Baseball's hold on the nation may have slipped with the rise of other
sports such as football, but in 61* it is possible to go back in
time a relive a remarkable season where two men fought for baseball glory.
It's the summer of 1961. Both Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Barry Pepper
(Roger Maris) are putting up really good home run numbers as they edge
closer to beating Babe Ruth's 1927 record of 60 homers in one season.
Although the two are similar on the field, off of it they could not be any
different. Mantle has taken up the "mantle" of becoming the most beloved
Yankee - he's the fan favorite, he always has time for reporters and his
teammates see him as a natural leader. He also likes the New York
lifestyle and the comforts that come with it - mainly the alcohol and the
women. Maris on the other hand is a quiet, self-effacing man who prefers
to spend his off hours with his family and answering kids' letters.
But as the season progresses, and the fans rally around Mantle and begin
to despise Maris, "The M & M Boys" actually begin to grow closer together.
Maris encourages Mantle to clean up his act and he becomes his guardian as
the two chase the ghost of the Babe. And as the final games tick away, the
two work together so that one will succeed.
Now, you may be wondering where the asterisk comes in. That's because Ford
Frick, the Commissioner of Baseball, believed with the expansion of the
schedule from 154 to 162 games the 1961 players enjoyed an unfair
advantage over the Babe. So he legislated that any records broken after
the 154th game would not be an official record, but would be marked with
The film is book ended by coverage of the 1998 home run derby between Mark
McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they try to chase the ghost of Roger Maris and
his 61 homeruns. This adds a nice touch to the film and brings the
significance of Maris' feat home to present day audiences.
Jane and Pepper carry off the roles of Mantle and Maris convincingly and
there is a good rapport between them. Their baseball scenes are very
convincing, especially since Jane had never played baseball before in his
life. The supporting cast of Richard Masur as a sympathetic reporter,
Bruce McGill as the team's manager Ralph Houk, and Anthony Michael Hall as
Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford all offer excellent performances.
Director Billy Crystal does a good job with this film. He gets the most
out of his actors and his directing is excellent. But where he excels most
is in the technical aspects. From the period clothing to the old Yankee
team bus and the re-creation of the Yankee locker room, it was all done
with care and precision. Also captured in the featurette are the scenes
where the technical crew painted everything in Detroit's Tiger Stadium a
faded green to match the 1960s decor of Yankee Stadium.
I watched HBO's DVD release using the Dolby Digital 5.1 track and the
sound was very clean. The layered noises of a baseball stadium with
muffled yells of hotdogs, the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd
could all be heard distinctly. The disc also comes with both English Dolby
Digital 2.0 Surround, and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks. There
are also English, Spanish and French subtitles.
The video image was crisp and there were no noticeable defects. The film
involved a lot of visual effects, from adding another seating tier to
Tiger Stadium to adding the crowds of people needed to fill the various
stadiums, and all it was done seamlessly.
The disc really excels though in the special features department. The
hour-long making of featurette is a gem with Crystal as your guide through
the film's process. Crystal lived through this season as a die-hard Yankee
fan and his love of the Yankees, and of baseball, come shining through. He
recollects early childhood games and what his impressions of the 1961
season were. Also included is Crystal's memory of meeting Mantle in the
Yankee clubhouse during his youth and his second meeting with Mantle, via
a clip, on "The Dinah Shore Show" while pushing a new show called "Soap".
The special features are rounded out with a commentary track by Crystal as
he offers load of insight into the filmmaking process. There are also cast
and director bios, some well-rounded research on Mantle and Maris,
including their stats, and information on each home run hit in 1961. The
original trailer and DVD-ROM features complete the disc.
61* is great baseball movie and the care in which Crystal
demonstrates in making the movie comes shining through. It is not only his
ode to baseball, but of a story about the friendship of two men who
reached for greatness.