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61*

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Thomas Jan, Barry Pepper, Christopher McDonald, Donald Moffat, Anthony Michael Hall
Director:  Billy Crystal
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  HBO
Features:  See Review
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  September 11, 2001

“Are we feuding?”

“Yeah, I guess so.  It’s on TV.”

Film ***1/2

What baseball fan could ever forget 1998…not one, but two prolific sluggers were chasing a piece of sports history.  Roger Maris’ long coveted single season record of 61 home runs was within the grasp of two beloved stars of the game…the gentle giant Mark McGwire and the smiling Sammy Sosa.  Both would pass Maris in a season fans would never forget…a season that eerily echoed one that took place 37 years earlier.

That 1961 season was the year two teammates went after the immortal Babe Ruth’s seemingly untouchable record of 60 home runs in a season.  Adding to the drama of the chase was the fact that Mickey Mantle (Jane) and Roger Maris (Pepper) were Yankees themselves…they would be chasing the Babe in the so-called house that he built.

Mantle had been a New York favorite and a solid player for ten years.  On the field, he was the epitome of grace, power and playing through pain.  Off the field, he was a relentless partier whose ways with booze and women would eventually catch up to him.  Maris, on the other hand, was a quiet country kid from North Dakota, and one of baseball’s most misunderstood men.  He cared only about the game, and the press and the fans mistook his reluctance to talk about himself, the record, or his role as second favorite to The Mick as cold lack of personality.

The fans clearly had their favorite in Mantle, but the real favorite across the board was Babe Ruth.  1961 was the first year of the 162 game season, and Commissioner Ford Frick declared that any record NOT broken in the span of 154 games would be a separate (and therefore, qualified) record. 

As the season wore on, it began to take its toll on the so-named M&M boys.  Mantle’s health problems were a concern, and his drinking wasn’t helping.  Maris was becoming less and less of a fan favorite by not fitting their image of a sports hero.  By season’s end, Mantle would be hospitalized owing to a bad flu shot, leaving Maris alone in the spotlight.

The pressures he went through are the stuff of legends.  Booed everywhere, but mostly in front of his own home crowd, he began receiving hate mail and death threats.  The press was equally unkind.  We catch glimpses of him with his hands shaking and his hair coming out in clumps.

Maris would make history, but Frick ensured it would never belong to him in his lifetime…the infamous asterisk became almost as big as the number 61 itself.  It would not come off until modern Commissioner Fay Vincent ordered the records combined in 1991.  Maris had passed away six years earlier.  He never knew the record finally belonged to him.

Billy Crystal is a noted baseball fan and a Yankees aficionado, and his love and passion shines through in every frame of 61*.  This is one of the best baseball movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them.  This is a film that not only celebrates the spirits of two indomitable legends, but the joy of the game itself, when baseball really did represent something good and wholesome about America.

It makes you remember and believe in such a time, which is something we’ll never have again.  In watching Crystal’s film, I kept thinking about the current season, which is really going to mark a turning point in baseball history.  Two of the game’s classiest acts, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr., are leaving it behind.  In their place stands hotshot upstarts commandeering ridiculous salaries and selling their services to the highest bidder.  There stands the threat of another work stoppage.  Even the sacred single season home run record, passed down from Babe Ruth to Roger Maris to Mark McGwire, is in danger of falling to a classless, egomaniacal barbarian like Barry Bonds.

Baseball may founder after 2001, but the memories of the true giants of the game will always be with us.  61* is a film that celebrates everything right about the game in the face of all that’s wrong with it today.

Video ***

This is a quality anamorphic transfer from HBO…occasionally, a bit softer and less detailed when it comes to darker images, but there aren’t many of them.  Brightly lit outdoors are beautifully rendered with rich, warm colors and sharpness, and no grain or compression to mar the images.

Audio ***

This is a modest but effective 5.1 mix, with good dynamic range and crystal clarity throughout.  The rear stage is mostly used for crowd scenes and to good effect; the quieter moments feature perfectly rendered dialogue. 

Features ***

Billy Crystal provides a commentary track, which is an absolute pleasure to listen to.  He’s informative, funny, and still filled with admiration for his childhood heroes.  He talks about his wonderful actors, the recreation of Yankee Stadium circa 1961 in Tiger Stadium with some CGI help, and even interesting bits of trivia along the way.  The right-handed Anthony Michael Hall was outfitted in uniforms with the words and logos reversed, and the film flipped horizontally so he could pass for the left-handed Whitey Ford, for example.

Also included is a terrific making-of featurette that gets not only into the heart of the film, but the real life players as well, with some historical footage and background to mix with the new stuff.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Rounding out the extras is a trailer, bios for Crystal, Jane and Pepper, bios and stats for Mantle and Maris, and a list of Maris’ history making 61 home runs in 1961…when and where they occurred.

Summary:

61* is an expectedly great film on a surprisingly good DVD.  It’s a wonderful true tale about two men who became legends by daring to chase an impossible dream.  It’s filled with Billy Crystal’s love for baseball and his hometown Yankee heroes, and serves as a perfect night’s entertainment, even if you’re not a baseball fan.  It’s a picture that defines greatness in a way we may never really get to see from the sport again.