Judge Ryan Keefer wonders why all the really good Yankees had a thing for prime numbers.
"He was the first guy in my life who was larger than life."—Mike Francesa, talking about Mickey Mantle. It's a statement that could be applied to each of the men featured in this set.
One of the reasons why the New York Yankees were so famous was the fact that they were able to acquire and nurture talent that kept or propelled them to the top of baseball. In between Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, you have an almost continual grip on half a century of baseball superstardom, without even going into greater discussion on the supporting players for each man and Yankee era. The HBO-produced documentaries in this three disc boxed set entitled Legends in Pinstripes pulls together previously produced hour-long documentaries (all narrated by the cable network's resident voice, Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate)) on Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle.
Babe Ruth is the first documentary and it covers a balance of the life and the myths of George Herman Ruth with a variety of stories from then-surviving teammates and a lot of authors like Pete Hamill and Studs Terkel. Ruth came from humble beginnings in Baltimore until he found baseball as a kid, and eventually made it to the major leagues, first as a pitcher with Boston before being traded to New York, where the rest, as they say, is history. Babe played in Boston? Go figure. The Babe's carousing and nightlife is talked about a little bit, but his wide variety of work with children is given a little bit more time than that. As for the myths, the famed "called shot" home run is given a few minutes of air time along with some of the more storybook things. Did Ruth ever promise a home run to a child lying in a hospital bed? Probably, but no one really knows for sure. In fact, Ruth probably had no idea if he actually said it either, for that matter. And some of the stories are just taken way too far and illustrated in the film about his life. Did Ruth run into a hospital with a dog under his arm, wearing his Yankees uniform, demanding that someone operate on the dog? God no, but that one would seem a little bit on the saintly side of life.
Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio? recalls the life of the man nicknamed "The Yankee Clipper" whose career started in 1936. DiMaggio's success was amazing in his first several years of playing, but soon World War II called and DiMaggio enlisted for several years. He returned in 1946 and played for several years afterwards, but soon found notoriety for his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch) after his playing days ended. After Monroe's death, DiMaggio handled her affairs, and was resentful of any association to John and Robert Kennedy. He maintained a high level of privacy until his death. With recollections from surviving teammates (like Phil Rizzuto), business partners or general acquaintances (like former New York Mayor Mario Cuomo), everyone seems to recall, almost universally, that Joe was a private guy. DiMaggio played through physical pain most of the latter years of his career, and in a story that many remember and recite, when he was asked about why he would still do it, he answered that if someone saw him play for the first time in person, he wanted to give them his best. That's something he always strode for regardless of how private a player or person he might have been.
The Definitive Story of Mickey Mantle features recollections by teammates and fans such as Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally), Ed Harris (Apollo 13) and Richard Lewis (Robin Hood Men in Tights) as they recall the man known as "The Mick." The adulation and reasons for such are discussed in detail, along with his late night partying that sometimes got in the way of the team's results. Universally, it seemed that Mantle was revered for his talents, his approachability and his marketability. He had an "aw shucks" country attitude that could sell anything. As it's noted in the feature, Mantle was able to sell cigarettes as well as smoking cessation products, sometimes simultaneously. How cool was that? If there was a modern-day equivalent, it would be like getting LeBron James to endorse toothpaste after his bubble gum commercial just aired.
Mantle had personal family tragedy in spades though. His father worked in the coal mines of Oklahoma, where he ended up in a hospital bed next to his son and succumbed to cancer. Two uncles of Mantle's also died, all before they reached 40. Mantle had a morbid curiosity with mortality that perhaps may have led to his excesses and overindulgence with alcohol in his playing days. He retired in 1969 a shell of the man he was in 1951, one who could barely walk without grimacing. His continued indulgences after his career also impacted his judgment and poor business decisions. He eventually had to take a job at a casino and was temporarily banned from baseball as a result. His abuse of his body led to him to check himself into rehab, and when he came out, he was refreshed and vibrant, but still required a liver transplant, which he received. Over the course of the transplant it was discovered that he had an aggressive form of cancer that took his life at 63. In another sad postmortem to the story, two of Mantle's sons died within a decade of each other before their 50th birthday, each a victim of the partying that they did with their father in the '70s and '80s.
The Ruth documentary really seemed to be quite the love-in on the "Sultan of Swat." Of the three pieces, this one spends the least amount of time on his actual playing days and more time on what he did and who he did it with. Understanding that the subject of the film is someone who was not only bigger than baseball, but (for the first half of the 20th century) may have been the most recognizable face on the planet, that there will be a larger poetic fascination with Ruth, I certainly didn't expect it to be as saccharine as it was. One of the first things I learned about as a baseball fan growing up was the life of Ruth, and it was all restated here, there wasn't anything new brought to the table, but as it's positioned in this piece, the nostalgia outweighs the detail.
DiMaggio's era may be a little bit easier to identify, but after watching the documentary, it almost seems that his privacy is being held against him in the documentary. Joe would be a more gracious man, a more admired man, if he talked to people more and was more accessible. Of course, Paul Simon's famous line in "Mrs. Robinson" is talked about, and for this amateur writer and thinker, I'd say that while DiMaggio's status as an icon was one that people yearned for when Simon wrote it, at this time, I'd say that DiMaggio's quiet grace and pride is something that we could all appreciate in days like these.
It appears that Mantle, when healthy, was among the best who ever played the game. And while he didn't have the same kind of tragedy that his father and uncles had, he did experience the tragedy of taking life for granted to some degree, the fact that he managed to see his clearly before he died was the best gift he could possibly have given to anyone. And of the three documentaries, this was the one that was most up front and candid about the private life of an athlete, but that could be due more to the changing media times than anything else.
The HBO-produced sports documentaries for the most part have been excellent features on a wide range of subjects. With these features on Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle, some more light is shed on the players who helped shape the game and keep it popular for decades. Baseball fans would be well served to make sure they add this to their collections.
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