A Robert Parker Novel for Baseball Season



Mortal Stakes (1975)

By Robert B. Parker

Dell Books, 329 pp.



Robert B. Parker became one of the best-selling crime/mystery writers of his time (1932-2010) but until he published his first Spenser novel in 1973, he was just another writing professor with a few books under his belt hoping for a break. Two years later he still had to write a few more Spensers before he could hang up his tweed sports coat and write full time.


Parker was also a big baseball fan and the start of a new season is a good reason to revisit his third novel, Mortal Stakes. I caution that Parker had not yet reached his full stride and that his private detective Spenser was still more of a cocky urban cowboy than the urbane master of the bon mot he later became. Nor was he yet a one-woman man; he shared bedroom quality time with both Brenda Loring and Susan Silverman, and ogled other possibilities. 


Mortal Stakes is a readable 1975 novel with the Boston Red Sox at its center. Spenser is approached by team president Harold Erskine to make discrete queries into a whispered rumor that he picked up. Despite the fact that star hurler Mary Rabb almost never loses, Erskine wants to know if Rabb has occasionally thrown a game or shaved the vig(orish) so that bookies avoided payouts. With that task in hand, Spenser gains access to the team, management, and broadcast booth under the guise that he’s writing a book about the Red Sox. He takes an instant dislike to play by play man Bucky Maynard, a rotund Southerner who comes off as a cross between Dizzy Dean and Ned Martin. Nor is he very fond Lester Floyd, who passes as his driver but is rather obviously Maynard’s muscle. Nonetheless, Spenser is wise enough to know that a modicum of thuggery doesn’t mean much in the Back Bay of the 1970s.


The real puzzler is that everyone tells Spenser that Marty Rabb is “the nicest guy” you’ll ever meet. While still posing as a writer, Spenser meets Marty and he thinks so too. Rabb loves baseball and lives in a neat apartment with his wife Linda and a three-year-old. The only thing that seems a bit funny is that Linda claims to not pay much attention to baseball, but says she met Marty at a game in Chicago. Since he has no other clues and Erskine is paying him $100 a day plus expenses, Spenser decides to go to Chicago to see if he can dig up something that leads him elsewhere.


He does, but what he finds is not what he expected. Before the case is resolved, Spenser finds himself in New York City where he encounters a pimp named Violet and a woman who runs a high-class escort service and porn film distribution network. Back in Boston he is threatened by Frank Doerr, a mobster posing as a funeral director, and his gunsel Wally Hogg. It’s not the best idea to humiliate company such Doerr and Hoggg, but that seldom deters Spenser.


 As Spenser developed as a character he became a man willing to use violence, but also one with a very strict code about the circumstances under which he would resort to it. In Mortal Stakes we observe that he has definite ideas of who the good and bad guys are, but is less constrained about how to be on the side of justice. If you go on to read a lot more Spenser novels, you might come to see Mortal Stakes as a pivotal book in which Spenser’s methods and personality start to change. It ends with a warning to Spenser from homicide commander Martin Quirk about what he can’t do in his city. Parker wasn’t shy about bringing down the baddies in his next 37 Spenser books, but the plots became more intricate and subtle.


Was Marty Rabb one the take? I’m not a Sox fan so I’m tempted to be a wise guy like Spenser and say that anytime the Red Sox win someone is on the take. But what kind of a person would reveal the mystery of a mystery?


Play ball!


Rob Weir


It Ain't Over: Perfect for MLB Opening Day



It Ain't Over (2022)

Written and directed by Sean Mullin

Sony Pictures Classic, 98 minutes, PG.




If I were to ask you what Major League Baseball player has the most World Series rings, who would you guess? Babe Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Joe DiMaggio? Mickey Mantle? Go back to the locker room, you're 0-4. The answer is Yogi Berra. He had 10 of them; 13 if you count the three he collected as a coach.


Mention his name and most people will think of two things: a cartoon bear created by Hanna-Barbera and a funny guy prone to malapropisms and garbled phrases. Who thinks of Berra as one of the game's greatest players? At 5'7” and a body shaped like a pear, he wouldn't even be drafted today. That would be baseball’s loss. Are you sick of guys with big contracts that strike out a lot and hit an occasional home run? In five of Yogi’s 19 years in uniform, he slammed more homers than he struck out and never fanned more than 38 times in a season. In 1950, he came to the plate 597 times and whiffed on just a dozen occasions. That's even more remarkable given that Berra often swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He had a knack for hitting pitches wherever they were hurled. That meant you couldn't defense him; Yogi used all of the park.


It Ain't Over is a documentary of a decent man, a veteran of D-Day, and a beloved family man. We often hear the voice of Lindsay Berra, who was royally peeved by how the media made her grandfather into a clown and ignored his accomplishments: three MVPs, 358 home runs, and 1,430 RBIs, a Hall of Famer, catching Don Larsen's World Series perfect game, and a .285 career average, which is rare for catchers, baseball's most physically demanding position. Like most biographical documentaries it contains a lot talking head testimonials. Family members weigh in—Lindsay; Yogi's children, Barbara, Dale, Larry, Tim, and video from his beloved wife Carmen. Ditto a veritable who's who of baseball: Hank Aaron, Roger Angel, Marty Appel, Allen Barra, Bobby Brown, Bob Costas, Larry Doby, Al Downing, Joe Girardi, Ron Guidry, Tony Kubeck, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Bobby Richardson, Mariano Rivera, Ralph Terry, Joe Torre, Vin Scully... Derek Jeter first met Yogi when he was beginning his career and tells of swinging at a bad pitch. Yogi asked him why he swung at such a lousy pitch. When Jeter said, “But Yogi, you swung at that pitch all the time.” Yogi's retort, “Yeah, but I hit it!” 


It Ain't Over takes us back to The Hill in St. Louis where Berra was born Lorenzo Pietro Berra and lived across the street from his lifelong friend Joe Garagiola. It was a classic blue-collar immigrant neighborhood–not a ghetto, but not anybody's idea of posh either. It would be no exaggeration to say that Berra's parents were not crazy about his desire to play ball. He got his colorful nickname from a photo in which he and several other players in the front row were sitting cross-legged on the ground. One teammate remarked that the squat Berra looked like a yogi and it stuck. Years later the family tried to sue for Hanna-Barber for copyright infringement but lost; “Yogi” wasn't Berra's legal name.


Yogi was generally a portrait of calm, though he had moments of pique and stubbornness. He always insisted that Jackie Robinson should have been called “out” when he famously stole home in the 1955 World Series. When owner George Steinbrenner fired Yogi as manger after he took an aging Yankees team to the Series but lost to the Cardinals, Yogi refused to return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years until publicist Suzy Waldman convinced Steinbrenner to tell Yogi he made a mistake. That was a miracle on the line of Donald Trump admitting he was wrong! Yogi returned to his first post-apology Old Timers Game to deafening cheers.


This is an uplifting documentary about a man for whom no one had a disparaging word. It perhaps tries too hard to replace the clown image with one of a misunderstood “genius” and I could have done without the bombastic Nick Swisher, but Yogi Berra gets a long overdue tribute in It Ain't Over. It's such a touching film that Emily, who has zero interest in sports, declared it “excellent” and “moving.” Yep, we all love Yogi here.


Rob Weir







Sea of Grass Worth Reviving?




Sea of Grass (1947)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Lowe’s Inc. 127 minutes, Not-rated



Sometimes it’s a good idea to “sit” with a film after you’ve seen it. I was fairly blasé after viewing Sea of Grass but the more I thought of it, the more I liked it. My reaction was apparently par for the course. Critics were lukewarm when it was released in 1947, yet audiences flocked to it and made it the most successful Hepburn-Tracy (H-T) film of all time.


I think I was initially hesitant because it was an H-T movie. It was hard to imagine Katharine Hepburn as a gal from St. Louis or Spencer Tracy as a New Mexico cattle rancher who loves waving fields of grass. Hepburn had the ultimate Connecticut Yankee blue-blood accent and Tracy–though born in Wisconsin–was a New York/Los Angeles sort of guy. In the film, Lutie Cameron (Hepburn) comes from a proper St. Louis family and is set to marry Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy) when she gets a telegram telling her to hop on a train to get hitched on Brewton’s Salt Fork ranch instead. To say that she’s less than impressed by Salt Fork is putting things mildly. She’s even more alarmed by Brewton’s brusque and imperious manner, and is shocked when she meets local Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) who warns her that Brewton is a hard man. To prove his point he takes her to the local court house where Brewton is trying to run off a settler on government land he wants for grazing.


Lutie gains more insight into Brewton’s thinking when he takes her to gaze out upon the empty prairie and waxes rhapsodic about the power of the land and the need to conserve it. But make no mistake; Brewton is a cattle man, not Teddy Roosevelt reincarnated. He wants no part of homesteaders moving onto the grasslands and is unaffected by Lutie’s pleas that it will make Salt Fork more lively. Call it visions of St. Louis versus those of Petticoat Junction! Lutie errs badly when she convinces Brewton to allow a family to build a sod home on land he sees as his. Despite Lutie giving birth to a daughter, Sara Beth, the question arises: Can this marriage be saved?


Maybe not. Lutie decides to flee to Denver for a time. There she “bumps into” Brice. Nod, nod, wink, wink. Lutie will come back to Salt Fork where she gives birth to a son, Brock. Chamberlain returns as well, is elected a federal judge to settle land disputes, and in his own way is as intractable as Brewton. Acrimony sends Lutie back to St. Louis, where she consults a lawyer. Can she get out of her ill-advised match? Maybe, but there are attached strings. (Aren’t there always?)


Director Elia Kazan shows a deft hand by taking a proverbial tuck in the script. Instead of following Brewton and Lutie though their respective trials, triumphs, and tribulations, Kazan subtly shows us that years have passed. When we pick up the story, Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) is a young woman and Brock (Robert Walker) is an angry reckless hellion. This lapse in a family saga was actually quite bold given the Hollywood Code of the day that had definite rules in place about the sanctity of the family. You’ll have to watch to see how Kazan extracts himself from the corner into which he has painted himself.


It's undoubtedly a personal matter whether you buy into the idea of a H-T Western. There are, though, several things to recommend giving it a try. First of all, not many actors have ever done stubborn as well as Tracy, so that part rings true even if you don’t think he belongs in cowboy boots or wearing a long string tie. Second, cinematographer Harry Stradling imbues the prairie with great majesty. Wide shots of winds rippling across vast expanses of grass indeed invoke the “sea,” and are enhanced by shooting in black and white. Note what Kazan and Stradling do with shadows, sky enhancements, and underlighting.


Finally, there is relevance in this 77-year-old film. Once we move away from the war of wills between Lutie and Brewton and ponder the core of their clashing worldviews–civilization versus the fragility of ecosystems–who is right, kind-hearted Lutie or hard-as-nails Brewton?


Rob Weir