The quest to top Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is so dramatic there’s no need to take artistic license. Secondly, there’s barely a need for a scorecard to identify the players in the great home run derby of 1961. While the script has its fair share of treacly moments intended to manipulate viewers into caring deeply for this duo, Billy Crystal’s dream project about his beloved Yankees and one of their great chapters gets a heroic treatment in “61*,” the number referring to home run total for Roger Maris and the asterisk representing the nefarious work of commissioner Ford Frick. The M&M Boys, Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Maris (Barry Pepper) are well-represented here: Pepper is not only the spitting image of buzz-cut styling Maris, he carries himself as we have been led to believe the reclusive slugger from Fargo, N.D., did during his dozen years in the big leagues. The cinematography of Haskell Wexler is the second half of this impressive double play combo, making the game look majestic and regal in moments of anticipation and triumph and downright sullen when the heroes are caught looking.
The true story is a great page turner. Maris arrives in New York from Kansas City in 1961 to play right field alongside the Yankees’ reigning No. 1 all-star. Mantle starts the season hot and then cools off, Maris is cold and then starts knocking ’em out of the park until the two are atop the American League’s HR leader board. As the season wears on, Mantle is the fans’ choice to break Ruth’s mark of 60 homers from 1927; Maris hears jeers and a handful of cheers every time he crosses the plate.
As long as the action is on the ballfield, Crystal’s impulses are consistently on the money. He knows the game well enough to pull back when necessary; Maris was no Roy Hobbs, the Robert Redford character who smacked the ball into the lights in “The Natural,” in “61*,” and screenwriter Hank Steinberg plays the 61st homer as relief rather triumph.
Off the field, Steinberg forces a dubious theory that Maris and Mantle had regular heart-to-heart chats, that somehow Mantle calmed his boozing and womanizing while bunking in Queens with Maris and teammate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer). Similarly, Whitey Ford (an effective but underused Anthony Michael Hall) is seen more as the friend who came to Mantle’s rescue rather than old No. 7’s drinking buddy. Perhaps generous depictions in biopics are also the residue of design: Ford, along with Cerv and Yogi Berra, served as consultants on “61*.”
Bad timing was part of Maris’ troubles: 1961 was the first 162-game season and seeing that Ruth’s sacred record could fall, Frick (Donald Moffat) declared that any record set between games 155 and 162 would receive an asterisk to distinguish them as separate. (It wasn’t until 1992 that then-commish Faye Vincent made Maris’ mark the only one — six years after Maris had died).
Eventually, injuries end Mantle’s year at 54 home runs. But Maris, taking grief from sportswriters and fans, and seeing the stress of the chase manifest itself in the loss of hair, becomes increasingly relcacitrant and irritable. But as he smacks No. 59 the Yanks win the pennant, keeping Ruth’s spot in the record book secure; on the last day of the season, Maris makes his final 360-foot trip around the bases, the drama resting in the duel between pitcher and hitter and the slugger’s reluctance to embrace the shower of affection the fans, finally, bestow on him.
Crystal and his pinstriped experts ensure a meticulous attention to the detail of the era, the games, the players, the uniforms and even the way the bat is held. And when Maris is closing in on the Babe, there’s a palpable excitement to his every move.
Script uses two key sportswriters, the pro-Mantle Artie Green (Peter Jacobson) and the Maris supporter Milt Kahn (Richard Masur), to propel the story according to the facts. In the long run, the press becomes the scapegoat and the enemy, a simplified analysis of what made 1961 so difficult for Maris.
Jane is a solid Mantle, even as his Oklahoma accent fades toward the end of the telepic. Moffat plays Frick as menacing as he limned the police commissioner in “L.A. Confidential”; Bruce McGill has to bellow his way through cliches as the curmudgeonly manager Ralph Houk.
With superb special effects, the old Tiger Stadium is made to look very similar to Yankee Stadium, all except the color of the seats. Equally fun is hearing Bob Shepard announce the players and Phil Rizzuto (Joe Grifasi) doing color commentary that’s lifted straight from the actual broadcasts. Marc Shaiman’s saccharine score has little dramatic effect, but a Lyle Lovett song played late in the film beautifully encapsulates Maris’ mental state.