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BCB After Dark: The base is the question

The hip spot for night owls, early-risers and Cubs fans abroad asks you whether bigger bases should come to MLB.

Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the happening place on off-nights for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Let’s hope this is the start of a terrific week for all of us. So glad you stopped by. There are still a few good tables available. No cover charge tonight. Bring your own beverage.

BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.

The Cubs had an off-day today. I hear Marcus Stroman took a bunch of Cubs out for a show tonight.

Last week I asked you who was the Cubs’ most pleasant surprise of the young season. The winner was Seiya Suzuki with 28 percent of the vote. In second place was David Robertson with 24 precent and Ian Happ was third with 21 percent. A lot of you mentioned Keegan Thompson as your “other” vote and I apologize for not including Keegan in the poll.

Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. Feel free to skip to the baseball question at the end if you wish. You won’t hurt my feelings.

I promised to get to Odds Against Tomorrow last week and I will. But I’ll start out with a track from the magnificent soundtrack to that film by the Modern Jazz Quartet.

John Lewis, the pianist for the MJQ, wrote all the music for Odds Against Tomorrow and at least two of the tracks became standards for the MJQ and other jazz artists. I played a live version of the title track in last week’s episode and tonight we have “Skating in Central Park.”

The MJQ, of course, are Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums.

Sometimes making a good film isn’t all that complicated. Take a tried-and-true plot, flesh out the characters and then hire some top-notch actors and a world-class director. Finally, add a first-rate musical score by one of the biggest jazz acts around. All of that adds up to the 1959 film noir classic Odds Against Tomorrow.

Last week I wrote about the other 1959 film that Harry Belafonte starred in, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. It was an ambitious film that could be summed up as “interesting idea, lousy execution.” Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t very ambitious. It’s a heist film that makes a few simple points about racism. But it does a great job with what it has, crafting a simple yet entertaining movie.

Belafonte bought the rights to the novel by William P. McGivens and produced this film himself through his HarBel Production company. He hired blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky to adapt the novel, although he had to have a friend of his serve as the “front” on the script. He brought in Robert Wise to direct. Wise would go on to win Academy Awards for directing for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but at this point he was best known for making good-looking movies on a limited budget. He certainly did that here.

The film was shot entirely on location in New York City and Hudson, New York. Wise used the locations well to give the film an edgy and almost documentary look.

The plot is simple. Three men get together to rob a small-town bank. As things always do in films such as this, things go awry. But it’s how they get there that’s important.

The leader of the gang is David Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced ex-cop who finds a bank that he thinks is an easy score. Burke needs the money, of course, but he’s really driven by his need for revenge against a system that he thinks has wronged him. Burke’s character exemplifies the fine line between cop and criminal that is common to film noir pieces.

Burke recruits two accomplishes: Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) and Earle Slater (Robert Ryan). Johnny is the noir staple of a good family man who gets into bad trouble. While Johnny is separated from his wife, he’s still a doting dad who would do anything for his daughter. He’s a nightclub singer, which gives him the opportunity to sing and sit in with the Modern Jazz Quartet (or actors syncing the MJQ soundtrack). Jazz/blues singer Mae Barnes also sings “All Men Are Evil” with Belafonte, which would normally be a bit too on-the-nose in the symbolism department for me, but because it’s an awesome performance, I’ll allow it.

Johnny’s weakness, however, is that he’s a gambling addict who owes the mob $7500 and has run out of time to pay it. Like all problem gamblers, Johnny thinks the next score will fix everything. But he doesn’t agree to a bank robbery to solve his problems until the mobsters start the threaten his daughter. In every sense, this bank robbery becomes the ultimate game of “double or nothing” for Johnny.

Slater (Ryan) is a vicious ex-con and war veteran from Oklahoma. He’s a man down on his luck and he doesn’t seem to have a way to support himself. He’s also a hardcore racist and refuses to have anything to do with Burke’s plan as long as Johnny is involved. But after some conversations with his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters), Slater realizes that he needs the money too. But throughout the planning, Slater makes clear that he doesn’t like Ingram, he doesn’t trust Ingram and he takes every opportunity to insult Ingram.

The great strength of this film is the way that the script and Wise take the time to develop each character before the actual heist occurs. We see Johnny’s relationships at the nightclub where he works and the relationships he has with his family. Slater’s cruelty is shown when he beats up a young soldier in a bar fight (played by Wayne Rogers. The soldier doesn’t have a name, so I’ll just call him “Trapper John”). The way Slater uses women to his advantage is shown in his relationship with Helen (Gloria Grahame), a lonely and desperate neighbor.

Grahame’s part is small, but she does a great job with it. Her life and career were on the skids in 1959 and this part is really beneath an actress of her ability. But Wise wanted to give Grahame a break and he asked for the part of Helen to be written specifically for her. Grahame takes what little she gets from the script and shines, giving a sad humanity to what could have been just a phoned-in part.

Wise keeps the film moving along quickly and takes great advantage of shadow, quick cuts and odd camera angles to keep increasing the sense of menace throughout the movie. Editor Dede Allen apparently deserves a lot of credit as well. Allen was talented but inexperienced at this point, but one of Wise’s greatest strengths as a director was identifying talent and letting them do their thing with minimal interference. Allen would go on to edit such classic films as The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon and The Breakfast Club.

I also can’t say enough about the Modern Jazz Quartet’s soundtrack. So I’m not even going to try.

Quick Spoilers for a 63-year-old film:

The three criminals leave New York City for the small, upstate town separately, but things immediately start going wrong. A gas station attendant notices the souped-up engine that Slater has under the hood of his old jalopy, which was intended to be the getaway car. Ingram is stopped and questioned by a policeman in the town who asks him if he saw a car accident.

The plot of the bank heist involved Johnny replacing the man who delivered sandwiches after hours to the tellers counting the money. (That’s why they needed a Black man in on the job.) The three of them burst in to the bank and grab the dough, but things go wrong because Slater, not trusting Ingram, won’t give him the keys to the getaway car like planned. When the actual delivery man shows up, things go south and the three of them are forced to flee early.

Burke tries to talk his way past a policeman, but his behavior is too suspicious. Alarms go off and a shootout occurs. Burke eventually kills himself rather than get arrested. Johnny and Slater are forced to flee together, but their mutual distrust and anger over Burke’s death cause them to go after each other rather than work together to escape. They flee into a refinery and start shooting at each other, blowing up the fuel tanks. Both men are killed in the explosion and the final shot is a sign that says “STOP! DEAD END.”

So yeah, that’s not a subtle message, but Odds Against Tomorrow is not trying to make a subtle point about racism. This is a time when subtle wasn’t going to work in America.

End spoilers

Odds Against Tomorrow is what you get when you put together a bunch of talented artists and allow them to do their jobs. Belafonte, Ryan and Begley are all terrific in their roles and they’re given a script that allows them to be their best. Each actor finds the motivation and humanity in their character. Robert Wise was nothing if not one of the greatest craftsmen in Hollywood history. He may not have been a visionary director himself, but he knew how to take the visions of other people and make them explode on the screen. Here, he takes a vision that is mostly Belafonte’s and Polonsky’s and makes a real film out of it.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a must-watch for film noir fans and something that general film fans should consider checking out. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s just a well-told and entertaining story with a message.

Here’s that scene in the nightclub where Johnny Ingram is told to pay his gambling debts. Also, Belafonte gets to sing. (Warning: There is one use of the “n-word” is in this clip.)

And if you don’t want take my word for it, why don’t you take the word of Harry Belafonte, recorded in 2009?

Finally, if you want even more commentary from noir scholar Eddie Muller, here’s another clip of him talking about the film.

Welcome back to everyone who skips the jazz and the movies.

There has been a lot of talk about rules changes in baseball over the past few months. The designated hitter rule finally coming to the National League was maybe the biggest. The second biggest topic of discussion is the automatic-runner-on-second, aka “ghost runners” or “Manfred man.” We’ve discussed both of those in this space.

There have been other proposed rules that are currently being tested in the minor leagues and could come to MLB as early as next year. The biggest of those is a pitch clock, and we’ve discussed that here as well. Another one is a rule limiting defensive shifts. We’ve talked about that one too. A third rule limits the number of pickoff attempts or step-offs that a pitcher can employ in each at-bat. A fourth one is the automated ball-strike system (aka “robot umps”) that is being tested in the minors as well.

Again, we’ve debated all of them. Well, I’m not sure about the one limiting pickoffs.

But there is one rule change in the minors that seems to be flying under the radar. Bigger bases! Throughout the minor leagues in 2022, the size of first, second and third base have expanded from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. It’s a big change.

Going from a square of 15 inches to one of 18 inches increases the area of a base from 225 square inches to 324 square inches. So it’s a big change, making the bags 44% larger.

There are several reasons why MLB is trying this. The first is that they hope that by decreasing the distance between bases, they will encourage more running, more stealing and more aggressive base running. Another reason is that they hope that there will be fewer injuries as a fielder (usually a first baseman) will have more room to put his foot on the bag in a place where a runner won’t step on it. And the third reason is the hope that the larger bases will make it easier for a sliding baserunner to hang on to the bag, thus cutting down on the number of times a runner “beats the throw” but is called out on replay because his foot bounces of the bag for a split-second.

Is it working? Well, according to this article, it’s hard to tell. The rule that limits pickoffs seems to have a much bigger impact on increasing steals than larger bases did. In fact, changing the size of the bases alone didn’t seem to have any impact on steals at all. However, that may be because runners didn’t take the larger bases into consideration when they decided to steal. That might change when players get used to them.

As far as reducing injuries, those kinds of injuries are rare enough that there really isn’t a good sample size on whether or not it works. And with no replay review in the minor leagues, they obviously can’t test that third factor.

So what do you think? The game is called “baseball.” The bases should be half the game. So is more base better? Or do you like the look of the traditional bases better? Or do you just not care?


Should MLB adopt bigger bases?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Yes! Bigger is better!
    (50 votes)
  • 23%
    No! Stop messing with the game!
    (23 votes)
  • 24%
    Who cares? And can’t you think of a better poll question?
    (24 votes)
97 votes total Vote Now

Thanks again for stopping by tonight. If you checked a hat or coat, we will get it for you now. Please get home safely. Unless you’re home already, and then just stay where you are. Tip your waitstaff. And join us again tomorrow night for another edition of BCB After Dark.