I’m a lucky guy. I was able to witness the game of baseball before we all became so jaded. While I wasn’t born early enough to have enjoyed Mantle, The Babe, or Joltin’ Joe, I was fortunate enough to watch the likes of Mike Schmidt. Mike stayed 18 years with one team. He never held out and was always responsible in his public persona. Oh, and he ended up being considered the best 3rd baseman of all time in nearly every millennium poll conducted. It is this experience growing up with Schmitty and his like that make these stories feel much closer to home than younger kids are likely to feel. Now we live in the days of juiced hitters, felony convictions, contract holdouts, and almost no player continuity with any team. These films bring hope. After the Black Sox scandal that nearly ruined America’s Pastime, it took players like these to return the game to the glory and most of all the honor from which it had fallen so far. These films make me long for the next generation of greatness. I can tell you they aren’t playing on any field today, but I grew up rooting for the Phillies. In the 1970’s there was a team blitz of the slogan “I believe”. If I learned anything at all it was how to hold on to hope. “Maybe next year.”
First up to the plate is Mickey Mantle. “Mantle: The Definitive Story Of Mickey Mantle” is no fluff piece. The story is candid and at times even harsh on the man. Mantle’s success is so much more amazing when you consider the number and severity of the injuries he suffered in his career. I believe his most impressive stat to be hitting over .300 for ten years. Few players today can string two years together now. A long parade of celebrities both in and out of sports give their insights into “The Mick”. These testimonials are a stunning example of the number of people’s lives he touched. Mantle was considered quite the party animal, but believe me when I say he couldn’t hold a candle to the kids of today in that department. Still, his actions on the field haven’t been approached by more than a few players since his time. He was certainly one of the most vulnerable of these Yankee legends. His career took quite a shaky start as unrealistic expectations dogged him from his first day with the team. The Yankee fans reacted quite harshly to his less than stellar beginnings, earning Mantle a crushing demotion to the minors where he considered quitting baseball. Lucky for the game he didn’t quit. Instead he found the heart to rise above his early setbacks and become truly one of the greats. His retirement years were plagued by alcoholism and finally a failed liver. Suspicions arose when Mantle appeared to be unfairly ushered to the top of the transplant list, a charge other celebrities like David Crosby have had to contend with. Whatever the truth, Mantle used his final days to champion organ donation and to speak out on alcohol abuse. Even in death, he set an example to follow and a challenge to all he left behind.
Batting second… The Babe, Babe Ruth: The Life Behind The Legend. Ruth was literally baseball’s savior. When the 1919 World Series ended in scandal baseball was facing its darkest hours. Ruth’s ability and generosity of spirit almost singlehandedly brought the faithful back to the game. Let’s be honest. The Babe doesn’t look very athletic. He’s chubby and appears quite an awkward figure. But when Ruth stepped up to the plate, there could be no doubt about his natural athletic abilities. Every swing was a drama. Fans could keep their seats even when The Babe swung and missed. Few remember or know that Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher. His infamous trade from Boston to New York charged over 80 years of animosity and intense rivalry between those two cities. The trade began the now famous Curse Of The Bambino, which was blamed for Boston’s long drought of World Series action. The curse is only recently over, but few will ever forget The Babe. It’s hard to imagine that before The Babe, homeruns were rare occasions. The common strategy was one base at a time, one run at a time. Ruth was the model for the modern ballplayer. His reputation for womanizing would seem tame by today’s standards. His charity work, particularly for disadvantaged children, came from his own harsh childhood. These acts of kindness far overshadow his reputation for being cold and even cruel. His womanizing did get him shot at a local Ybor City bar here in my town of Tampa.
Hitting third it’s Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. In “Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio” we get a glimpse of yet another Yankee great. DiMaggio was perhaps the most colorful of the three. He was certainly more the celebrity. His ill-fated marriage to Marilyn Monroe was enough to provide fodder to even the modern tabloids. As a fellow Italian-American I was most moved by his ethnic roots and the struggles he had to overcome against ethnic stereotype and prejudice. Mario Cuomo expresses the sentiment quite well in this film. Joe’s famous 56 game hitting streak inspired songs and theatrical productions of the day. America listened to each game with baited breath, waiting to see if Joltin’ Joe would do it again. It was almost a national obsession. DiMaggio slipped in performance and talent by the end of World War II. With the exception of 1947, he never again achieved the marks he set a decade earlier. His public jealousy over Monroe’s position as a sex symbol caused his marriage to end. A second marriage was planned, but Monroe died unexpectedly in controversy that DiMaggio never seemed to recover from. He became reclusive and often the subject of unkind speculation. He even thought about suing Paul Simon for his reference in the song Mrs. Robinson. Still, even his final years could not tarnish the powerful personality that was baseball’s spokesman for nearly a decade.
Each film is presented in its original full frame format. It’s really hard to critique the video, because by necessity much of it is 50 or more years old. Suffice it to say that most of it looks about as good as it ever did or will again. HBO did an admirable job of finding footage in reasonable condition. The clips are a treasure in whatever condition we might find them.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is up to the task. These films are all narrative, and the audio performs flawlessly. Of course, vintage clips contain a heck of a lot of noise, but be glad you have them at all. The important thing here is you can hear every word. Anything more is simply greed.
Ah, I can smell the peanuts and Crackerjack still. Nothing like a ballpark frank. Now I live in Tampa and try to root for the Devil Rays. Fortunately I still know how to hold on to that elusive hope for next year, or in our case likely next decade. Still, I know it will come. I don’t know when, but it will come. I’m not nor have I ever been a Yankees fan. While I do owe George Steinbrenner a debt for the generosity he provides high school coaches here in his home town of Tampa, I must admit to never being a fan of the boys in pinstripes. However, you needn’t be a Yankees fan to appreciate these greats. If you’re in love with the game, you won’t want to balk at the chance to have this heartwarming set. Perhaps what the game needs most today is to get in touch with its history. Hey Bud Selig, if you’re reading this, go buy this set and learn what baseball is really all about. The game needs an overhaul. No one can doubt that. For now, return with me to a time when three average guys with a not so average passion captured the hearts of a nation hungry for heroes. Sound familiar? We can only hope that “our best moments are as magnificent”.