Directed by Billy Crystal
Written by Hank Steinberg
It seems like there are a lot of movies out there that involve the New York Yankees. In fact, at one point somebody asked me how many had the Yankees as the villain, and why not!? The Yankees, even though I must admit that I’m not a fan, are both the best and most famous team in baseball history. They are chock full of history, great stories, and even better players. The marathon kicked off with the great Lou Gehrig, and we’ve even seen a film about The Babe, Babe Ruth. With 61*, on the heels of the 1998 Home Run Record chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Billy Crystal, a well known lifelong Yankees fan, tells us the remarkable story of legend Mickey Mantle and his teammate, the less celebrated Roger Maris.
Fans of baseball should know who Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) is, however, since he held the home run record for many years before McGwire broke it in 1998. But he was also a two time MVP Award winner. Everybody knows who Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) is though. He is one of the best to ever play the game. In 1961, the two began a season for all time, as they both were on a torrid pace to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record of 60 in a season. But as they approached the record, the fans and media clearly picked the big personality of Mantle as the favorite, while the curt and bland personality of Maris was left to be criticized and rooted against to the point of death threats. Fans often felt that in order to break a beloved record held by a beloved player like Ruth, you had to be a true Yankee, and that Maris was not that.
What struck me about this film right away was the casting, as Pepper and Jane are both wonderfully cast for the roles of the M&M boys. Not only do they look like the two players, but they also look like ball players, act like ball players, and both deliver great, albeit very different, performances in their roles. Pepper in particular as Maris is spectacular, inhabiting the type of stress that Maris went through that season, hitting the subtle notes of the man’s demons and reservations about the New York fame and criticism. His performance is pivotal in telling the story of the relationship and differences between Maris and Mantle, and how through the harsh, exciting, record-breaking season, they were able to remain friends.
In fact, the presentation of these two very different men is what makes the film as entertaining and interesting as it is. Seeing the difference in personality between the two really goes to show the psychology of fans and media, and how we often gravitate toward the bigger personalities for better or worse, often scolding the quieter, more grounded players for being themselves. The privacy of players is ignored for the experience of the fans, and people certainly take things a little too far, and a little too seriously then, and especially now. Things have not changed. But the film also plays at the type of hero worship involved in sports, and especially baseball.
For instance, a current player will never be as good as a legend. For Maris and Mantle, there was no way they were better than The Babe, and therefore didn’t deserve to break his record. The same problem exists today, as we worship the legends, the current players have unrealistic expectations, with no way to win. If they have a great season or career, then they still weren’t as good as the legend. If they don’t, they clearly weren’t. With almost all things, it’s easier to look back and put things into perspective than it ever will be to accurately evaluate the present. What Crystal and his film, 61*, help me do is appreciate the present and live in the now. The past will always be there for us when we want it, but the present is fleeting, and gone before you know it.