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61 in 61
on January 31, 2006
In the pantheon of baseball movies, this one, 61*, is in my personal top five, and perhaps the top three. Billy Crystal, better known as a comedian or as host of the Academy Awards, took the director's chair for this film, and produced a story that was a grand insight into the personal and professional world of baseball during the era of Mantle and Maris. Produced very shortly after Mark McGwire broke the Maris record, Crystal framed the 1961 story with scenes from the McGwire run.
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in the 1927 season, and Yankee stadium was still known, a generation later, as the house that Ruth built. In 1961, Ruth's longstanding record seemed secure. Mickey Mantle had inherited the status of 'Yankee favourite' from predecessors Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but Roger Maris had narrowly beat him in the poll for MVP the previous year, all the more remarkable because Maris was a newcomer from the midwest. The sportwriters were divided in how they reported about the team, but almost all were more focussed upon Mantle until the runs began to stack up. However, the press (and often, it seemed, the fans) were still favouring Mantle, and sometimes booed Maris when he would hit a home run.
Crystal did a good job at showing the kind of personal stresses, both family and professional, that Mantle and Maris had to endure going through what should have been one of the most glorious seasons in baseball history. There was a kind of institutional resistance to anyone breaking Ruth's record, but even more resistance to Maris than to Mantle. This is embodied in the asterisk that followed the number 61 in record books (and the title of this film) - Ruth's season was several games shorter, and it was deemed 'unfair' for Maris to take the record, having not hit the same number of runs in the same number of games. Eventually the asterisk would be removed, but not before Maris' death some time later.
Good little touches like Maris' special eggs (which Mantle began to eat with reluctance, but came around when Maris said he hit home runs after eating them), scrap book collections shown periodically throughout the film, the song 'I love Mickey', and other audio-visual pieces of baseball memorabilia make this a baseball trivia-buff treat. The personal stories of the family lives, increasingly under stress as both players come within striking distance of the record, show details most likely fictional, but certainly understandable.
Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane star as Maris and Mantle, respectively, and both turn in great performances as the athletes. They both look like naturals on the field and in the locker room, and do a good job with the personal angle as well, Pepper playing the low-key Maris and Jane playing the hard-living Mantle. They both bear striking resemblance to the men they portray, Pepper especially so. Other performers include Anthony Michael Hall, Richard Masur, and Christopher McDonald in memorable supporting roles. Donald Moffat as the commissioner Frick is especially good. Jennifer Foley (actually, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Billy Crystal's daughter) turns in a good performance as Pat Maris, the long-suffering and supportive wife, struggling from half a country away to be strong for her husband as he faces the stress of success.
Any baseball fan will love this film. Those who aren't necessarily fans of baseball may find a new-found passion for the game.
The Yankee's retired Maris' number 9 in 1984. Maris' bat is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Perhaps some day, Maris will be, too.