*61

"I like women with small hands. They make my dick look big." -- Mickey Mantle

Director: Billy Crystal

Writer: Hank Steinberg

Principal cast members:

Battling an Immortal for Immortality

In the summer of 1961, if there was such a thing as 'America's Team' it was the New York Yankees. No sport in America was as beloved by sports fans as baseball and no team was as popular or captured the imagination of kids like the Yankees. The Yankees had a storied history as a dominating team and everyone remembered the earlier decades when the Yanks lineup included such legendary players as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. There was a time back when the Babe hit 60 home runs in a single season and the Yankees lineup was the most frightening a pitcher could face.

In a lot of ways, the summer of 1961 was a return to that time. During that summer, six Yankee players would account for over 200 homeruns between them, making that Yankees lineup one of the most dominating in baseball history. The heart of the batting order was unquestionably the M&M Boys, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Mickey Mantle hit 52 home runs in 1956 and hit 40 in 1960. On first arriving with the Yankees, he was treated like an outcast. He was an Oklahoma hick who had never experienced life in the big city and he was being brought up to replace the wildly popular DiMaggio. His ability to communicate with the media was highly suspect so in his first years in the majors, Mantle was not a hero in New York. But teammate Whitey Ford, a native of the city, did a good job of mentoring Mantle in that regard and after DiMaggio was gone, Mantle was able to take on the hero's role with some degree of success.

In contrast, Roger Maris arrived in New York in 1960 as part of a trade from Kansas City. Being a Midwesterner, like Mantle, he didn't fit in right away. Unlike Mantle, Maris never really developed any kind of rapport with the media. Worst of all, he threatened to steal that mantle of heroism from the Mick and in the eyes of the New York media and many fans, that was unforgivable.

In the summer of '61, it became apparent fairly early in the season that both Maris and Mantle were having a great year hitting the long ball. By mid-season, the possibility loomed that one or even both might surpass the most respected record in baseball: Babe Ruth's 60 home run season. When Mantle threatened that record by hitting 52 a few years earlier, he found the fans and media to be highly resistant to the notion of surpassing the Babe and it wasn't much different in '61. Still, it was far worse for Maris. Not only was he threatening the legacy of the Babe, he was threatening to supplant the new Yankee fan favorite, Mickey Mantle.

The press was merciless, criticizing Maris' manners and behavior, his skills as a player, and his fitness to even be a Yankee. Further adding stress to the mix was the fact that the season was lengthened in 1961 to 162 games - 8 games longer than the season in which the Babe set the record. Baseball commissioner Ford Fricke decreed that if one of the two set the record but required more than 154 games to do it, their record would be listed alongside the Babe's as a separate, but equally significant record. The implication that it was somehow not as great an achievement actually didn't come from Fricke so much as from the media. For instance, Fricke never actually suggested using an asterisk next to the record or anything quite that damning.

All of this set the stage for a rather dramatic season. The media tried hard to make Maris a villain and at the very least, they made him pretty unsympathetic. Maris' notorious reticence to schmooze with the media didn't help his reputation. In some ways, it was hard to understand. Maris was a quiet, dedicated family man while Mantle lived in a sham marriage and was notorious for drinking and marital infidelity. The media tried to create a rivalry between the two and turn it into a feud. Mantle and Maris, good friends in real life, ignored the press and kept trying to win baseball games.

History is pretty clear on the outcome. Mantle suffered a serious hip injury late in the season and ended the year with 54 homeruns. Maris didn't beat the Babe in 154 games, but he hit his 61st on October 1, 1961 in the last game of the season. His record appeared beside the Babe's for many years. The New York media never really warmed up to Maris who was much more comfortable playing for the Cardinals in his final years in baseball.

Billy Crystal, an admitted Yankees fanatic, took on Hank Stenberg's story of the '61 season in this biographical look at the boys of that summer. It is clearly a personal flick that focuses hard on making these two men, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, sympathetic characters despite their occasional flaws. Overall, he does a pretty good job, too. The atmosphere of that team being the toast of the greatest city on earth is certainly brought home. The animosity between the press and Maris is well-drawn, though Crystal is somewhat guilty of making cartoons out of many of the more famous reporters of the era.

The one exception is Milt Kahn, portrayed quite effectively by Richard Masur. Kahn, while recognizing the flaws in Maris' handling of the press, is much more sympathetic to the ball players than some of his harsher colleagues. Masur retains a believable amount of cynicism in his portrayal, but infuses Kahn with a lot more empathy for these athletes who are caught in the blinding glare of publicity even as they just try to enjoy playing a kids' game.

The center of the film is the players, of course. Barry Pepper is outstanding as Roger Maris. He's clearly just a quiet, simple ballplayer from the Midwest who wants to do his best for the fans and wishes he could spend more time with his family. His lack of flamboyance is his worst enemy. Since the media is already pre-disposed to dislike him, every time he fails to do what the media expects, he is demonized and his inability to understand why this is happening or know who to blame is part of the tragedy of his character.

Pepper is superb in showing his frustrations and his difficulty with the stresses of trying to please everyone. New York clearly isn't Maris' town and when it turns on him, he is conflicted. Maris has no sense of loyalty to New York and especially the New York media, but he loves baseball, loves kids, and has a wonderful sense of rapport with individuals, making the labels being thrown at him especially hurtful. We feel all of that from Pepper as the season goes on and the pressure gets worse.

Portraying the larger-than-life Mickey Mantle, Thomas Jane is spectacular. Mantle has no more appreciation for the media than Maris, but he is a bit older and wiser and has a few more years of dealing with New York under his belt. Despite being an Oklahoma hick, Mantle knows how to give it back to the reporters and earn their respect. He is a loud, profane, wise-cracking jock but he is also a teammate and friend. Most of all, he remembers playing in the shadow of DiMaggio and sympathizes with Maris. Mantle especially understands the significance of taking on the memory of Babe Ruth. When Mantle is injured and goes out for the season, he encourages his teammate to continue his pursuit of the record by saying, "You go get that fat fuck!"

Pepper and Jane both do a great job of showing us the similarities that caused Maris and Mantle to bond as friends. They also are superb at illustrating the differences that made one a hero and the other a villain in the minds of the New York media and fans. Their physical resemblances to these sports legends are extraordinary, but their capture of the essence of two men is even better.

Surrounding them is a host of fine actors in key roles. Anthony Michael Hall is especially noteworthy as Queens-native and all-star pitcher, Whitey Ford. As Mantle's friend, mentor, and protector, he is first-rate and he represents the ultimate contrast with Maris when it comes to media savvy. Chris Bauer turns in a strong performance as Bob Cerv, a good friend to both men throughout the media crush. Paul Borghese is a delight is the malapropism-laden legend, Yogi Berra and Bruce McGill does his standard first-rate turn in a character-actor role, this time as Yankees manager Ralph Houk.

Donald Moffat also deserves special mention as baseball commissioner Ford Fricke. Though the portrayal may not be a historically accurate rendition of the exact man, it does a great job of illustrating the attitude of baseball in general toward breaking the sacred record of Babe Ruth.

It is obvious that much of Crystal's motivation in making the film was to redeem Maris' legacy. It is a fact that Maris held the single-season home run record longer than Ruth did, yet somehow we have always attached that mental asterisk to what was a monumental achievement, diminishing it. Because this was a somewhat shy and retiring man who lacked the self-promotional skills that seem endemic to today's professional athletes, we never gave Maris his due. Some might argue that were it not for chemical enhancement, he might hold that record still.

Despite Crystal's goal to make this homage to a forgotten hero of sports, the movie is best appreciated as a tale of friendship formed in competition. Ultimately, the strongest part of what we see in this film is the bond between Maris and Mantle. They defended each other, tried to improve each other, and rooted for each other to succeed. When they were critical, it was clearly expressed as a desire to help. It is no surprise that home run number 61 is a bit of an anti-climax in the film, just as it was in real life. But by then, we care less about the number than we care about the man and that is exactly what Crystal set out to do. Ultimately, that is the message of the film.

Coolness factor: 7

Writing: 6

Acting: 7

Overall entertainment: 7