61* (TV)

(director: Billy Crystal; screenwriter: Hank Steinberg; cinematographer: Haskell Wexler; editor: Michael Jablow; music: Marc Shaiman; cast: Barry Pepper (Roger Maris), Thomas Jane (Mickey Mantle), Richard Masur (Milt Kahn), Bruce McGill (Ralph Houk), Christopher McDonald (Mel Allen), Joe Grifasi (Phil Rizzuto), Jennifer Crystal Foley (Pat Maris), Bob Gunton (Dan Topping), Donald Moffat (Ford Frick), Chris Bauer (Bob Cerv),  Anthony Michael Hall (Whitey Ford); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ross Greenburg/Billy Crystal; Face Productions/HBO Films; 2001)

“Crystal delivers a nice looking sentimental television drama geared for the fan who looks to baseball as if it were a religion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A made for HBO feel-good sports drama. The director is Billy Crystal, a big Yankee fan since childhood, a comedian and an actor, but is not generally known as a director (except for his two turkeys “Mr. Saturday Night” and “Forget Paris”). Crystal’s job, which he readily accomplishes, is to capture the excitement and baseball history in the 1961 season when the Yankee sluggers Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane), known affectionately as the M&M boys, ruled the country’s sports headlines in their pursuit to break Babe Ruth’s home run record of 60.

The sluggers had different personalities, with the homegrown hero Mantle being the happy-go-lucky extrovert country boy and fan favorite, while Maris was the sullen, introverted, late-bloomer slugger, a square from the Midwest, who was recently traded to the Bombers from the KC Royals. Some fans never forgave the lesser player for being placed in the same company as the superstar Mantle, a future member of the Hall of Fame, and many in the press openly rooted for Mantle and unfairly disparaged the humble and quiet Maris. But the duo were good teammates and each supported the other, with Mantle being protective and upset his roommate was getting razzed by the press. Full support for both sluggers came from sports beat writers such as Milt Kahn (Richard Masur) and the Yankee broadcasters, the “How about that guy”, Mel Allen (Christopher McDonald), and “the Holy Cow guy”, Phil Rizzuto (Joe Grifasi).

The record was cheapened,however, by the Babe fanboy, the American League President Ford Frick (Donald Moffat), who placed an asterisk next to it in the record book because it was done in MLB’s first 162 game season, a season longer than Babe’s 154 game one.

To his credit, Crystal delivers a nice looking sentimental television drama geared for the fan who looks to baseball as if it were a religion and will probably not care particularly about the film’s flaws (such as all those agonizing noble speeches and dull subplots into the player’s personal lives). Crystal knows his baseball and accurately gets the big story right, captures the public’s clamor for the story and the great camaraderie between the rivals.

The result is a decent sports film, with some good baseball action scenes. It’s deficient only when Crystal stiffly tries to do any drama that’s not on the diamond.

Praise goes to the actors who convincingly played the sluggers and who also looked the part.