*61

by Sunday, February 27th, 2011 1:28pm Part of the At the Movies series

As the weather starts to warm (yes, Chicago, 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.

As the weather starts to warm (yes, Chicago, 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?)

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250934/
WRITER: HANK STEINBERG
DIRECTOR: BILLY CRYSTAL
STARS: BARRY PEPPER, THOMAS JANE, ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL

Check out Trish’s new Baseball Blog at trishvignola.mlblogs.com !

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