Written by Hank Steinberg
Directed y Billy Crystal
New York fans are brutal, there’s just no two ways about it. Through the years I’ve seen great players broken by a combination of the media and the relentless fans with high demands and high expectations. Find yourself on the wrong side of the media and make a couple of bad plays, and the fans are on you like white on rice, and brutally.
I used to think this was a more recent phenomenon with our culture that hungers to know everything about public figures. However, if nothing else the film 61 does a good job dispelling that. It’s good for a variety of other reasons as well, but what I came away from the film with was incredible sympathy for Roger Maris and feeling that he got a raw deal from both the New York fans and the media.
Set in 1961, 61 tells the story of the home run race for that season, where two New York Yankee sluggers, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, both had a shot at breaking the single-season home-run record set by former Yankee Babe Ruth.
Director and Executive Producer Billy Crystal became friends with Mickey Mantle in later years and heard many of the stories of that legendary season. Mantle even said he wanted Billy to be a part of any movie that was made about the season. Crystal took that statement to heart, and the result is 61.
The film opens in the modern day, with Mark McGwire approaching Roger Maris’ home run record. Maris’ wife and children prepare to go to St. Louis for the event and they reflect on Maris’ life, and that record-breaking season in particular.
Roger Maris spent his career somewhat in Mickey Mantle’s shadow, despite holding the record for most home runs in a season. In 1961, both of them had a shot at breaking Ruth’s record. Maris didn’t have the same personality as Mantle, and the fans seemed to gravitate to Mantle more. Mantle was also able to finesse the New York press in a way Maris couldn’t. However, there wasn’t an intense rivalry between the two men and they were, in fact, very good friends. This is despite the fact that in many ways they were complete opposites.
As the season progressed and it looked like the record would be broken, debate arose about the record. Ruth set his record in the days before expansion, when the baseball season was just 154 games long rather than 162 as it was in Maris’ day. There was talk of the asterisk being put in front of the record, since technically unless the record-breaking home-run was hit in or before the 154th game, Ruth could have hit more were he given an extra eight games to do so. If anyone deserves the asterisk, it’s McGwire and Sosa, but that’s another tirade. And don’t even get me started on Bonds.
The cast is really terrific and includes Barry Pepper, Jane, Thomas Bruce McGill, Christopher McDonald, Richard Masur, and Anthony Michael Hall. In particular, Pepper and Jane as Maris and Mantle respectively do a terrific job with their roles and really seem to become the characters. Crystal had seen Pepper in Saving Private Ryan and immediately saw the similarity in looks to Roger Maris. Crystal was also a walking Yankees encyclopedia and taught the actors the mannerisms and body language that make them all the more convincing in the roles when shown side-by-side with the greats. In Jane’s case, he had never even swung a bat before and had to be taught. The only way he has learned to hit a ball is with a swing just like Mickey Mantle’s which is pretty incredible.
Crystal went to great lengths to get an authentic feel to the film, and if nothing else the extras are worth it to see the love that he put into getting it right. Yankee Stadium had been renovated and didn’t have the same feel as the older parks, so the movie was actually filmed in Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which was made to look like Yankee Stadium in the day.
This is a fantastic baseball film, and now included in one of my favorites, despite the fact that I am a Yankee-hater. 61 is a great story about the human side of the game and really tells fans that we should remember that the players are human beings too and that sometimes we aren’t seeing the whole picture when we read abut them. It’s also inspiring as the two men really balance each other that season and support each other, rather than letting the quest for the record destroy what was a great friendship.
• Audio Commentary by Billy Crystal
• The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of 61*
• Theatrical Trailer
• Cast and Director Bios
• Mickey mantle Biography & Stats
• Roger Maris Biography & Stats
• 1961 Home Run List
• DVD-ROM Weblinks
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