A Look Back at *61

As
the weather starts to warm (yes, I promise you it is), our thoughts
turn to all things Spring.   For me,
nothing says spring more than baseball. 
However, if it’s still a bit too cold to hit the batting cage and you
don’t have the cash to go to Arizona or Florida, a baseball movie does             just as well.

 

Today,
we look at *61 (2001).  Directed by Billy Crystal and produced by
HBO, *61 revisits the first serious attempt at breaking Babe Ruth’s
single-season home run record.  It’s the
summer of 1961.  New York Yankees’ Roger
Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) are on pace to do it.  You couldn’t write the storyline better.  The torch is about to be passed from one
heroic Yankee to another.  However,
there’s a problem.

 

America
only has room in its heart for one hero. 
Babe Ruth was a God…a God who played in the age of Segregated Baseball,
but that’s a review for another day. Mantle was America’s Golden Boy.  If he were to take the record that would be
fine, but Maris, American didn’t take so kind too. With Mantle as the hero,
Maris was forced to play the villain. 

 

The sports
writers crucify him, pitting Maris against Mantle.  Wherever Maris goes, he’s booed (even by
Yankees fans). Finally, when Mantle falls off the pace due to injury, the commissioner
announces that Ruth’s record stands unless it’s broken within 154 games. Any
record set after 154 games of the new 162-game schedule will have an asterisk,
thus minimizing Maris’ accomplishments. The film follows Mantle and Maris on as
well as off the field including their undocumented friendship, the stress on
Maris and his frustration with the negative attention.  Maris wrestles with following his dreams or
just giving up and going home for the sake of his sanity.

 

Let’s
not pretend that *61 was not a “Made-For-TV” movie.  (Enjoy watching the balls from batting
practice fall through the third deck, added in post-production.) Nonetheless, *61 is at its core a well-written,
well-acted piece. Sure, Crystal is a Yankees fan from back in the day, so the
film gets a bit schmaltzy and nostalgic at times.  If you can get passed the Barbara Walters
lighting and sweeping music at inappropriate times, you’ve got yourself a movie
that is tragic, almost Shakespearean, in tone. 

 

I
grew up in an age where “the easy way out” became far too common in America’s
Game. It’s hard to imagine someone being villainized for simply wanting to go
to work and do what he actually does best.  
So, if you have baseball on the brain, check out *61. You’ll enjoy Anthony Michael Hall as a pretty charming Whitey
Ford and will be amazed that Thomas Jane can actually carry a film.   (Seriously, are you going to argue that Deep Blue Sea was better?)

 

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