Director Billy Crystal captured the essence of baseball and also did a fine job of telling the compelling story of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the HBO movie "61*" which premiered on Saturday, April 28th, 2001.

I was enthralled with the experience and was very pleased to see Crystal get the facts straight. From what I could tell, there was little dramatization or skewing the storyline to make it more "Hollywood."

I'm willing to bet that Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Bob Cerv and the others didn't just sit down one night in a nightclub and tell Maris how Joe DiMaggio was inadvertently responsible for Mantle tearing up his knee during the 1951 World Series. But, this was an instance where Crystal took advantage of an opportunity to fill in viewers with a little history behind Mantle and his relationship with DiMaggio.

It worked, too. There was also a scene where Maris wanted to sit out a game toward the end of his pursuit of 61 homers. Manager Ralph Houk talks him out of it and Maris proceeds to hit another dinger. I doubt this actually happened. As it was, the scene served to put everything in a nutshell about Maris; the man had to overcome many obstacles in 1961 and, at times, the pressure was more than he could deal with. Somehow, Maris overcame it all - which the movie showed very well.

Mantle was expertly portrayed by Thomas Jane. Both the actor and the real-life Mantle could have been twins, in my opinion. From Mantle's country drawl to Mantle's penchant for late night carousing, Jane hit it on the nose with his superb acting ability. I think Jane will probably get more stellar roles on the silver screen soon.

Plus, even though Mantle's vices and demons were brought forth in the movie, it was done in a way that made me sympathize with him. It would have been easy for Crystal to canonize Mantle in the movie, since Crystal's relationship with Mantle was a deep friendship that lasted until Mantle died in Dallas in 1995.

But, that is why this movie is so good. Crystal didn't candy coat the story and wasn't afraid to show us some things we might not have known about Mantle. Barry Pepper proved that he is a great actor, too. Crystal did an excellent job of casting Jane and Pepper for this movie; they both looked almost exactly like the M&M boys did 40 years ago. Pepper's crew cut really looked cool, by the way.

Pepper, who also did an excellent job in "Saving Private Ryan," captured the pain and anguish that characterized Maris during his record-breaking year. I also thought that Billy Crystal's daughter did an excellent job of playing Pat Maris, Roger's wife. Besides being a good actress, she's cute, too. I think we'll see more of her in the future on the big screen.

The cameo appearance by former MLB knuckleballer Tom Candiotti as Oriole reliever Hoyt Wilhelm added to the movie. This proved to me how Crystal wanted the movie to be as realistic as possible; he got an accomplished former professional to play the greatest reliever of all-time.

Overall, the movie was a great story and, as far as baseball goes, the action was admirable. Real ballplayers made the sequences seem genuine, unlike some baseball movies of the past. The only possible exception was Jane, who never played organized baseball until the movie. However, through the hard work and tutoring from former MLB outfielder Reggie Smith (formerly with the Red Sox and Dodgers), Jane fooled me. His swing and his mannerisms were just like Mantle. He looked like someone who probably played a little ball in high school and college - athletic build and natural coordination helped Jane, no doubt, in his role.

How would I rank "61*" with the best baseball movies of all- time? Well, to start with, I will give you my rankings, but I can only rank the movies that I have seen rather recently. At the moment, I'd have to say "61*" is the second-best movie behind "Field of Dreams." After watching it, I really came to appreciate what Maris dealt with in breaking the Babe's record. I also think that Ford Frick should have had an asterisk wrapped around his bony little neck! He was a buffoon and an absolute jerk for putting the asterisk on the record.


1. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) - (Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Amy Madigan, Timothy Busfield) - Top baseball movie of all-time. A little quirky on the details (Joe Jackson didn't hit righty) but features great story, baseball action, and nostalgic uniforms.
2. 61* (2001) - (Thomas Jane, Barry Pepper, Anthony Michael Hall, directed by Billy Crystal) - Superb true story about the 1961 home run record chase between Mantle and Maris. Crystal captures true flavor of baseball and the persona of The Mick and Roger.
3. BULL DURHAM (1988) - (Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Robert Wuhl, Max "The Clown Prince of Baseball" Patkin) - A look at minor league life with a sexy overtone. Features some cool old rock and roll music and "cliches."
4. LONG GONE (1987) - (William Peterson, Virginia Madsen, Dermot Mulroney) - Another major league hit about minor league baseball, this time from the 1950s I think. Again, baseball and sex mix well together - if you're old enough to watch it and other "R" rated flix. Petersen as manager "Stud" Cantrell and Mulroney as infielder Jamie Don Weeks are great.
5 THE ROOKIE (2002) - (Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths) -
True story about Jim Morris and his rookie debut for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I like the movie a lot, but I'm also biased since I actually saw his debut and didn't realize it. Great shots of The Ballpark in Arlington. Not your normal sterile Disney movie.
6. SUMMER CATCH (2001) - (Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jessica Biel, Matthew Lillard, Brian Dennehy, Curt Gowdy, Hank Aaron) - This one grew on me. Cute love story set in the summer during the Cape Cod League, I think. Lillard as the catcher Billy Brubaker offers wisdom on dating fat women (great stuff.) Hank Aaron makes guest appearance as a scout while Gowdy is the ballpark announcer.
7. EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) - (John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney) - About the infamous 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Nicely done but baseball action could have been more realistic.
8. PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942) - (Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey) - They don't make movies like this anymore! One of the classics. Of course, Cooper couldn't hit his way out of a wet paper sack, but we can overlook that. Cameos by Ruth and Dickey are fun.
9. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992) - (Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell) - About the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in the 1940s. Hanks as the crusty manager gives the best advice: "There's no crying in baseball!"
10. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (1999) - (Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston) - Another nice baseball/love story. The uniforms are awesome and baseball action is believable. A little hoaky and dramatic at times, but it works.
11. MAJOR LEAGUE (1989) - (Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Renee Russo, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, Bob Uecker) - About the Cleveland Indians becoming winners after years of losing. Funny and sexy. Uecker: "He's got so many nose hairs that he looks like a party favor when he sneezes."
12. SOUL OF THE GAME (1996) - (Blair Underwood, Mykelti Williamson, Delroy Lindo) - Great for negro league fans. Underwood as Jackie Robinson, Williamson as Josh Gibson, Lindo as Satchel Paige. Action could have been better.
13. THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1975) - (Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow) - Not bad if you like watching little leaguers. But, without the late great Matthau, the sequels are pretty silly and not worth watching.
14. COBB (1994) - (Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Roger Clemens) - Jones as Ty Cobb portrays a viscious and mean ex-ballplayer. Actually, a pretty depressing look at the Hall of Famer. I didn't realize he was so vile (if the portrayal is accurate.) Clemens makes cameo as Walter Johnson (neat!)
15. THE NATURAL (1984) - (Robert Redford, Kim Bassinger, Glenn Close, Wilford "The Brim Man" Brimley) - Contrary to popular belief, one of the WORST baseball movies ever made in my mind! Pitiful story, pitiful action. I have a hard time watching it and not laughing at the ridiculous way Redford throws and swings a bat. Of course, that silly homemade bat "Wonderboy" with the lightning bolt on it has got to go. Yet, if you're a fan, you've got to see it at least once so you'll know what a BAD baseball movie is like.
16. THE FAN (1996) - (Robert DiNiro, Ellen Barkin, Wesley Snipes, Benicio Del Toro) - How can you get worse than The Natural? Watch this bomb and find out. A horrible waste of acting talent for DiNiro and Del Toro.
OTHERS WORTH WATCHING PERHAPS: Bang The Drum Slowly (1973: Robert DiNiro, Michael Moriarty); Angels In The Outfield (1994: Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Mitchell Page, Carney Lansford); The Sandlot (1993: Denis Leary, Karen Allen, James Earl Jones, Maury Wills); Rookie of the Year (1993: Gary Busey, Thomas Ian Nicholas, John Candy, Daniel Stern, Barry Bonds, Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, Tim Stoddard); The Scout (1994: Albert Brooks, Brendan Fraser, Dianne Wiest, Bobby Murcer, Steve Garvey, Tim McCarver, Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Ken Brett)







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