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Grade: B-61 (2001)

Director: Billy Crystal

Stars: Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane, Bruce McGill

Release Company: HBO

MPAA Rating: R

Best Baseball Movies H.M.

Crystal: 61

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Roger Maris - 61st Home Run
Roger Maris - 61st Home Run Framed Art Print
Scharfman, Herb
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After taking a brief respite from film geekdom due to the playoff and World Series roller coaster ride of my beloved Diamondbacks, I began searching my DVD collection for a transition film to ease my way back into movie watching and came upon Billy Crystal's made for HBO 61. Nothing could have been more appropriate, as I'd just seen Crystal at Bank One Ballpark during the 2001 World Series. They showed him from his box seats on the Jumbo-tron to a chorus of boo's, for even though Crystal owns a share in the Diamondbacks, he has long been a devoted fan of the damn Yankees.

And 61 chronicles one of the most storied years in Yankee history--the year that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris starred as the M & M boys in pursuit of Babe Ruth's most prized and (previously thought) untouchable record of 60 home runs in a season. I'm old enough to remember that incredible 1961 season with all the hoopla and excitement surrounding the record chase and how many Yankee fans wanted Mantle to break the Babe's record if it was to be broken at all. With two teams added for expansion to water down the pitching, both Mantle and Maris were given a shot at the most hallowed record in baseball. The general perception was that Maris was an unworthy candidate who had never hit more than 39 homers in a season and was unfriendly and surly, making Maris an "enemy" within the confines of his own Yankee fans. Besides, Maris wasn’t even considered a "real" Yankee since he had arrived from Kansas City the year before, and thus was deserving of the famous Bronx “cheer.”

This film will play much better to die hard baseball fans than it will to non-devotees, and will play even better to Yankee fans. Baseball fans aren’t the most discriminatory movie fans if the film contains baseball material. I've even heard a number of baseball fans who were tearfully moved by Kevin Costner's lame romance For Love of the Game because of the scenes in Yankee Stadium. Therefore, baseball fans will be emotionally predisposed to enjoy any film about the best damn game in the world (not that I'm biased). No one can accuse Billy Crystal of making great films, but his baseball passion allows the comic/actor/director to do a credible job representing his Yankee heroes, making 61 the most watchable baseball movie since Bull Durham.

It's not high art, but baseball fans expect truth and integrity in any baseball movie mad past the romantic period of the 1950’s when they could accept smaltz like Pride of the Yankees without snickering. 61 hits for extra bases in the area of historical accuracy. The relatively unknown Barry Pepper (The Green Mile) actually looks like Roger Maris' double, and character actor Thomas Jane resembles the Mick a great deal. The two actors personify the two sluggers remarkably well—at least the images that most knowledgeable baseball enthusiasts have of the M & M boys.

Crystal definitely knows his material and doesn't shroud his heroes with godlike mythology. The popular and charismatic Mantle is first shown in the trainer's room reading Playboy and remarking how he likes women with small hands so that his "dick looks bigger." This signals that the movie is striving for accuracy--it's well documented that Mantle was the team womanizer, loved to party late into the night, and may have played many a game with a hangover. We see plenty of scenes to establish these stories that weren't widely covered back in the fifties, but have come to light after the "tell all" biographies released after the sixties era. Plenty has been written about Mantle, and his character is well-revealed in Crystal's film.

Even though Roger Maris becomes the main protagonist in this film, we don’t learn a lot of personal details about him other than the already known facts that he was a quiet and colorless Midwestern who never took to the scrutiny of the New York media, and really suffered when they bore down on him even more relentlessly than he bore down on Babe Ruth (termed that "fat fuck" by Mantle). The most telling scene that demonstrates how much pressure Maris was under occurs when Roger’s hair begins falling out in clumps, but his actually is well documented in baseball history and is not "new" knowledge. Credit Pepper with a noteworthy performance as Maris. Previously playing supporting roles, Pepper creates a sympathetic character with one of the blandest baseball characters you’ll ever run across. Pepper does have a nice subtle scene where he wonders if his teammates are rooting for Mickey and against him, and he gets to show a little fire when the press treats him like an ogre. But for the most part Pepper just plays that ideal personification of the nice guy who finishes first.

The film highlights why we don’t know much about Roger. At one point Mickey tells him that Roger's never even told them anything about himself, and Maris goes on to recite only the most mundane circumstances of his life growing up in Fargo and marrying his high school sweetheart. His idea of a great time is whistling to The Andy Griffith Show with roommate Bob Cerv.

Because the real Roger Maris was so private, little is actually known about his private life and the film depicts him more heroically as a character that cares about succeeding, wants his team to win, and wants Mantle to take care of himself so that he can perform more optimally, which means giving up the drunken orgies and loose women. Maris represents the good wholesome life of a married man, and reminds Mantle of his own Midwestern values without preaching to him.

Lest you think that 61 is devoid of drama (more suited for an After School Special if Mantle's numerous references to getting "pussy" could be excised), the film establishes two main enemies--the media and baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who established the infamous asterisk to denote any seasonal records set after 154 games to protect Babe Ruth's home run record. These enemies are presented in cardboard fashion in melodramatic form so that baseball fans can boo them at home. Everything that Maris says or does is re-worked by the media to portray him as an ungrateful Yankee to the hometown faithful to the point that Maris doesn't want to talk to the press at all. We do have one token writer to say good things about Maris because any objective writer should be able to tell that Maris was a helluva defensive player and a great team player, who was willing to drop a sacrifice bunt if it would help the team win.

Touches of humor are found, but fortunately they didn't depend on the stiff they hired to play Yogi Berra—his one line about "90% of the game being half mental" is delivered banally and the guy isn't nearly half as funny as the real Yogi. Better is a brief montage accompanying Maris nearing the Babe's record where the Commissioner and Babe Ruth's wife combine to say "Son of a bitch!"

Baseball is full of emotional moments and Yankee nostalgists will love this film for the accuracy of that fabulous 1961 pennant winning season and Babe Ruth record chase. Crystal's film does bring Mantle and Maris to life once again, and hopefully will cause many to re-evaluate the under-appreciated Maris. One of the better moments in the film actually comes from archival footage of Mark McGwire's incredible record breaking moments that are bookended into the film. McGwire is a true lover of the game and appreciates the historical impact of Maris' seasonal home run record, and I defy any baseball lover to refrain from tears when McGwire describes touching Maris' record breaking bat and his pride in having his bat lie next to Maris’ in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It's too bad that Roger Maris died 7 years before Major League Baseball finally removed that disgraceful asterisk from his improbable home run record, and unfortunate that he never got to see more fan acceptance of his accomplishments or view Billy Crystal's tribute to him and the Mick.

61 is no great work of film art. But it's certainly a worthy baseball movie that will bring joy to any baseball fan hungering for some action during the 98 days between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training. Bookmark and Share

 


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