John W. Garbutt
The movie 61* takes audiences back to a time when the game was pure and the frenzy of the media was in its early stages. The movie tells the story behind the box scores and the numbers baseball fans know by heart. The title is significant in two ways: the first being that it coincidentally symbolizes the number of the homerun that would surpass the great Babe Ruth for first all time in homeruns for a single season. The asterisk comes from Ford Frick, the Major League Baseball Commissioner during the era, to indicate that the 1961 season was the first season to expand from 154 games to 162 games. More games meant more times at bats for the hitters and it seemed unfair to Frick for a record set in 154 games to be broken with extra games, but in actuality Ruth's record came in a longer season than his predecessor's. He first broke the record in 1919 with 29 homeruns in 140 games, compared with the old record set during a 112 game season. He later broke his record three times in 1920,1921, and 1927, during a 154 game schedule. In 1927 Ruth hit 60, but somehow this was no big deal until the Commissioner felt that his buddy, The Great Bambino's, record might be broken in 1961.
The two players were complete opposites and the movie shows this well, but despite their differences and the pressures the 1961 season brought upon them, they were close friends and roommates. Roger Maris was in his second season as a Yankee, while Mantle was in his eleventh, and was the fan favorite. Mantle became an adopted New Yorker and had the movie star persona to go along with the city lifestyle. Maris on the other hand, was seen as a mid-westerner and an outsider from Fargo, North Dakota, who was traded to New York and thus not considered a "true Yankee". Mantle as depicted in the movie enjoyed the spotlight and had learned how to deal and thrive in it. He could work the media, while Maris, a quiet, shy family man, was away from his family and pushed into the spotlight after his MVP season the year before. The media and fans tried to portray Maris as a "non New Yorker", an outsider who did not want to be there. Maris gave the media, a short straight answer, but the media continued attacking the young star before and after the games. This hostility caused Maris to lose some of his hair and by the end of the season he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
Executive producer, Billy Crystal, a longtime Yankee fan, did a terrific job in recreating the atmosphere and stresses in the club house caused by the media. The movie showed how it affected Maris on the field, and at home. It also caused some animosity between the two stars but ultimately brought them closer. Mantle had gone through the same thing under Joe DiMaggio and felt he was under his shadow, when he moved up to the major leagues. As their friendship grew, Maris's down to earth temperament helped Mantle calm down his fast life style. In return, Mantle gave advice to Maris on how to handle the media and the stress of being a major league player in the media's capital city.
The movie spends a lot of time depicting the off-field life of both players. It reveals Mantle's wild side and how his teammates had to cover for him when he went on a drinking spree. 61* also shows the pressure of how playing in New York, affected Maris and his family, which was still in Kansas City, where Maris had been traded from. One scene shows Maris on the phone with his wife who had just given birth to a child. Maris apologized for being away and joked about how she should have waited until the Yankees made it to Kansas City for their next series against the Kansas City Athletics three days later. When he arrived home, a shocked Maris found a hoard of media surrounding his home, and angrily snapped at the reporters that they needed to leave him alone except at the stadium.
Possibly the best achievement is that viewers feel that they are in 1961 and that the actors Barry Pepper (Roger Maris) and Thomas Jane (Mickey Mantle) are actually the "M&M brothers". Pepper, Jane, and the assembled supporting cast earned the movie many nominations for casting awards. Sixty-One* won the Casting Society of America Award and Emmy Award for casting. Detroit's Tiger Stadium was used as a stand in for the olderYankee Stadium. With some extensive work to the body of Tiger Stadium, such as painting it to resemble the old coloring of Yankee Stadium, and adding physical features, such as the monuments in left-center with mock ups, or the third tier seating, added later by computers, Tiger Stadium quickly became the Yankee stadium of the 1960s. Crystal also went through extensive research to make sure the movie was as accurate as possible. Crystal was a personal friend with Mantle and used their relationship as a resource. Every detail of the stadium, furniture, clothing, and equipment was intended to be as accurate as possible.
Overall the movie was excellent and it deserves the attention of any fan of baseball or followers of the New York Yankees. It is a priceless gem of the sport genre and a great biography of Mantle and Maris during the 1961 season. When watching 61* one feels the triumph and tragedy of two embattled souls searching for comfort and meaning in two different ways. A number of recommended books on the subject are the following: Ralph Houk's, Season of Glory: The Amazing Saga of the 1961 New York Yankees, David Falkner's, The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle, and Harvey Rusenfeld's, Still A Legend: The Story of Roger Maris , all excellent works for viewers interested in further study.