61 a Great Drama, but Mediocre Film

61  (2001)
Directed by Bill Crystal
HBO/Warner Brothers, 129 minutes, TV-MA (language)
* * ½

Each spring I watch a baseball movie or two to get myself psyched for May and June–when the games begin to matter more than they usually do in April. This year I decided to watch one I've not see before. 61 recounts the 1961 season when both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris threatened to break what was then the single-season homerun record: Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927.

First, let me get a rant out of the way. Is there a law that says that the music for a baseball film has to be as schmaltzy as polka night in down-market bar? Marc Shaiman's score is insufferable in a we-can't-trust-viewers-to-fashion-their-own-emotions fashion. Not even the Lifetime channel would be able to stomach the 61 score.

Okay, on to the film. 61 was directed by comedian Billy Crystal, a serious baseball fan and devoted Yankees fan. The project was originally done as an HBO exclusive and was later picked up by Warner Brothers for broader distribution. It has many of the earmarks of a TV production: broad character development, a tendency to simplify, a sense of triumphalism, bathos, and infusions of moralism. In other words, it's more light entertainment than masterpiece.

Still, scriptwriter Hank Steinberg knows his way around the keyboard and was nominated for a Writers Guild of America prize for 61. The film was also cast well, especially Barry Pepper as Roger Maris and Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle. Each looks the part. Jane captures Mantle's crooked smile and Pepper channels Maris' straight arrow demeanor. Christopher McDonald also sticks out as broadcaster Mel Allen, as does Peter Jacobson as sports journalist Artie Green.  

We open to documentary footage from 1998 when the Cardinals Mark McGwire was set to obliterate Maris' record. Members of the Maris clan were on hand to witness the event and were charitable in ways that Babe Ruth's widow Clare had not been 37 years earlier*.  From that point on, we are thrust back to the 1961 season and the media frenzy that ensued. We are so used to media circuses these days that it's easy to forget they were relatively rare back then, unless you were a jetsetter with a trail of paparazzi on your tail.

In 1961, baseball was decidedly America's pastime. The season opened with Maris as the reigning MVP, having hit 39 homers and driven in 112 runs in 1960, but "The Mick," as Mantle was dubbed, was the local golden boy. Another thing that might surprise is that personal lives were not scrutinized as much in the early 1960s, which was a good for Mantle, a heavy drinker and a womanizer, though he had a wife and kids back in Oklahoma. We later found out that he and Whitey Ford were also peeping toms. As the summer and the bats heated up, New Yorkers were pulling for Mantle to break Ruth's record. The media hyped competition between the two, which was not true. As the movie correctly shows, the M and M Boys–a media creation that became an actual business partnership–were very good friends. Maris even convinced Mantle to share an apartment with him and Bob Cerv, an attempt to keep Mickey healthy and sober. Ironically, Mantle got injured late in the summer, the result of a botched "energy" shot that left him with an ulcerated hip. As Maris got closer and closer, the strain on him was so great it caused patches of his hair to fall out and the boo-birds to come out of the woodwork. In stark contrast to McGwire in 1998, even Ford Frick (Donald Moffat), the Commissioner of Baseball, was against Maris. (He had been friends with and a ghostwriter for Babe Ruth.)

Diehard fans probably know that Frick announced that Ruth's record would stand unless Maris broke it in the same number of games (154). He made it to 59 in game 154, but was stymied by Orioles' knuckleball hurler Hoyt Wilhelm. (Fun fact: former major leaguer Tom Candiotti, who threw a knuckleball, portrayed Wilhelm.) Maris hit number 61 on the last day of the season, game 162. Frick promptly inserted an asterisk beside the record, an indignity that lasted for 9 years until a new commissioner decreed that all records were for a season, however many games that might be.

61 is also about the loss of innocence. Maris was the opposite of The Mick—a guy who married his high school sweetheart Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley), was a devoted father of six, and was polite and painfully shy–not the sort you want to feed to the New York media sharks. To say that Roger Maris did not receive his due is an understatement. He died of cancer in 1985 at just 51 and never saw McGwire break his record, nor is he in the Hall of Fame.

The Maris saga is a compelling story, though Billy Crystal's film is frequently more melodrama than drama. It seeks to be iconic in the way that many sports-as-metaphor-for-life films often do. To reiterate an earlier point, it paints with a broad brush and its  made-for-TV credentials are very much in evidence. Serious baseball fans will not be pleased with portrayals of teammates such as Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Skowron, who appear more as wallpaper than fully realized characters.

61 as a film leaves much to be desired. If, however, you are a younger fan who does not recall those days, 61 will whet the appetite to dig deeper. The rest can relive our youth and grumble about how a great drama was reduced to so-so theater.

Rob Weir

* McGwire would hit 70 homers and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa 66. Barry Bonds subsequently passed them both.


Transcription a Good Read, but Falls Short of the Hype

By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages.

Late in Kate Atkinson’s recent novel, one of her characters remarks, “Nothing is as simple as it looks….There can be many layers to a thing. Like a spectrum.” This snippet of dialogue could easily serve as a summation of the novel.

Transcription is set mostly in 1940, with brief forays ten years in the future. Its main character is Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old who is drawn into service with MI5, Britain’s parallel to the CIA.* It’s the early days of World War II, but late enough that it looks as if Britain will soon be the last European holdout against Nazi Germany. Juliet’s job is precisely as the title suggests; she sits in a room and types transcripts of conversations she can make out–we’re talking technology from nearly 80 years ago–between an MI5 agent Godfrey Toby in an adjacent room chatting with members of the British fascist movement who think he's a Nazi sympathizer. Toby is especially adroit at charming women associated with the fascist underground: Betty Grieve, Trude Hedstrom, and Dolly Roberts, but he’s not made much headway with Mrs. Sciafe, a rich woman who is probably the money conduit. Soon, Juliet is primed to be a spy posing as Iris Carter-Jenkins and charged with ingratiating herself to Sciafe. It doesn’t take Juliet long to realize that rash actions can lead to tragic consequences.

We meet other British spooks, such as Fraulein Rosenfeld, Miles Merton, Oliver Alleyne, Rupert Hartley, and Peregrine Gibbons, the last of whom Juliet holds out hope might become her lover. (She’s desperate to lose her virginity.) Perhaps it surprises to learn that Britain had far right fascist groups when it was at war with Germany. It should not; so did the United States. The reason is simple. During the Great Depression, just a handful of nations avoided economic disaster. Among them were fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some Brits held out hope that Hitler’s troops would roll into London and “save” England. There were veritable (and imagined) Fifth Columns–homegrown enemies–in both the US and Britain. The question was how to discern harmless cranks from real threats.

Transcription is thus a spy novel, but it has a twist. We move forward to 1950, when a no-longer-innocent Juliet is working for BBC Radio. She gets a note threatening to make her pay “for what you did.” Who sent the note? When you’ve been a spy, the list can be long. Against her better judgment, Juliet tries to reconnect with some of her former MI5 colleagues, all the while launching her own investigation. All I will say is that this is a book about moles, agents, double agents, idealism, and agendas that go beyond the stated goal of ferreting out domestic fascists.

Kate Atkinson is a very good prose stylist. I am not, however, convinced that this book warrants the tons of praise heaped upon it. It’s certainly a cut above the pulp spy novels that strain the racks of used bookshops, but it does play to formula. This is glaringly the case in springing a last-minute reveal. I’ve no qualms with this per se–this is what most thrillers and detective novels do–but it feels abrupt because the entire 1950 part of the story is rather thin. Atkinson also assumes her readers are familiar with how values held in 1940 were no longer acceptable in 1950. I know this, but I’m a historian whose job it is to know. I wonder if younger readers will have any idea about the thinly veiled principals to whom she alludes.

I did enjoy Transcription, but it lacks the imaginative touch of Life After Life or A God in Ruins. I recommend you read it, though. Do NOT do the following until you’ve finished: Google Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. This was once big-deal stuff in Britain. Once you know, the gaps in Transcription become crystal clear.

Rob Weir
* Technically the CIA was created in 1947 when the World War II Office of Strategic Command was refashioned as the Central Intelligence Agency.  


Thoughts for a May Tuesday

I was sitting by the Mill River at Yup Coffee enjoying the sun, which I'm told is the name of that fiery yellow orb in the sky. Thank goodness it's cloudy again and preparing to rain, he says sarcastically. There's nothing like a cup of Joe, some rushing water, and a bit of warmth to get the brain to shift into high gear. So here are musings on sports and politics–a mix of the trivial and apocalyptic.

1. It feels like it's a good thing the Celtics' season will soon end. 

Remember how the C's were supposed to waltz to the NBA finals? It didn't even come close to playing out that way. What went wrong?

·      Kyrie Irving is an amazing talent, but he's not as good as he thinks he is. Kyrie doesn't make the players around him better, takes too many shots away from other guys, and has never proven that he can carry a team on his own. It won't be a disaster that he's unlikely to come back except….

·      You can forget about Anthony Davis, who probably won't give Boston a second thought once Kyrie walks. That means the Celtics will continue to get crushed close to the rim unless Robert Williams turns out to be a stud, not a spare part.

·      Alas, I think I was right in predicting that Gordon Hayward's elite status ended on Day One of the 2017 season. His injury was just as horrible as it looked. He now looks good on occasion, but Hayward is never going to be great again. Trade him? I would.

·      Is the bloom off the Brad Stevens rose? He looked like a genius when the C's weren't supposed to be good, but is the guy to raise another banner? Maybe not, but he'll get another chance or two as upcoming rosters won't be better than this year's. And the last thing the Celtics need is another bunch of middle of the pack first-round draft "projects." Danny Ainge miscalculated in stockpiling picks.

2. See Democrats. See them commit suicide.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has announced that no candidate opposing an incumbent member can run as a Democrat. Are you freaking kidding me? Some have called this the Anti-AOC Amendment. I'd label it the Sclerotic Sinecure Strategy.

This only makes sense if you think it's fine to have a party full of wheezers older than I. Shall I mention that's it's also a piece of autocratic idiocy that's destined to encourage young folks and people of color to stay home on Election Day? Are the Democrats trying to be as tyrannical strategies as Trump? This latest idiocy reminded me of why I quit the party decades ago and registered as an independent.

3. Stop dawdling and take down Trump.

Democrats continue to tiptoe around Trump for fear of pissing off voters. Hello! Memo: Voters are already pissed off. I'm so sick of hearing the word "moderate" I could hurl. Being statesman-like will not defeat Trump.

Take off the kid gloves. Go after his corporate shenanigans, order the Treasury Department to turn over his tax returns, and indict, indict, indict…. Do to Trump what the GOP did to Bill Clinton: cut off his goolies. Let Trump face "yuge" fines for his crooked business dealings. Make him go before Congress to answer Michael Cohen's charges. Call hearings in which women assaulted by Trump testify. Adopt a Scandal of the Day policy. Rinse and repeat.

Make no mistake; we have crossed the border between embarrassment and danger. The United States cannot afford another four years of this Brownshirt Comb-over, and neither can the planet. It's this simple: If someone doesn't take him down before 2020,  Trump will be reelected, and we're all doomed for sure if we're not already. Eco-disaster looms and we must adopt green policies. Being anti-science is no longer a choice.

4. Unregister and vote for Bill Weld.

You can help the anti-Trump cause by unregistering as a Democrat. Say what? Given the Democrats' search for a backbone, one way to dump Trump is to join me as an unenrolled voter. You can then go to the primary poll, request a GOP ballot and cast it for Bill Weld, who is challenging Trump. This is your at-least-he's-not-nuts strategy.

5. Musical delusions of grandeur.

I was listening to a Dick's Picks compilation of the Grateful Dead this morning–Volume 24. I'll leave the fact that it's fairly pedestrian music and move onto this: There's no rock and roll act not named The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen that has ever made enough good music to warrant 24 volumes! (And, yes, that includes The Rolling Stones, who have been mailing it for the past three decades.) 

6. Major League Baseball needs to save itself from hypesters and analytics freaks.

I've had it with WAR, WAR+, OBPS, launch angle, exit velocity, yada, yada, yada. These clowns are ruining the game. They don't even care about baseball beyond the little fantasy games they like to play. Please go away and do what children used to do: bounce a tennis ball off a wall and play Make Believe.

It's bad enough analytics have sterilized the game, but much worse is that they are ruining young bodies. Players are bulking up so that they can hit tape measure homeruns that still don't go as far as those hit by Mickey Mantle with his alcohol-diminished body. The result is that today's players are strong, but lack flexibility and agility. Things are even worse for pitchers. Tommy John surgery is almost a rite of passage now–even in Little League!

In 2018, the average ticket price for a game was $31 and was over or just under $50 for Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees home games. That's a helluva lot of money to not see your favorite players because they're on the Disabled List.

Rob Weir


Ellie and the Harpmaker is a Charming Debut

Ellie and the Harpmaker (2019)
By Hazel Prior
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a quirky little novel whose charm grows the deeper you get into it. Set in Exmoor, which lies near Bristol in the southwest of England, it centers on two loners whose relationship is seldom what you’d imagine. Although Hazel Prior’s story is nothing like that of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there are similarities in tone and the overall unusualness of the two tales.

Dan Hollis is the titular harpmaker. Although Prior never uses the term autism, we suspect he’s on the spectrum. In his isolated barn Dan fashions gorgeous instruments; a small sign proclaiming him the “Exmoor Harpmaker” is the only hint of a shop with nearly three dozen hand-carved harps, each fashioned from wood Dan carefully chooses and adorned with a pebble he plucks from a brook. Dan leaves sales to his sister Jo, as he has no head for business or much of anything else that’s practical. He makes only Celtic harps, which he can tune but cannot play because he has done so since childhood. Dan’s the kind of guy who counts ants and stars, notices the color of socks, brews coffee for its smell but doesn’t drink it, and serves sandwiches to his rare visitors, which he cuts into precise triangles. (It is a major effort to adjust to cutting them into rectangles.)

Overall, Dan is far more at home in the woods and upon the moors than in social situations. Metaphors and irony stump him, and he answers all questions literally and without filters. He has just one friend, Thomas, his postal carrier, though he does claim to have a girlfriend he calls Roe Deer–though her name is actually Rhoda Rothbury, a harper*–whom he knows lives precisely 23.1 miles away. She’s been his girlfriend for eight years, though is doesn’t dawn on Dan that they’ve not been intimate or on a date for six years and that she disappeared for a year.

One day, Ellie Jacobs sees his small sign and impulsively visits Dan’s shop. Thus begins their connection. Dan dubs her “the Exmoor Housewife,” and impulsively gifts her a harp that she cannot play. Ellie is married to Clive, who purports to adore her, though theirs is a jealous, manipulative relationship–so much so he browbeats her into returning the harp. In turn, Ellie tries to hide the fact that she is taking lessons from Roe/Rhoda, that she regularly visits Dan, and that he keeps her harp in his shop.

This sets up a series of situations, some hysterical, some fraught with tension, and some touchingly poignant. There’s even a character named Phineas, who is a pheasant! This is a book about what happens when a guileless innocent is drawn into situations that call for tactful disingenuousness–especially when encountering another as rigid as he, but decidedly not so innocent. It is also one in which individuals who lack confidence and self-esteem find music and affinities that make the soul soar.

If I might return to the unusualness theme, little that I’ve said truly captures this book’s essence. Ms. Prior knows something about the impact of music; she too is a harper. Hans Christian Anderson remarked, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Ms. Prior’s characters aren’t exactly wordless, but both actual music and what we might call the music of the heart help those who struggle to articulate convey their inner natures and build connections.

I will not pretend that Ellie and the Harpmaker is destined to become a literary classic. In parts it is overly sentimental and it occasionally skirts the border of cliché. It is nonetheless a sweet debut that sounds triumphant notes for characters who find joy in simple things and rediscover innocence. To circle back to my opening, it is a novel whose major virtue is its charm.   

Rob Weir

* Although many people use the term “harpist,” years ago acclaimed Scottish musician Alison Kinnaird advised me that the correct term is “harper.” If anyone knows, it is she!