Roger Maris' home run record (61) that had stood since the 1961 season. Even as a White Sox fan, it was captivating to watch. The home run race had happened before, Maris and Mickey Mantle doing the same in 1961, both Yankees sluggers gunning for Babe Ruth's long-standing record, a story told in an HBO TV movie from 2001, 61*.
It's the start of the 1961 season, and the New York Yankees are primed for another run at the World Series, especially having lost to the Pirates the previous year. Leading the Yankees are a pair of power-hitting outfielders, the 1960 MVP, Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and longtime Yankee and fan favorite, Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane). The 1961 season has been lengthened though, eight games added to the 154-game schedule. As Maris and Mantle start to pile up home runs, the possibility of one of them breaking Babe Ruth's home run record becomes more and more possible. MLB commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat) makes a controversial decision, any record broken with the added game will feature an asterisk next to it in the record books. That is all a what-if though. Can either Maris or Mantle take down the record? It's maybe baseball's most respected record, and the pressure in New York City and around baseball will be immense.
From director-comedian-and diehard/lifelong New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal, this movie originally premiered on HBO in April 2001. Crystal's love of everything Yankee could have been tough to handle -- it's the dreaded, hated Yankees -- but more than a love of the franchise he grew up with, this is a movie that loves and respects it source, baseball. Any baseball fan will appreciate the respect Crystal has for the sport, the personalities and the history. The look of the film is incredible, Tigers Stadium in Detroit (with some work done) made up to look like 1961 Yankees Stadium. The CGI isn't overdone, and everything from the stadiums to the locker room to the cars and clothes reeks of 1960 authenticity.
Without a doubt though, the best thing going for Crystal's film is the fly on the wall look we get into the 1961 home run chase from just about every perspective possible. It's not just Maris and Mantle either, but from the P.O.V. of their teammates, the Yankees staff, including manager Ralph Houk (Bruce McGill), the commissioner and MLB in general, and maybe most frighteningly....the New York media. I watched the 1998 chase, and that was when there was a budding 24-7 news cycle on top of the Internet. In 1961, things were different...but at the same time, it wasn't that different. The pressure on these two men was immense, but for different reasons. At no point does it feel whitewashed either (thankfully), but instead an honest, direct, sometimes uncomfortable picture of the 1961 season for Maris, Mantle and the Yankees.
Still relative unknowns without huge name recognition, Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane are perfectly cast as the Yankee duo, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. It's the definition of an Odd Couple, two almost polar opposites in terms of everything except for one thing; baseball. Pepper's Maris is uncomfortable in the spotlight, content to play ball and do his thing. Being a star, a celebrity? He's not interested. He's a country boy who loves baseball. Jane's Mantle is the prototypical Yankees star; charismatic, likable, an incredible talent, basically the definition of a star. As the season develops and the threat of taking Ruth's record looms larger, the city does two things. One, it backs Mantle, their hero, and two, completely turns on Maris. For the excitement of the story, the media (TV, newspapers, radio) pushed a rivalry, even an out and out hatred, between the duo, but it wasn't true...at all.
That's maybe the most surprising thing to take away from the film and the performances. This isn't just a baseball movie. It's about the people. Later in his career, Mantle is seeing his hard-living lifestyle catch up to him; drinking, boozing, women, one and all. A rising star, Maris in just his fifth season is already coming off an MVP award. He has to work at it more, Mantle is more of a natural. Trying to help the Yankee legend, Maris offers that if Mantle wants to move in with him and teammate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer), he's more than welcome. It's these scenes that especially shine, the trio watching The Andy Griffith Show (Roger and Bob whistling the theme with a horrified Mickey is a highlight), making breakfast (especially Roger's awful scrambled eggs), and killing time between games during the dog days of the season. We're rooting for both of them -- even if its for different reasons -- and that goes a long way. It also doesn't hurt how freakishly much Pepper and Jane physically resemble the men they're playing, both in appearance and how they play. Again, it's the little things.
Like its two lead roles, '61' doesn't have the star power in the supporting cast, and it doesn't matter. Anthony Michael Hall is very good as future Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, a close friend of Mantle's, and Yogi Berra and Elston Howard also making appearances. As for the reporters, Richard Masur, Seymour Cassel and Peter Jacobson give varying perspectives of hatred/support/ulterior motives of those covering the home run race. Jennifer Crystal Foley does a good job as Roger's wife back in Missouri while Christopher McDonald is equally good as Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen.
With a movie that runs about 128 minutes, '61' covers a whole lot of ground in following the 1961 season. Because so much ground is covered, the story is a little slow in the early-going, but once the HR race picks up, so does the story. Crystal's style is underplayed without any H-U-G-E emotional moments. He doesn't overdo any of the scenes, just presenting them as they were. The natural drama and tension is enough to carry things through. It's a great story, and we learn a lot about the ins and outs of the season. Easily recommended for baseball, sports fans and non-sports fans alike.
61* (2001): *** 1/2 /****