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Saturday, October 20, 2018

61* -- A 21st century baseball movie for classic film lovers

Barry Pepper as Roger Maris (l) and
Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle in 61*
It's October, and for a baseball fan like me, the excitement of the playoffs is in high gear. This year my insanely good Red Sox have just earned a berth in the World Series, set to start next week, so I'm all in.  The classic film fan in me started to reflect on baseball films, and there are many classics over the decades, including Bull Durham (1988), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Eight Men Out (1988), just to name a few. Today, I'd like to shine the spotlight on a lesser known, but tremendously entertaining baseball film, Billy Crystal's 61* (2001), which tells a true story with compelling portrayals, and vividly recreates a time and culture passed.

The facts are these: In 1961, the New York Yankees were coming off another World Series win, and newcomer Roger Maris had just won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the prior season. A strapping slugger, he and Yankee veteran Mickey Mantle anchored the middle of the New York lineup to start the new season. After a slow start both started hitting home runs at a pace that threatened the record for most home runs in a season -- 60-- a record also owned by a Yankee, the late great Babe Ruth. This home run race of the "M&M boys" captured the attention of a nation during the summer, with even President Kennedy interrupting press conferences to announce that one or the other slugger had hit another homer. In private, things weren't so pretty. Mantle was fighting his inner demons with the bottle and other health issues, and Maris was slowing suffocating from the pressure of the media attention, especially after baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that because the baseball season consisted of eight games more than that of Babe Ruth's time, any record broken would be forever tainted. Of course, Maris did break the record, slugging his 61st home run on the last day of the season. It wouldn't be until 1998 that the 61st homer mark would be broken, this time by Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals (a feat that now has even a larger asterisk because of the eventual revelation that McGwire had been taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.)
Roger Maris (l) and Mickey Mantle,
legendary NY Yankee sluggers

Made for HBO, 61* follows both players through the season, although the focus is somewhat more on Maris, played by Barry Pepper. Mantle, played by Thomas Jane, is at first a rival, but quickly the two opposites become fast friends, and then roommates. The arc of this friendship is one of many touches that add heart to the film.  While rooting for Midwestern underdog, family man and reluctant hero Maris, we also feel sympathy for Mantle, who lacked a deep sense of security and family stability that Maris had. That doesn't mean that Crystal whitewashed Mantle--on the contrary, his carousing, boorishness, and self-destructive behavior are front and center; Jane showcases the star's vulnerable side, though, and the rapport he had with his teammates, which made him extraordinarily popular with both the team and his fans.

The pacing of the film is terrific - it starts in flashback, with the Maris family (now ironically) set to see McGwire's final record-breaking home run in 1998, when Roger's widow Pat Maris is taken ill and her thoughts go to the summer of 1961 (older Pat is played by Pat Crowley and younger Pat is played by Crystal's daughter Jennifer Crystal Foley). There are poignant confrontations, exhilarating baseball moments, punctuated by genuinely funny comedic bits, including a scene when Maris and Mantle couldn't stop laughing when trying to film a hot dog commercial sitting in the stands of Yankee Stadium. Popular music of the time adds to the soundtrack, with the most evocative "I Love Mickey" by Theresa Brewer.

Crystal is a baseball and Yankee super-fan, and this film was a labor of love for him. He was a friend of the older Mantle before he died, and stayed in touch with and consulted with members of the family. He paid attention to every detail to recreate the 1961 Yankee experience. Legendary Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard was brought in to add his voice to the stadium scenes, and Maris's clubhouse locker was equipped exactly like the real thing using photos of the era.  Prominent members of that era of Yankee baseball, including Yogi Berra (Paul Borghese), Whitey Ford (a terrific Anthony Michael Hall), Elston Howard (Bobby Hosea), and gruff manager Ralph Houk (Bruce McGill), all had their moments. As a baseball fan, I marveled at the how the script got baseball jargon exactly right, from: "there's a short porch out there, Roger" to "'Curve ball?' 'Yeah, but it didn't curve!'", to the portrayals of the omnipresent beat reporters, such as Milt Kahn (Richard Masur) and Artie Green (Peter Jacobson) and play-by-play man Mel Allen (Christopher MacDonald). Even the feared knuckle-ball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm was portrayed by then active knuckler Tom Candiotti, who modeled Wilhelm's cocked head posture on the mound as well as he threw the ball. Most of all, the sheer joy and excitement, and ups and downs, of major league baseball at its summer best comes through.
Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle steps to the plate at Yankee Stadium
in a scene from 61*
Really, I could go on and on about how much I love this film. Screenwriter Hank Steinberg deservedly was nominated for several awards for the film's script. The children of Roger Maris have gone on record with their praise of the realistic way of their father's experience was shown. If I were to provide any criticism it might be that it tilts toward heavy-handedness when going for audience emotion, but by this time we are invested in the characters. There are minor suspensions of disbelief required, as when Whitey Ford is explaining to an unaware Maris, who'd been on the team for a year, the reasons Mantle freaked out when hearing he was going to be face-to-face with Joe DiMaggio. That could be forgiven for dramatic license. Yet, it's such a satisfying film for baseball aficionados and those who enjoy exploring mid-century U.S. culture, that I hope more people will see it.

I bought the DVD of the movie, but it can be streamed on Netflix, Amazon (for a fee) and HBO streaming (with a subscription).

6 comments:

  1. I love baseball movies, so I'll keep my eye out for this one! Barry Pepper is always enjoyable, isn't he?

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    1. Oh my gosh, H., if you love baseball movies, you can't go wrong with this one, IMO! Yes, Barry Pepper is talented. I remember he impressed me in Flags of our Fathers and also Saving Private Ryan. It's fun to see both Pepper and Jane play off one another in this one.

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  2. I had not heard of this film before reading your blog post. Thank you for the recommendation. And by now, of course, the Red Sox are world champions. Did you go to the victory parade?

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    1. Hi Marianne, indeed I did! It was a blast. I believe you’re in MA too, right?

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  3. I really must watch this again. I was very moved and impressed by it on the first viewing. Crystal and his cast captured so much of the times and the emotion, and the baseball.

    My favourite movie connection to that miraculous Maris feat is James Cagney as C.R. MacNamara narrating the opening to One, Two, Three.

    "On Sunday, August 13, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and #45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with - REAL SHIFTY!"

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    1. Oooh, a Billy Wilder film I haven't seen yet. Thanks to you I looked it up and will add it to my list and try to watch ASAP. Cagney is of course a favorite. I'm impressed by your recollection of the reference to Roger Maris's achievements in 1961! It seems that the home run race was a fun nation-wide respite for the serious Cold War fallout going on. Sports can be great to serve that function.

      I'm not surprised you'd seen 61*, and agree that Crystal really deserves all the kudos for this.

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