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Beyond the Box Office: MURDER AT THE WORLD SERIES (1977)

A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

For Beyond the Box Office this week, I watched this really terrible, just awful made-for-TV movie from 1977 about a wannabe baseball player exacting revenge on the Houston Astros for passing him over during spring training. It was goofy and bad. I will sit right here right now and bet you five dollars you can't find it anywhere on the (legal) internet, because nobody took a look at the completed project and thought this is a work of art which must be preserved for the preservation of collective human memory and then did just anything about that. No, there are a few copies floating around here and there, and I promise you it's not getting top billing at MoMA any time soon. I mean look at this:

Right about here is the place where many would stop writing out of fear over analyzing a "bad object." They might note that time could be better spent by enriching one's mediaverse through works more closely attuned to the upper echelons of taste, exhibited by our cultural gatekeepers such as film critics, certain academics, or your friend's coworker Justin, who was only going to join you at Smoke Shop for one drink but then started telling you ALLLLLLLLL about Faulkner because he's a couple of chapters into Light In August and what do youuuuu read oh "popular" books ok ok well first things first you need to understand just how impoooortant th--

While not technically wrong, this is bullshit. I mean I'll be the first one to tell you that Jurassic World was a a horrific waste of hard drive space, but gazillions of people went to see it, and as a result, the film can probably tell you something about contemporary culture that you won't be able to find in the next critically-acclaimed art-house hit. So while The Pride of the Yankees was nominated for eleven Oscars and has been celebrated for seventy years, we should also ask what we miss by willfully ignoring crap that was aired on ABC in the middle of March back in the final throes of TV's big network era. Not because it's any good, but because it just might be even more interesting than what we think of as important in the first place.

Murder at the World Series aired on ABC the day after the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which arguably ended a near twenty-year period of television sitcom programming tracing back to the first episode of The Dick Van Dyke show in 1961. It was something of a strange moment for the television industry. Hollywood had just started to bounce back from the calamitous sixties with the arrival of the summer blockbuster, but the major American television networks had yet to fully understand the threat posed to them by networks such as HBO and technologies such as the remote control and the VCR.

Baseball, and particularly the World Series, were something of an exception to this rule. In 1971, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn asked NBC if they would let them reschedule a World Series game to the evening for the first time in history, which should tell you something about how power was distributed in the media landscape at the time. NBC agreed with the proposal, realizing that it maybe wasn't the smartest idea to air a program they were hoping would be massively popular during work and school hours--and it paid off handily. You can watch the entire thing here:

In any case, it worked. Ratings shot through the roof. Something like 61 million people or so watched game four of the 1971 series, and if you want to contextualize that number then know that the highest rated World Series game since 1984 was game seven of the infamous Mets/Red Sox series in 1986 with a whopping....38 million viewers. 1971 may have been a flash in the pan, but the stunt arguably helped steady the uneasy sailing of both the television industry as well as Major League Baseball itself.

At least, that's what TV producer Cy Chermak thought. If you've ever seen a TV movie from the 1970's you know they can range from outright abysmal to eerily captivating, due in part to an intensification of television's ever-present identity crisis, but also, I would argue, because of whatever was stirring in the national consciousness between the optimism of the sixties and the hard-nosed conservative pragmatism rearing its head in the early eighties. They are all, to a T, depressing as hell. Bleak. Serial killers, alienation, madmen running around with death on their fingers ready to pull whatever thin fabric holds society together apart piece by piece. I mean for crying out loud, even that most famous sports Movie of the Week gives us an easy one-two-punch of structural racism and terminal cancer. Pull out the popcorn everybody!

This is the world into which Murder at the World Series arrives. It's about baseball, yes, but it's also about national anxieties still reeling from the end of the Vietnam war, the tumultuous sixties, and the rise of economic crises which would forever transform the seemingly stable post-war way of life into something much more disorienting. As our rejected ballplayer Cisco (a pre-TRON Bruce Boxleitner) begins to devise his scheme to abduct the wife of one of the Astros' star pitchers (the seventies, man), we're suddenly dealing less with a movie about baseball and more with what was probably the leftover pages of some discarded stalker piece rightfully vetoed by ABC's board of programming. Only this time with stock footage of the Astrodome!

But let's get to the interesting part. One of the only scenes of Murder available on YouTube is this following bit, which gives us Cisco trying to finagle his way into the game despite the fact that the cops are all after him. Our anti-hero cunningly devises a method to bypass the rigid police security surrounding the Astrodome, which I guess was heightened due to the fuzz being in on the whole deal. But Cisco puts on a pair of sunglasses, and leans his head in the opposite direction juuuuust a little bit, deviously subverting the vast security apparatus that is the law, embodied here in one single cop holding a piece of paper with the suspect's face on it. Good lord.

By the time we get into the game, it starts to get a little interesting. It's tough to tell exactly what footage director Andrew McLaglen either shot or used from stock, as the baseball scenes are actually in surprising shape considering what avenue they would be delivered through. Often we get a shot like this:


This is Astros manager Bill Virdon bringing the lineup card out, but it's not shot at all like it would be in a film designed to center any important visual information with a camera that can move through space on a set. No, here the camera is shoved back into the corner of the press box on the level of play, as if it were a real game, shot through a telephoto lens in order to shrink the space between objects near and far. Notice the umpire's relative size (and focus) compared to Virdon or even the audience filling up the top half of the frame.

I don't know if this is recreated or actual footage taken from a game, but it's clear that director McLaglen is already playing with a particular kind of televisual aesthetic which we will start to see in those World Series films MLB puts out every year--you know, when you're looking at the actual broadcast footage in one scene before it suddenly cuts to that sexy slow motion cinematic footage clearly shot from the same place despite the fact that it would never appear in the middle of a televised broadcast.

It's interesting, really, because the actual baseball footage in Murder is, for the most part, pretty clear. You can tell that a lot of it is staged, but rather than give us those weird, meticulously framed action scenes from earlier baseball films, McLaglen appears to shoot everything with the same kind of aesthetic (or at least camera positioning) as an actual baseball game. When a ball is grounded to short, the camera swiftly follows the fielder in handheld motion, poorly framed as if it were shot by a B crewmember set up with the sole instruction to get good footage for the ensuing slow-motion replay. We cut to the bullpen at one point, and runners move with the camera itself.

It's surprising, really--the movie is goofy as heck but I think it's doing something really interesting by experimenting with the way we visualize baseball in the post-televisual era. Although the first TV baseball games were broadcast in the late thirties to a few New Yorkers with experimental sets, a film like Pride of the Yankees is going to stage most of its footage explicitly within the sort of Classical Hollywood aesthetic. But by 1977, baseball's ability to be broadcast in both sound and image greatly transforms the way the game actually appears to spectators, both sitting at home and those present in the stands (who know what a televised baseball game actually looks like). The game actually looks different, for the first time in its then-100-year history.

Still, I find it fascinating that despite the fact that baseball can lay claim to a new kind of image in the era of broadcast television, a narrative representational problem still seems to appear for images not directly locked into the three-hour sports broadcast format. How do you convey the precise meaning of a particular double without chyrons or a play-by-play announcer? Well, McLaglen is going to cheat, superimposing the changing scoreboard underneath the shot of some random A hitting a solo dinger:


Does this look familiar to you? We saw this exact same thing in Kobayashi's I Will Buy You from a few decades earlier, which solves this representational problem in the nearly the exact same way, only with a few interesting changes:


Note the brief scene of the batter in the box to start the GIF: based on the quality and camera position, this is almost definitely newsreel footage Kobayashi found in the archives somewhere, a static, distant camera which gives us a poor image to the best of its ability before the era of ubiquitous cameras lining every spare inch of the park.

When we cut to Kurita sliding into third we get a recreated shot, still with a realist aesthetic. But instead of a scoreboard we get newspapers, which were, as we mentioned earlier, crucial to the economic and cultural base of baseball in mid-century Japan. Newspapers were how some teams were financed, newspapers were how many fans followed their teams. But by 1977 this utility will be replaced, at least in America, by visual technology transmitting images themselves.

All in all it was quite an interesting watch. I'd recommend checking out the short YouTube clip to get a feel for this, if only because I have no idea where you can find the entirety of this film outside a few lucky circumstances. I promise you you aren't missing anything too important. But the sad thing is that sometimes the most interesting stuff is just that--that which we are told is too unimportant to remember, too silly to memorialize next to the great works of high culture that fill in the upper halls of the art world. Sometimes, you just want to see Carlos Peguero hit the crap out of a baseball.