61 a Great Drama, but Mediocre Film

61  (2001)
Directed by Bill Crystal
HBO/Warner Brothers, 129 minutes, TV-MA (language)
* * ½

Each spring I watch a baseball movie or two to get myself psyched for May and June–when the games begin to matter more than they usually do in April. This year I decided to watch one I've not see before. 61 recounts the 1961 season when both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris threatened to break what was then the single-season homerun record: Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927.

First, let me get a rant out of the way. Is there a law that says that the music for a baseball film has to be as schmaltzy as polka night in down-market bar? Marc Shaiman's score is insufferable in a we-can't-trust-viewers-to-fashion-their-own-emotions fashion. Not even the Lifetime channel would be able to stomach the 61 score.

Okay, on to the film. 61 was directed by comedian Billy Crystal, a serious baseball fan and devoted Yankees fan. The project was originally done as an HBO exclusive and was later picked up by Warner Brothers for broader distribution. It has many of the earmarks of a TV production: broad character development, a tendency to simplify, a sense of triumphalism, bathos, and infusions of moralism. In other words, it's more light entertainment than masterpiece.

Still, scriptwriter Hank Steinberg knows his way around the keyboard and was nominated for a Writers Guild of America prize for 61. The film was also cast well, especially Barry Pepper as Roger Maris and Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle. Each looks the part. Jane captures Mantle's crooked smile and Pepper channels Maris' straight arrow demeanor. Christopher McDonald also sticks out as broadcaster Mel Allen, as does Peter Jacobson as sports journalist Artie Green.  

We open to documentary footage from 1998 when the Cardinals Mark McGwire was set to obliterate Maris' record. Members of the Maris clan were on hand to witness the event and were charitable in ways that Babe Ruth's widow Clare had not been 37 years earlier*.  From that point on, we are thrust back to the 1961 season and the media frenzy that ensued. We are so used to media circuses these days that it's easy to forget they were relatively rare back then, unless you were a jetsetter with a trail of paparazzi on your tail.

In 1961, baseball was decidedly America's pastime. The season opened with Maris as the reigning MVP, having hit 39 homers and driven in 112 runs in 1960, but "The Mick," as Mantle was dubbed, was the local golden boy. Another thing that might surprise is that personal lives were not scrutinized as much in the early 1960s, which was a good for Mantle, a heavy drinker and a womanizer, though he had a wife and kids back in Oklahoma. We later found out that he and Whitey Ford were also peeping toms. As the summer and the bats heated up, New Yorkers were pulling for Mantle to break Ruth's record. The media hyped competition between the two, which was not true. As the movie correctly shows, the M and M Boys–a media creation that became an actual business partnership–were very good friends. Maris even convinced Mantle to share an apartment with him and Bob Cerv, an attempt to keep Mickey healthy and sober. Ironically, Mantle got injured late in the summer, the result of a botched "energy" shot that left him with an ulcerated hip. As Maris got closer and closer, the strain on him was so great it caused patches of his hair to fall out and the boo-birds to come out of the woodwork. In stark contrast to McGwire in 1998, even Ford Frick (Donald Moffat), the Commissioner of Baseball, was against Maris. (He had been friends with and a ghostwriter for Babe Ruth.)

Diehard fans probably know that Frick announced that Ruth's record would stand unless Maris broke it in the same number of games (154). He made it to 59 in game 154, but was stymied by Orioles' knuckleball hurler Hoyt Wilhelm. (Fun fact: former major leaguer Tom Candiotti, who threw a knuckleball, portrayed Wilhelm.) Maris hit number 61 on the last day of the season, game 162. Frick promptly inserted an asterisk beside the record, an indignity that lasted for 9 years until a new commissioner decreed that all records were for a season, however many games that might be.

61 is also about the loss of innocence. Maris was the opposite of The Mick—a guy who married his high school sweetheart Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley), was a devoted father of six, and was polite and painfully shy–not the sort you want to feed to the New York media sharks. To say that Roger Maris did not receive his due is an understatement. He died of cancer in 1985 at just 51 and never saw McGwire break his record, nor is he in the Hall of Fame.

The Maris saga is a compelling story, though Billy Crystal's film is frequently more melodrama than drama. It seeks to be iconic in the way that many sports-as-metaphor-for-life films often do. To reiterate an earlier point, it paints with a broad brush and its  made-for-TV credentials are very much in evidence. Serious baseball fans will not be pleased with portrayals of teammates such as Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Skowron, who appear more as wallpaper than fully realized characters.

61 as a film leaves much to be desired. If, however, you are a younger fan who does not recall those days, 61 will whet the appetite to dig deeper. The rest can relive our youth and grumble about how a great drama was reduced to so-so theater.

Rob Weir

* McGwire would hit 70 homers and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa 66. Barry Bonds subsequently passed them both.

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