot, Houk felt he had obliged enough.” The manager also was illprepared for the presence of the make-up artist, who was to groom him for his on-camera emoting. “For the Major is still a rugged military man,” noted Drebinger, “and the rouge and powder made him squirm. Especially when he found himself in the center of the astonished stares of the players.” Adding to Houk’s frustration was that his few lines with Bill Frawley had to be re-shot eight times.5
Ten days later, Drebinger penned another piece on the progress of the shooting. He observed that, according to Doniger and Tom Naud, Mantle and Maris “are not performing as actors but as themselves. Their lines are what they would say as ballplayers.” Drebinger was quick to disagree, however, given that “the jargon of the dugout could be a trifle rough.” But he added: “Mantle and Maris are doing well, so far. Mantle, in particular, seems to be enjoying himself. He laughs easily and takes everything in stride. Asked whether he preferred being an actor to a ballplayer he replied: ‘Why, this life is a breeze. Shucks, in this business when you make a mistake you do it over and over and over until you do it right. Around the ball field when you misjudge a fly ball or let a third strike whiz by they don’t give you another crack at it.’”6
Drebinger reported that Doniger “insists that Mantle, Maris and the other Yanks in the picture, including coach Johnny Neun and some twenty rookies who provide background, have been a most agreeable surprise. ‘They’ve really amazed me,’ he says, ‘by their poise and the relaxed manner in which they handle themselves, especially in the outdoor scenes with spectators gaping at them from all sides. Even professional actors sometimes feel a bit self-conscious working under such conditions. But ballplayers, I guess from the nature of their business, are so accustomed to playing before a crowd that it doesn’t bother them in the least’.” (Drebinger also noted that one of the junior ballplayers in the cast was none other than “freckle-faced David Mantle, Mickey’s 6-year-old son.”)7
In retrospect, it is no surprise that Mantle and particularly Maris do not give Oscar-caliber performances in Safe at Home! What matters is who they are: clean-cut all-American champions being marketed as models for young American boys. And they are not the sole Yankees spouting dialogue. Whitey Ford speaks a line: “Hey Rog, Mickey. Houk wants to see you right away.” Ralph Houk has several interchanges: “Hey, Bill, can I see you for a minute.…What’s that youngster doing on the bench?…Keep on running. Run harder than that…” (For sure, the Safe at Home! screenplay was not penned by Ernest Hemingway.) And as the Yankees train, the names “Tom” and “Phil” are detectable. Could they be “Tresh” and “Linz”? When somebody cries “Pepi,” he has to be citing Joe Pepitone.
Also of note in Safe at Home! is the presence of Frawley, a lifelong baseball fan whose Coach Bill is a variation of the crabby but endearing characters he played on I Love Lucy and My Three Sons, his hit TV series. In one scene, the coach and Mantle and Maris pass the hours away from spring practice by playing Scrabble in a hotel room—and M&M gently tease him on his ineptitude at spelling. “Who says so?” Bill growls. “Webster,” is Mantle’s answer. “What club’s he with?” the coach responds. At one point, Bill dubs Mantle and Maris (who then were as celebrated as any big leaguer) a “bunch of mangy rookies.”
Less than two months after its filming, Safe at Home! was released theatrically to coincide with the start of the 1962 season. Its premiere was no starstudded Hollywood event; the film opened on a double bill with Chubby Checker’s Don’t Knock the Twist, another Hollywood product attempting to cash in on the era’s zeitgeist. Both were combined in their advertising copy, which was headlined: “2 GREAT HITS ON ONE GRAND SLAM TWISTIN’ PROGRAM,” with Safe at Home! featuring “The great M&M playing themselves! Big Buddies to the luckiest kid in the world!” Given Frawley’s popularity, he was spotlighted for playing “the tough, gruff, lovable coach.”
Unsurprisingly, the film’s reviews were at best tepid. New York Times critic Eugene Archer summarized the majority opinion by declaring: “Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris came up to bat in unfamiliar surroundings yesterday and went down swinging,” adding that Safe at Home! was “a whimsical little children’s film” and “minor league production.”8 Additionally, in order to be cast in Safe at Home! Mantle and Maris were afforded membership in the Screen Actors Guild, which made them eligible to garner Best Actor Academy Award nominations. But they were not members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which barred them from voting in the Oscar race. “They must achieve distinction as actors,” explained an unnamed Academy expert, adding: “It is not felt that their distinction is in the field of acting.”9
Almost four decades after the release of Safe at Home!, I interviewed a number of the film’s participants while researching Meet the Mertzes, a double biography of William Frawley and Vivian Vance, his I Love Lucy co-star. One was Tom Naud, who explained that Frawley “loved being cast in (the film). He loved calling Ralph, Mickey, Roger, and Whitey by their first names.” At the same time, Frawley only palled around with the stars. “I wouldn’t have been invited to talk baseball with him,” recalled Jim Bouton, then a Yankees rookie, who was one of the extras. “That was for Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and the big guys, like Whitey Ford. I was just happy to be asked to be an extra in the movie, for which I got paid the munificent sum of $50.”10 (According to the New York Times, the rookies “had [each] received $100 for romping on the field.”)11
As for Mantle and Maris, Walter Doniger offered a take on the ballplayers that was far-removed from what he told the press during the shoot. Doniger described them as “pretty arrogant and ego-driven.” To convince them to respond to his directorial cues, he determined that “the best thing I could do would be to pretend total ignorance of baseball, and not know who they were. One time, I said to them, ‘I’d like in this scene for you to run not counterclockwise but clockwise around the bases. ‘They looked at me and said, ‘You can’t do that in baseball.’” Doniger added: “I would deliberately get their names reversed, so that they kept trying to prove to me that they were important. I thought the best thing to do would be to make them ordinary people to me, and not big league stars and world heroes. So I did that, and it seemed to work.’”12
Whether the M&M boys were model citizens during the shoot, or haughty superstars, or something in between, what matters today is that Safe at Home!, while no Pride of the Yankees or 61*, does offer a nostalgic snapshot of a moment in time. (And speaking of 61*, wouldn’t Billy Crystal—famed Yankees fan who celebrated his sixtieth birthday by DH-ing in a 2008 spring training game in Tampa—have made a perfect Hutch Lawton?)
ROB EDELMAN teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He is the author of Great Baseball Films and Baseball on the Web, and is co-author (with his wife, Audrey Kupferberg) of Meet the Mertzes, a double biography of I Love Lucy ’s Vivian Vance and famed baseball fan William Frawley, and Matthau: A Life. He is a film commentator on WAMC (Northeast) Public Radio and a contributing editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. He is a frequent contributor to Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game and has written for Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond, Total Baseball, Baseball in the Classroom, Memories and Dreams, and NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. His essay on early baseball films appears on the DVD Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era, 1899–1926, and he is an interviewee on the director’s cut DVD of The Natural.
SAFE AT HOME!
DIRECTOR: Walter Doniger.
PRODUCER: Tom Naud.
SCREENPLAY: Robert Dillion, based on a story by Naud and Steve Ritch.
MUSIC: Van Alexander.
A NAUD-HAMILBURG PRODUCTION.
CAST: Mickey Mantle (Himself); Roger Maris (Himself); William Frawley (Bill Turner); Patricia Barry (Johanna Price);
Don Collier (Ken Lawton); Eugene Iglesias (Mr. Torres); Flip Mark (Henry); Bryan Russell (Hutch Lawton); Scott Lane (Mike Torres); Charles G. Martin (Henry’s Father); Ralph Houk (Himself); Whitey Ford (Himself).
NOTE: Approximately twenty Yankee rookies and other team personnel appear unbilled. Cast as one of the young ballplayers, also unbilled, is David Mantle, Mickey’s son.
- 1. Robert Creamer, “Mantle and Maris in the Movies.” Sports Illustrated, April 2, 1962, 96–108.
- 2. John Drebinger, “Teamwork on the Citrus Circuit.” The New York Times, February 25, 1962, X7.
- 3. John Drebinger, “Toothpick Bat: Weighty Topic in Yanks’ Camp.” The New York Times, February 7, 1962, 59.
- 4. John Drebinger, “Two Infielders Figure in Plans.” The New York Times, February 14, 1962, 29.
- 5. John Drebinger, “Houk Gets Some Coaching, Hollywood Style.” The New York Times, February 15, 1962, 32.
- 6. John Drebinger, Teamwork on the Citrus Circuit. The New York Times, February 25, 1962, X7.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Eugene Archer, “Double Bill at Neighborhood Theatres.” The New York Times, April 14, 1962, 14.
- 9. Murray Schumach, “Mantle, Maris in Oscar Race.” The New York Times, February 16, 1963, 5
- 10. Rob Edelman, Audrey Kupferberg. Meet the Mertzes (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), 204–205.
- 11. John Drebinger, “Houk Gets Some Coaching, Hollywood Style.” The New York Times, February 15, 1962, 32.
- 12. Rob Edelman, Audrey Kupferberg. Meet the Mertzes. (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999, 204–205.)