Turn Back The Clock

Movie Review

61*

Distributed By: HBO Films


Reviewed by Melissa Minners

 

            In 1998, I found myself watching baseball history in the making as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled it out for the top spot in the home run race.  The closer they got to the record set by Roger Maris, the angrier I found myself getting.  After all, Roger Maris went through hell to set that record in 1961.  The powers that be thought that no one would ever surpass Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in one season and here was Maris, about to break that record while playing for the very same team.  In an attempt to keep Ruth’s record alive, they placed an asterisk next to Maris’ record to explain that he hit the home runs in a season that contained more games than Ruth’s record season.

            Now, I know that this asterisk was lifted in 1991, but Maris went to his grave feeling as though his record was tainted somehow.  Here was a clean-cut, honest man who took his career seriously and he was given the ultimate slap in the face by the Commissioner of Baseball, reporters and fans alike.  And in 1998, there was no talk of an asterisk, even though there were more games in this season than in 1961’s season.  Players in 1998 used performance enhancers.  McGwire may still deny having used steroids during that season, but it is a known fact that he used creatine supplements during his career.  Nothing of this nature was available to Roger Maris when he hit his 61 home runs. 

            Yet, the McGwire-Sosa race came at a time when baseball was on a downswing.  This race pretty much saved baseball.  It got fans pumped up and gave them something to root for.  Thus, all was forgiven as far as how the record was set.  When McGwire broke the record, I silently seethed.  Watching him shake hands with the Maris family, I couldn’t help but wish that Roger Maris had been so well received when he broke Babe Ruth’s record.  I don’t think I was alone in that thought.

            In 2001, an HBO Films presentation took a look back at Roger Maris’ run for the record.  Directed by Billy Crystal, one of the most devoted New York Yankees fans that ever lived, 61* was a movie that took us back to that fateful year and the race for the home run record that pit Roger Maris against fellow teammate Mickey Mantle.  I had the good fortune of receiving HBO free during the month 61* made its television debut.  I was mesmerized by the film from the start, refusing to leave my position in front of the television screen until the movie was over.  Then, I watched it again!

            61* was a huge undertaking for Billy Crystal.  This was a movie that would revolve around his baseball heroes and he wanted it to be authentic as possible.  He chose Barry Pepper for the role of Roger Maris after seeing his work in Saving Private Ryan.  Pepper was an amazing choice for the role – not only is he an incredible actor, but he looks almost exactly like Maris did back in 1961.  Crystal took special care in choosing an actor to portray his all-time hero and friend Mickey Mantle.  Thomas Jane had never played baseball prior to this movie, but he fit the part.  So Crystal and his baseball coaches taught Jane everything they knew about Mantle.  By the end of filming, Thomas Jane spoke like Mantle, swaggered like Mantle and swung like Mantle.  In fact, Thomas Jane jokes that he doesn’t have his own baseball swing – he learned Mantle’s and that’s the only swing he knows.

            The casting was not yet complete though.  Crystal hired his daughter, Jennifer Crystal Foley, to play Maris’ wife, Anthony Michael Hall to play Whitey Ford, and Bruce McGill to portray Ralph Houk.  Crystal took extra special care when casting his main characters and each actor bore some sort of resemblance to the characters they portrayed.

            As I stressed before, authenticity was a key element for Crystal.  Yet, Mantle was not only Crystal’s hero, but his friend.  So how authentic could the story be?  After all, Mantle was a known carouser – a drinker and a womanizer.  Well, Crystal didn’t sugarcoat things for 61*.  He portrayed Mantle as honestly as he could with the approval of Mantle’s surviving family members.

            Watching this movie, you gain a healthy respect for the baseball player and his relationship with the press, especially in a place like New York.  In some instances, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  When the initial “home run race” began, neither Maris nor Mantle gave a single though toward chasing Babe Ruth’s record.  That thought was planted in fans’ heads by the press.  Maris was a shy sort, unused to chatting with the press, while Mantle was the exact opposite.  This was all the ammunition the press needed – they started rooting for Mickey Mantle and jeering Roger Maris.  Here, the guy is giving the performance of his career, and he has to deal with bad press, jeering fans, death threats…it’s a wonder he continued to play baseball after all of that.

            You can’t help but love Mickey Mantle in this movie, despite his flaws.  But you find even more love for Roger Maris, a man with morals who put forth a strong front in the face of adversity.  Most people never knew about the stress-related issues Maris confronted the closer he got to breaking the record.  Hair loss, rashes, shakes – Maris truly suffered in his effort to achieve this feat only to receive an asterisk beside his record.  Shame on Commissioner Frick!

            Having recently watched 61* for what must be the twentieth time, I can honestly say that I am still in awe of the casting job and the acting.  Every time I watch the movie, I am transported into a different time and place.  I wish I could have experienced the moment first hand.  This time around, I watched the movie in DVD format and so, I was privy to some special features.  I got to read about the careers of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.  I also got to view a special featurette which explained Billy Crystal’s devotion to the project, his casting decisions, what went into transforming his actors into baseball players, and how the 1961 version of the “House that Ruth Built” was recreated for the screen.  The featurette was incredibly interesting and I recommend that anyone viewing 61* in DVD format check it out.

            Most importantly, I recommend 61* to every single baseball fan out there – old fans, new fans, even folks who have a casual interest in the game.  If you are a New York Yankees fan, this is a definite must see!  Watch it once and see if I’ve steered you wrong.  I guarantee you’ll want to watch it again and again.

 


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