During one interview about his amazing home run season, Aaron Judge was asked if he knew much about the Yankee who holds the American League home run record, Roger Maris. He said he didn’t and was going to do some research. As a start, we recommend that he watch Billy Crystal’s film 61*.
If you ask what that asterisk is about, when Maris broke the previous home run record held by Babe Ruth, baseball commissioner Ford Frick ruled that because the baseball season had increased to 162 games during Maris’ time, compared to the 154 games when Ruth played, the asterisk was needed to make that distinction. Eventually another baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent, removed the asterisk, but Maris died before he knew that he alone held that record.
While Crystal’s film opens with Mark Maguire’s push to beat Maris’ home run record (that record is tainted because of Maguire’s steroid use), the focus quickly switches to1961 when the “M&M boys” were in the running to beat Ruth’s 60 home runs. The film is expertly cast with Barry Pepper playing Roger Maris and Thomas Jane, Mickey Mantle. Supporting actors, too, turn in terrific performances. Anthony Michael Hall is Whitey Ford, the Yankee star pitcher who often rescued Mickey when he went on a bender, while Paul Borghese plays Yogi Berra, who, true to form, is prone to making “Yogi-isms” – “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” Bruce McGill is a very convincing Yankee manager, Ralph Houk, who pushed his players to win, but also was there to protect them during rough times.
Decades before John Sterling and Michael Kay called Yankee games, fans listened to Mel Allen (Christopher McDonald) and former Yankee Phil Rizzuto (Joe Grifasi). Because the press aggressively reported on the Maris-Mantle race, Richard Masur and Peter Jacobson as reporters capture the competition between the 15 papers that once circulated in New York.
Maris came to the Yankees in 1959 from the Kansas City Athletics, while Mantle played his entire career – 1951 to 1968 – with the New York team. So when the two men competed for the home run record, the public was firmly in Mantle’s camp. Mantle also knew how to handle the press, while Maris frequently got himself into trouble with a response that was interpreted as being anti-New York. (“Well, I guess I’m not a New York kind of guy,” he says, at one point, leading to negative headlines followed by calls of “go back to Fargo,” from the crowd.
Although the press played up the rivalry between the two Yankee stars, the film shows that the two were supportive and good friends. While many inside and outside the Yankee family continued to revere Ruth, Mantle and others hated the specter the Babe cast over the club. When Mantle becomes injured and lands in the hospital, Maris alone is left to continue the race. “Go get the fat fuck,” Mantle tells him.
Records are made to be broken and fans love to cheer on the players who take on that challenge. Maguire went on to hit 70 homers, Sammy Sosa, 66, and Barry Bonds, 73. But that trio is tainted by steroid use. Some believe no matter what Judge does, Bonds will still hold the record. Others want the record to be held by someone who does it clean, without using PEDs.
We see what’s happening on the field, but not what’s going on behind the scenes. 61* manages to show what went on in 1961 when the M&M boys hit so many out of the park, with Maris eventually winning the race. He did it clean. 61* makes that clear. That’s the record that stands now and the one Judge has in his sights.
61* can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Top photo: Bigstock