Re-Watchterpiece Theater: 61*

Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. This week, I’ll be discussing Billy Crystal’s made-for-HBO baseball film, 61* (2001). For those of you unfamiliar with the film, here’s the film’s synopsis, via Fandango:

Noted baseball fan Billy Crystal directed this made-for-cable drama set in the summer of 1961, as two of the strongest hitters in the major leagues, Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper), find themselves neck and neck in a battle to break Babe Ruth’s long-standing record for most home runs in a season. Both men were playing for the New York Yankees at the time, and as the two men came within grasping distance of Ruth’s record, their loyalty as friends and teammates was put to the ultimate test.

The First Viewing

Mickey Mantle and Thomas Jane as Mantle, side by side

I first watched 61* in 2001. I had just finished my fifth season working in professional baseball as a Media Relations Director and was on the verge of beginning a different career in another field. In other words, my passion for the game of baseball never really burned any brighter. I was completely enamored with the movie. I instantly claimed that it was one of my favorite baseball movies, second only to 1988’s Eight Men Out. I made that claim based on how hard the film worked to stay true to the actual story of Maris and Mantle’s chase of Babe Ruth’s record. Billy Crystal hadn’t pulled any punches on Mickey Mantle, presenting him as the drunk, ornery, but very lovable cuss that he actually was. He went into great detail regarding the pressures put on Maris in his chase. As someone who loves baseball history, I applaud any and all efforts to stay true to the beauty of the game’s true story. The pair of actors playing Maris and Mantle (Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane) were even dead ringers for the characters they were playing. Not that it mattered; it was more about the acting job they did than their uncanny likeness for the M&M boys. It didn’t hurt that both Pepper and Jane seemed to be on the verge of breaking out into bigger and better things.

Additionally, the film aired just three years after Mark McGwire had broken the record that served as the backdrop for the movie. McGwire did so in a very memorable fashion, more so for me personally than most because I’m a diehard fan of McGwire’s team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Billy Crystal had taken McGwire’s own chase and used it to open and close the film.

Roger Maris and Barry Pepper as Maris, side by side

The Re-Watch
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve seen the film at least one other time since 2001. What’s important is that this is the first time I’ve seen it since the steroid scandal became such a hot-button issue within the game of baseball. It was the first time I’d seen it since McGwire’s tearful admission that he had been a steroid user in the 1990’s, including during the season that he broke Maris’ record. In other words, between McGwire’s admission and the fact that I haven’t worked in professional baseball for a decade, a lot of things have changed in the context of this movie.

The irony is that I think the inclusion of the McGwire footage at the beginning and end of the film now only serves to enhance Maris’ image, which was the goal of the film anyway. Seeing McGwire doing his thing and knowing that he did some very bad things to make it all happen makes Maris look even better by comparison. It’s not needed, of course. You see, the film really was a labor of love for Billy Crystal. He grew up a Yankee fan, idolizing Maris and Mantle. One of the things that jumped out at me this time is that by humanizing Mantle as a drunk-with-demons and Maris as collapsing under the pressure, he didn’t put any dents in their armor. He made them seem even more iconic. They were fallible, just like you and me, and yet they achieved amazing things.

Another theme that I noticed is how wonderfully Maris and Mantle work as foils for one another. And Crystal didn’t have to force it. Mantle was the charmer, the carouser, the ladies’ man, and the natural talent. Maris was quiet, unassuming, a devoted husband and father, and had to grind everything out to accomplish his goals. These weren’t just characters in a movie. That’s who those guys were in real life. It’s the heart of the film and it’s why the film works so well.

Admittedly, the film works hard to drum up the drama, pulling every baseball movie cliché out of the book- swelling orchestras punctuated by french horns and trumpets, spinning newspaper montages, etc. None of it hurts the movie because of something I come back to from the first viewing. Namely, Billy Crystal worked hard to make the action realistic. Whatever liberties he took with the actual story were minimal. He hired former major league outfielder Reggie Smith to work with Thomas Jane to make him look more like Mantle on the field. CGI was used to transform Tiger Stadium- where the movie was made- into the breathtaking, pre-70’s renovation Yankee Stadium. He even used former major league knuckleballer Tom Candiotti to play the role of knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm.

At the end of the re-watch, I don’t feel the tiniest bit different about the movie than I did when I first saw it in 2001. It stands right alongside Eight Men Out as a gem of the baseball film genre.


10 Comments

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10 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: 61*

  1. This is a great overlooked film from HBO. I originally watched it when it first came out because I really liked the talent involved and have seen it a couple times since then. Pepper and Jane are great together, and I’ve always had nothing but love for Michael C. Hall. Really hope when people look on Pepper’s career, this is the kind of film they remember not that… *other one*

  2. Tambourine Man

    Though I consider myself a fairly rabid sports fan, rarely do I enjoy sports films that aren’t documentaries. This one is an exception. It would’ve been easy for Crystal to trot out another lame, hero worship film where he jerks off to his childhood idols., but he avoids that trap. And Pepper’s one of those actors that I always forget about who I usually enjoy…Loved 25th Hour. Checked out “Cobb” yet, John? It’s horribly flawed (Robert Wuhl, enough said), but worth it simply because of TLJ’s performance. Oh, your steroid-loving friend from Texas is in it too;-)

    • I saw Cobb a long time ago- sometime around when it came out. I remember liking it but honestly don’t remember too much about it. It’s a great re-watch candidate.

  3. Dan

    I totally agree. I’m amazed that 61* doesn’t show up on more “best of” lists for baseball movies. Eight Men Out is also my favorite, but this one is definitely in the top five.

    • The only thing I can figure is that since it was only an HBO movie, maybe a lot of people haven’t heard of it.

      “Soul of the Game” is another great one from HBO (filmed in one of the ballparks where I used to work).

      • Dan

        I haven’t seen Soul of the Game. I just checked it out on IMDB, and it looks interesting. Adding it to the pile of 500+ in the Netflix Queue. Thanks!

        • I did a re-watch of it last year and still liked it quite a bit, but found that it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. It’s still very good, and I’m all for any movie that tips its cap to the Negro Leagues. Delroy Lindo was excellent as Satchel Paige. I almost wish someone would do a Paige biopic.

  4. As a Cardinals fan, I’m sure you’ve read David Halberstam’s wonderful book ‘October 1964,’ which chronicles the Cardinals’ World Series season, alongside that of the Yankees. The ’61 season gets quite a bit of discussion as well.

    I grew up a baseball fan for many years, my team being the Mets (I still haven’t forgiven you guys for the ’85 season). When they cancelled the World Series in ’94 on account of the labor issues, that got me mad enough to quit following the game. I don’t follow baseball as closely as I used to anymore, but I certainly remember the steroid scandal. One argument I remember reading about is why we tolerate usage of performance-enhancing drugs in sports like football, but not in baseball? Is it because of the mystique of the game, its ties to the classic American identity? Is it because football is so much more symbolic of the modern America? I’m not sure. For guys like you and me, baseball will always mean something entirely different from the way it’s perceived now, in the post-Moneyball era, where everything is all about stats.

    • That’s one of my very favorite books. I break it out every few years and re-read it because of how much I enjoyed it.

      RE: football steroid use vs. baseball, I think you’ve hit on something there. More than any other sport, baseball’s numbers and records and stats are sacred. And to taint them is the ultimate sin. The two sports are sort of the cliché of a younger brother and an older brother. The oldest never gets away with anything; the youngest is the darling or whatever. And football is very much the darling of the American public. It can do no wrong (and frankly, it bugs the crap out of me that the NFL doesn’t catch more heat for their various issues).

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