The Movie Mickey Mantle & Maris Made…with Fred Mertz

Safe at Home! co-starred the real-life living baseball legend Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle playing themselves.

One need not obsess over baseball stats to be struck by the fact that it was exactly 50 seasons ago that yesterday’s World Series winners, the San Francisco Giants had also played the World Series – but lost.

Mantle.

In 1962, the Giants were challenged not only the formidable New York Yankees but a centerfield player who was at the peak of worldwide fame by the name of Mickey Mantle.

In fact, six months before the Giants faced Mantle on the field, the nation had done so in movie theaters.  If there was anybody watching the film who still didn’t know much about Mantle after his sensational 1961 season, they were certainly familiar with his co-star, the cranky “Fred Mertz,” apartment landlord on the popular 1950s television sitcom I Love Lucy.

By the time of the 1962 World Series, the thirty year old Mantle, had been playing centerfield for the Yankees center fielder for a decade, replacing the retiring Joe DiMaggio.

DiMaggio.

So confident that Mantle’s natural power on the field would make him a legend, team manager Casey Stengel  assigned him a uniform with the number ‘6,” in succession of Yankee legends DiMaggio who wore “5,” Lou Gehrig who wore #4, and Babe Ruth who wore #3. “He’s the greatest prospect I’ve seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways,” Stengel said at the time. “I’ll swear I expect to see that boy just take off and fly any time.”

No matter how stellar an asset Mantle quickly became for the Yankees, or how genuinely friendly and accessible the humorous native of Oklahoma was towards teammates and fans, he was treated with contempt in story after story by New York’s club of sports reporters, men with public egos and personae of their own.

Young.

The dean of this crew who dictated the bullying was Dick Young of the New York Daily News, later eulogized as “vicious, ignorant, trivial and callous,” a highly conservative journalist whose judgment about the personalities of Yankee players, regardless of their abilities, “made people gasp.” In 1956, Mickey Mantle had exuberantly declared his hope to someday soon break Babe Ruth’s record for the most single-season home runs. Dick Young’s arrogance had been empowered for decades from the fact that he’d been a personal friend of Babe Ruth.

Babe Ruth.

In the 1950s the New York sports reporters still depicted “The Babe” as not merely the standard-bearer of all New York Yankees but American baseball’s most sacred symbol. They viewed Mantle’s challenge to his record as a potential desecration of the legend, and immediately branded it as an arrogant insult. That this hard-drinking upstart had replaced the beloved and dignified DiMaggio only deepened their resentment towards him, and the reporters nastily caricatured him as a buffoon and belittled him in print as a “true hick.”  They even characterized his becoming the sport’s highest-salaried player at the start of the 1961 season as a selfish way of breaking a baseball record.

Mickey Mantle, guided by his teammate Whitey Ford, a native of Queens, New York, began to court favor with individual New York reporters, who couldn’t deny his charming warmth was genuine.

The single greatest factor which led to the Yankees as soon being called, “Mickey Mantle’s team,” however, was the new face appearing on the field in the 1960 season.

Maris.

Traded in from the Kansas City Athletics, the Yankees “farm team” as the reporters snarkily dubbed it, the new player Roger Maris was initially viewed as just another “hick” like Mantle, regardless of the talent he brought to the team.

When, however, this reticent, unsmiling and seemingly shy man from Minnesota reacted with point-blank bluntness to the rude New York reporters, refusing to kiss their asses, suddenly Mickey Mantle seemed more like a hero.

Through the 1961 season, Dick Young and his gang shaped up a narrative of Roger Maris as “surly,” the “outsider” who could never be a “true Yankee,” giving him a persona in perfect counter-point character to the eager Mickey Mantle.

A lithograph depicting a June 30, 1960 Yankees game when Maris and Mantle were striving to break Babe Ruth’s record. (Legendary Sports Sprints)

When the New York press paired the contrasting du0 as the “M & M Boys” in news stories as the season unfolded as both got closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s record, it captured national interest, generally, and that of Hollywood, particularly.

Maris signs a ball for President Kennedy.

Ideas for product endorsements and other celebrity guest appearances were already starting to come in when, felled by a hip ailment, Mantle had to sit out the rest of the season – and Maris broke the Babe Ruth record.

It allowed the New York sports writers to characterize Mantle as a sympathetic fallen hero – without having been the one to break the idolatry of Babe Ruth, but the achievement by Maris was reported like a funeral.

“They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something,” Maris admitted in 1980, still hurt by the reaction. Even after President Kennedy himself invited Maris to the White House to congratulate him for breaking Ruth’s record, the player received only begrudging press in New York.

Maris and Mantle with co-star Doris Day.

Mantle, Maris, Doris Day and Cary Grant.

In conscious defiance of those who resented his success, however, Roger Maris agreed to sign onto an offer with the giddier Mickey Mantle to join former Yankees star Yogi Berra in a cameo appearance in a forthcoming movie called, That Touch of Mink, a scene  between its stars Doris Day and Cary Grant set in Yankee dugout seats.

The foray into film only further skyrocketed the names of Maris and Mantle, especially before audiences who were not following baseball. Here’s a newsreel promoting it:

Their brief performance soon had them sorting through other incoming movie offers playing themselves but in starring roles. Somebody else in Hollywood had been watching Mantle and Maris.

Bill Frawley, Yankees fan.

A long-time boozer of the first order, he chaffed at being confined to watching the games on television, and got himself out to live games, to hell with his health. In fact, he loved baseball so much that he’d taken a number of acting roles in bad movies just to get onto the field: Hold ‘Em Yale (1935), Alibi Ike (1935) It Happened in Flatbush (1942), Moonlight in Havana (1942), The Babe Ruth Story, (1948) Kill the Umpire (1950) and Rhubarb (1951).

Despite being a working actor since the days of vaudeville, his nasty sarcasm and gruff persona was no act. Instantly recognized on the streets near his Hollywood Boulevard apartment, when thrilled little kids understandably called out to “Mr. Mertz,” he didn’t give a damn if he sent them crying by snapping that his name was Bill Frawley. The man Lucille Ball would call “one of the greatest character actors of all time” hadn’t always been that way but a patina of bitterness had settled on him as a result of tremendous professional frustration.

Frawley as a judge in Miracle on 34th Street.

William “Bill” Frawley had a passion for acting that had been perpetually limited by only being cast for minor roles, further stymied by his cyclical outlet of heavy drinking and, then, its ensuing health problems.

Even at age 64, he was still dreaming of that one great role. In 1947, he’d had a taste of of rising stardom, that year playing both a judge in Miracle on 34th Street and the host of a wedding part in Monsieur Verdoux but it didn’t spark offers of any leading roles, and he was again relegated to depicting nothing but minor characters.

By the early 1950s, the rising threat of television to the feature film industry was also provoking mild panic in movie studios and budgets were tightening.

Bill Frawley with the rest of the I Love Lucy cast – Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Vivian Vance.

In fact, it was a television project Bill Frawley heard about which renewed his hopes for hitting the big time.  There was a lead role in it for an irascible cheapskate apartment landlord. It was being put together by a husband and wife team, who would also star in it. Their names were Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and their new CBS sitcom would be called I Love Lucy.

In an instant, Bill Frawley knew he was Fred Mertz – and absolutely had to get that role. Getting hold of the couple’s home phone number and despite it being late at night, he immediately called. Lucille Ball answered, a bit startled since she only slightly knew Frawley but his enthusiasm was infectious and she and Arnaz both thought it was a good match. CBS executives, however, were not so enthusiastic, telling Arnaz that Frawley was a risky choice, given his reputation around town for drinking.

Both “Lucy” and “Desi,” however, believed they’d found their “Fred,” and worked around it, drawing up a contract which stipulated that it he ever showed up late for, or unable to work, he would be written out of the show. During the entire run of  I Love Lucy  (1951-1957) and the three consecutive years of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz ShowFred Mertz” missed only two episode performances.

It wasn’t for drinking, however, but to watch Mickey Mantle and the Yankees play in the World Series.

Fred and Ethel arguing eternally.

In fact, at the time Frawley agreed to his CBS contract stipulations, he had one non-negotiable one of is own: the option of not appearing if the Yankees were in the World Series. Eight time during the ten-year run of I Love Lucy, the Yankees were in the World Series and “Fred Mertz” went to watch two of the games.

His days of long-anticipated stardom, however, came to a sudden end with the series conclusion. Frawley didn’t care that becoming “Fred Mertz” had forever typecast him – as long as he could keep working. The chance came when Ball and Arnaz offered him the chance to c0-star in his very own television series with his TV wife “Ethel Mertz” played by Vivian Vance.

Frawley with the cast of My Three Sons.

Vance, however, resented having to play the wife of the much-older Frawley and his hostile remark that she was “one of the finest girls to come out of Kansas but I often wish she’d go back there.” She got her posthumous revenge when, upon hearing of his death, she piped up, “Champagne for everybody!”

Instead of waiting for another choice role to come his way, the increasingly ill “Mertz” simply accepted CBS’s offer to play cranky grandpa “Bub O’Casey” on My Three Sons, the same year Roger Maris started with the Yankees.  The work involved acting out-of-sequence scenes and he didn’t enjoy it. In time, he would be further devastated when CBS informed him that he was being replaced by actor William Demarest because, due to his age, the studio was unable to continue insuring Frawley. He continued to visit the set, lonely for company. He was soon asked to stop coming by.

But Bill Frawley’s ambitions would not go unrequited, his real life merging with his fantasy life, saved by his one abiding loyalty. The Yankees.

A lobby card from the movie.

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had agreed to a script offer, signing on to co-star in a film they’d make between the 1961 and 1962 baseball season called Safe at Home! They would play themselves, their famous names and faces carrying the movie intended for the family market. The storyline itself is poignant and familiar.

Bryan Russell who played the boy who lies but learns.

Its about a somewhat forlorn little boy, full of bravado but really alone, his mother dead and his father only finding work away from home and leaving him with others. He indulges an active fantasy life, creating his own sense of worth in his imagination based on his love of the Yankees. He begins to brag, his defensive bravado leading him to lie to his Little League friends that he personally knows Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris who are friends with his father. Suddenly, his popularity rises but his veracity is challenged. Learning of a Yankees game being played in a nearby city, he runs away determined to get to the the famous “M & M Boys,” and convince them to show up at his Little League practice. He gets as far as their hotel room – until he encounters their stubborn, cranky coach played by Bill Frawley, who gave a performance identical to Fred Mertz – who had become the real Bill Frawley.

Frawley giving hell to a cop looking for the kid.

It was the role Bill Frawley had been waiting to play his whole life, drawing on bothy his passion for the Yankees and his now permanent state of gruffness.

Unlike the bit parts of his dozens of previous film roles and his I Love Lucy persona, however, the role of baseball coach offered and instantly accepted by Frawley allowed him to finally play a character not only central to the plot but with a fully-developed arc.

Frawley with the Little Leaguers.

And playing out the role gave him a chance to make up for all his years of carping and bickering and saying no to people – on and off screen.

He sees something familiar that he likes in the kid – and he ends up helping him. It’s redemption of sorts for Fred Mertz.

A still from the movie with Maris, Mertz and Mantle, signed the the last.

For Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Safe at Home! not only managed to capture and preserve the duo in their golden period, both being true to the personal characters which shaped their public personae which gave them a chance to also do what baseball players once did for little kids – serve as role models. When they learn the boy lied, they refuse to come, telling him he has to go back and tell his friends the truth.

And, of course, when he does tell the truth, the “M & M Boys” surprise him by showing up to meet his friends.

Here in the film trailer, old Fred as cranky and full of complaining as he was with Ethel, completely unawed by Mantle and Maris:

Mantle signing autographs.

As a film, Safe at Home! isn’t very good. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were even able to laugh at how badly they performed on screen, delivering their lines poorly (story and script by Robert Dillon, Tom Naud, and Steven Ritch) and moving stiffly (direction by Walter Doniger), but the story behind it and its value as a time piece of Pop Culture makes it worthwhile. It also let the “M & M Boys” indulge unabated in a gesture they both enjoyed beyond the field, chatting up excited kids who approached them to autograph postcards of the movie poster. And it proved to be the last film made by “Fred Mertz,” and certainly the best.

It also proved to be an immortalizing moment of a waning heyday. “Mertz” died in 1966, the same year Maris last wore the Yankees uniform; three years later Mantle announced his retirement. The rules of the game are the same, but over the ensuing half-century, the mythic symbolism of baseball’s living legends has tarnished, as much a result of an evolving popular culture as the sport’s hyper commercialization, both aspects perhaps driven by a greedier national ethos.

Mantle & Maris in 1961.


Categories: Hollywood, Sports

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2 replies »

  1. You’re right that “Safe at Home” wasn’t a very good film, but I sure loved it as a kid. I grew up in Florida, where it was filmed, so some scenes felt like they could have been filmed in my neighborhood AND it had my childhood idol, Mickey Mantle in it! I saw it again about a year ago, and boy did it bring on the early 60’s nostalgia, especially now that Mantle, Maris and Frawley are all gone. Thanks for a very informative article on it!

    • It missed my childhood memories by some years but of course Mickey Mantle was such (is he still?) a baseball legend – there was a time when it seems that no one name was more a matter of instant association with baseball, even more than Maris. Those I remember, names like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter hit the headlines but never lasted like Mickey Mantle. And poor old Fred Mertz (Frawley). I live in Los Angeles and have heard some stories from people who had older family members who knew him and it had apparently became very bitter towards the end – except for how doing this movie made his spirits soar. Thank you so much Andy. I seriously appreciate people writing and adding such personal notes. It really has a way of rounding out the articles.

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