Baseball Ink

Baseball The Way It Was Meant To Be

Tommy T's Baseball Flix Pix

61* (2001)

Director Billy Crystal brings us the true to life story of the chase by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth's home run record, or as the then commissioner of baseball Ford Frick, called it "the best record in baseball." We all know the story well—it's been told and retold many times over the past 40 years—how the whole country was following the chase, how Mickey was the preferred choice by almost all to break the record, how the stress affected Maris (hair falling out, psoriasis, surliness toward some fans and the press). This time the story is told by sandwiching it between glimpses of the actual Sosa/McGwire race of 1998—a very nice piece of historic filmmaking.

The cast is superb, right down to the portrayal of The House that Ruth Built by that old venerable actor, Tiger Stadium. The roles of the M&M boys are played "played by" is not good enough. The essence of the M&M boys are inhabited by Barry Pepper (Roger Maris) and Thomas Jane (Mickey Mantle). Pepper is putting together an impressive acting resume (including the prayer-reciting sniper in Saving Private Ryan) and in 61* he is tremendous. Watching the young actor, you can feel his pain and frustration, his joy at playing the game, his emphasis on the team wining; you can watch his biceps bulge—just as we all remember the two-time ('60 and '61) MVP Roger Maris. In this role, Pepper's emotions "run the gamut from A-B", but that's to be expected - after all, he is portraying Roger Maris, famous for his stoicism. Thomas Jane is the slick hick from Commerce, Oklahoma. He's the wild, good-looking, affable party-boy who can hit from both sides of the plate with power while still being the fastest man in the majors.

The wide-ranging supporting cast also does the film proud. Veteran TV actor, Richard Masur plays a composite reporter, named Milt Kahn, one of the only members of the fifth estate pulling for Maris; Bruce McGill (D-Day in Animal House, Bagger Vance) exhibits the toughness that was Manager Ralph Houk. The always excellent, erudite Donald Moffat plays Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, the Babe Ruth crony who decides that there should be an asterisk placed in the record book should the record be broken in more than 154 games (1961 was the first year of the 162-game schedule). Mantle's party partner, Whitey Ford, is portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall, who is also becoming a fine actor, after his geeky teenage years (regular on Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon Vacation movies, 16 Candles). The film has Mel Allen (Christopher MacDonald) and Joe DiMaggio (Michael Nouri) and knuckleballer Tom Candiotti portraying Oriole knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. The best of the supporting cast has to be Jennifer Crystal Foley as Pat Maris, who shows us how difficult it is to be in a long-term, long-distance relationship, with a man who is going through some rough times. Her performance brought tears to my eyes.

In this nostalgic look at an era gone by a baseball movie, Billy shows us that as much as the press was merciless for Maris is as much as it was merciful for Mantle. Each indiscretion by Maris was magnified and vilified. Each one by Mantle was ignored. Mantle's battles with the summer flu (hangovers) and his womanizing were legendary (see Jim Bouton's Ball Four). For the good of the team, Roger convinces The Mick to move from his hotel suite to a house in Queens that Maris is sharing with journeyman Bob Cerv. This move solidifies the team, gets Mick to live right (for a time anyway), and forges the friendship between the two power hitters. That's a key element to the story, because it shows that Roger and Mickey were teammates, who became friends and supported each other even while they were competing for the most coveted record in baseball. And it works. The best part of the movie is the interaction between the two stars—when they're talking about their backgrounds, when they talk baseball, when they talk about the press, when they talk about life. Watching each man learn from each other in typically buddy movie fashion as the film unfolds works, too.

Yes, the cast is great, the story is a very good one, the actors portraying baseball players actually look like they can play baseball, the film devices are in place, the director is dedicated and passionate about the project. We've seen it before, but that doesn't necessarily make a good movie, right? And, I have to admit, I am not a Yankees fan, never was, never will be. As a matter of record, I don't even like most Yankees fans (right Kat?). For years, I had the final baseball standings from 1968 (Yankees lose a century and finish in last) plastered to my bedroom wall. That was BF (Before Farrah). So you should know, I was prepared to dislike this film.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed 61*. The best parts of the movie are Crystal's love of the story and passion for the Yankees (a prerequisite for the movie), the touching portrayal of the Maris characters (Pat and Roger), the personality chasm between Roger and Mickey and their friendship because of or in spite of it, the excitement of the home run race, even though we know the outcome. The coup de grace is the ending. I won't give it away—suffice it to say that when you get a Cardinal fan to cry at the end of a Yankee movie, it's got to be touching. Both of the M&M boys are gone—gone before their time, but this homage to them will keep their memories alive in the best possible way.

Excellent job, Mr. Crystal! Or as Scooter and Mel Allen would say—"Holy Cow!" and "How About That?"

My rating—a prodigious blast that ripples the biceps, shakes the stadium, gives whiplash to the pitcher and keeps both M&M boys forever in the hunt for 61*.

Review by Tom Tilert