On first glance it might seem like a rather odd choice to have the likes of Billy Crystal direct a movie about the 1961 drive to beat Babe Ruth’s sacred homerun record by teammates and friends Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. When the film first aired on HBO,,I recall doing a bit of a double take myself. But, once you’ve seen the man talk about his memories of the game and the absolute reverence and respect he has for its history you begin to understand why he was the perfect choice to direct 61*
The film begins in more recent times. We are placed in the heat of the 1998 baseball season when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were engaged in an eerily similar race to break Maris’s 61 homerun mark. McGuire was the first to do it, coincidentally in a game against Sosa’s Chicago team. Of course, at the time we didn’t know that McGuire was juicing up and Sosa had a thing for corked bats. The Maris family was there to watch the record be broken, at least his children were. His widow had to watch from a hospital bed after having a health episode that very day. The family was gracious, and of course, it brought back memories of the 1961 season. It is here where the real story begins. The film recounts the friendship between Mantle and Maris, known as the M&M boys, and the film carries us through one of baseball’s most tumultuous season.
You have to understand that The Babe was somewhat of a sacred cow to both the sport and particularly the Yankee team he led. The fans were reluctant to see his record broken and only a little comforted that it was going to be another Yankee to do it. The real problem was which Yankee. Maris was coming off a season where he’d taken the league’s MVP award but was off to a slow start. Mickey Mantle was the flamboyant ten-year veteran who knew how to work the crowd and was the fan favorite. He was also starting the season red hot, and the talk of The Babe’s record falling heated up early. But, when Maris was moved to the spot directly before Mantle, it turned his slump around, and suddenly he was on fire. Unfortunately, Mickey fell into a slump. The fans were unhappy that the soft-spoken country boy might beat Mantle to the punch. While the two remained close friends, the press created controversy of a feud between the two. Maris was hounded to the point that anything he said became a negative. He received death threats, and fans threw stuff at him. They would boo his homeruns. When injuries got the best of Mantle and Maris was the likely record-breaker things got quite ugly. The Commissioner instituted a policy of putting an * on any record broken in the expanded season. It seemed like everything and everyone was working against the unlikely hero except for his teammates, who stuck by him through it all.
If ever a movie captured so much emotion in a sports film, this has to be one of the best ever. Crystal did more than present us with an incredibly authentic film, and make no mistake, these images will take you back, from the mint-green seats of the vintage Yankee stadium to the uncanny performances by the two stars. In spite of all of his effects wizardry and attention to the most trivial of detail, it is the performances of Barry Pepper as Roger Maris and Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle. Give some credit to Crystal himself not only for casting these guys but in turning them into his childhood heroes. It is his ability to remember every little detail and instill it into his actors that makes this a truly magical experience. I’m talking every little detail from the way they each would swing a bat, how they walked, to their body English as they stomped and prepared in the batter’s box. You just can’t help but buy these guys instantly as the men they play. It’s as if Crystal has created a time machine and delivered images taken directly from 1961. And he wasn’t afraid to be truthful even with men he considered legends. He didn’t hide from Mantle’s drinking and womanizing. Crystal befriended the man in his later years and believed truth was necessary. Even Mantle’s widow was pleased in spite of the rough edges the film exposed. I don’t think I’ve seen a more honest look at any sports movie I’ve ever seen. This is truly a masterpiece.
It wasn’t just the two stars. Crystal populated the film with some of the most perfectly-cast support you’ll find anywhere. Anthony Michael Hall plays the only member of this team I actually met, Whitey Ford. His performance doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but it was good enough to get him 81 episodes of his own series when The Dead Zone started the very next year. Chris Bauer is another underrated actor. He delivered one of the best bad guys when he was in the second season of The Wire. He also had great runs on Third Watch and most recently True Blood. He plays Bob Cerv, the third member of the close friendship triad with Mantle and Maris. Bruce McGill is the perfect manager as Ralph Hauk. He just looks the part of a vintage baseball manager. Billy Crystal’s daughter Jennifer Crystal Foley shows that it wasn’t nepotism that earned her the role of Pat Maris.
If you love baseball, this movie will be one of those experiences that you’ll want to savor over and over again. A Blu-ray release gives you just the right disc to make that happen. But what if you’re not a baseball fan? This movie works just fine a straight-out drama. There are the performances to appreciate and fully formed characters to enjoy. Plus there’s the slight chance, just the slightest chance, now that even if you didn’t love baseball before you saw 61*, you just might find yourself developing a passion for the sport. That is if you’re not extremely careful. This is baseball in a magical time before all of the drug scandals and contract billionaires. This was baseball through the eyes of a true fan.
61* is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average over 35 mbps. The film is styled as a period piece, so there is the slightest desaturation of colors. That doesn’t mean you don’t get a crisp and sharp high-definition image. For the first time, you’ll appreciate all of the hard work that went into the production design on this movie. You never had quite that chance on that standard-definition HBO broadcast ten years ago. The film has texture and authenticity that was lovingly constructed and now fully on display for your entertainment. Black levels are above average with no sign of compression issues or print artifacts. As Billy was fond of saying on Saturday Night Live, this image looks marvelous.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 takes you inside the ballpark like never before. There’s something about the sound of a baseball and a wooden bat connecting. It’s a sound drilled into the memories of my youth listening to Phillies games with my grandfather at his kitchen table on hot summer afternoons. He’d have a beer, and I’d have a can of A-Treat cream soda. The only things missing here were my grandpop and that cream soda. The sound design here allows for a wonderful immersive experience. It’s truly magical. Dialog is always front and center and crystal clear. There aren’t a ton of surrounds here. The film was produced for television before surround was quite so common on TV. You won’t miss anything there.
There is an Audio Commentary from Billy Crystal. While he does a great job of explaining how he achieved certain things, it was his memories of that year that make this a must-listen.
The Greatest Summer Of My Life: (51:39) HD Crystal takes you behind the scenes where his passion is infectious.
Bio And Hitting Stats for Maris and Mantle
A list of each of the 61 homeruns
Lost in the shuffle of this incredible baseball season, I came into the world nearly mid-way through the season. Of course, I had no idea of the drama that was unfolding, nor of what baseball was…yet. My grandfather took care of all of that just as soon as he could. I wouldn’t be surprised if the delivery room staff didn’t have one ear on the radio while they were trying to coax me out. (I was two weeks late, you see.) I am grateful that Maris took a break from his longest homerun streak of that season to let me get a little attention for myself. He slugged a homerun in each of the 4 days before I was born. Took a break that day and continued the next. Thanks Roger. You see, like I said. I didn’t know what the whole hubbub was all about that day, but for the next 50 years? “Holy cow.”