Movie Review: "61*"
by Matt Sandler
Many people are probably aware that at the time Roger Maris set the single-season home run mark with 61 in 1961, an asterisk was appended to the record to denote the eight extra games he played beyond Babe Ruth’s schedule. However, one of the facts that I learned in the movie “61*” (2001, originally aired on HBO) was that the keeping of the two records, Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927 and Maris’ mark, lasted until 1991. It was finally then, six years after Maris’ death at the age of 51, that Commissioner Fay Vincent did the dignified thing and made Maris’ record the sole one for posterity.
“61*” tells the story of the 1961 season, and how different it was for Maris and Mickey Mantle. What struck me was how similar the situations of Maris and Mantle in 1961 were to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter this year. Maris won the MVP in 1960, his first year with the Yankees, just like A-Rod won the MVP last year, his second year with the team. Both Maris and A-Rod were accused of being wound too tight and never smiling, hounded by the media and fans for not being able to handle the pressure of playing in New York. Mantle and Jeter were both the golden boys of New York sports, with a decade of success behind them that would surely land them in the Hall of Fame.
However, there are some key differences. While Maris was certainly a terrific player in his prime (he would win the MVP again in 1961), he was never truly the better player than Mantle. A-Rod, on the other hand, is simply blessed with more talent than the supposedly infallible Jeter. Also, we see in the movie how the press was relentless in making Maris look bad, and framing him in the newspapers for things like infidelities and refusing to sign autographs that never happened. Nowadays, A-Rod is attacked on more general grounds—not being “clutch,” being joyless and robotic. In the movie, we see only one newspaper writer defending Maris. In these more statistically oriented times, where many people recognize Rodriguez’s tremendous value even if he is too sensitive, he has more supporters—the camps are more balanced than they were for Maris.
In the film, we see Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mantle (Thomas Jane) as friends who were never driven apart through all the turmoil of the 1961 season. Maris is the stressed-out chain smoker from North Dakota, who has a loving wife, Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley, director Billy Crystal’s daughter). She stays behind in Kansas City (where Maris was traded from) with their three children, while he rents an apartment during the season with teammate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer). Mantle is the good-looking farm boy from Oklahoma who has turned into a New York icon, and loves women (especially those who are not his wife) and booze.
Maris is simply never embraced in New York, and as both players heat up on the field, the fans and media are vicious in their disdain for Maris. He is criticized for only doing well because he bats third, protected in the order by Mantle. There are pictures of him frowning in all the newspapers (in those days, there were 15 local papers), with headlines like, “Smile, Roger, It’s Only a Game.” There are man-on-the-street interviews where the vast majority of fans want Mantle to break the record instead of Maris because Mantle is the “true Yankee.” Sound familiar? And worst of all, Commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat) insists that two separate records will be maintained in the official books if the record is indeed broken.
While all of this is happening, an interesting bond develops between Maris and Mantle, with Cerv lightening the mood and dispelling any tension. Cerv and Maris invite Mantle to move in with them into their quiet apartment in Queens, which is a far cry from Mantle’s glamorous hotel suite in Manhattan. They are trying to protect the Mick from himself, from another affair or drunken stupor that may really damage his career. Mantle reluctantly agrees, because he sees the value in trying to keep a lower profile during the season. Throughout all the pressure of the 1961 season—the fans screaming obscenities at Maris in right field, the door being left open for him to break the record when Mantle has a season-ending hip injury, the cold shoulder from Ruth’s widow, Claire (Renee Taylor)—their friendship endures, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.
Of course, we know what happens. Maris breaks the record on the last day of the 1961 season, in a shockingly empty Yankee Stadium. The commissioner is shamefully “out of town,” and Claire Ruth is clearly less than pleased with the Babe’s record being broken. The fans finally shower Maris with the love he deserves, but as Buster Keaton said when his films were finally appreciated right before his death, “The applause is nice, but too late.”
The movie is book-ended with coverage of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Maris’ record in 1998. Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now about McGwire and Sosa, so we were able to enjoy one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The Commissioner cheerfully took part in all McGwire-related ceremonies that year, as he should have, and would again in 2001 when Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record. What a shame that the only crime Roger Maris ever seemed to commit was that he wasn’t a good interview.
Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays.