61* (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Roger Maris was a regular guy from Fargo, North Dakota, a low profile man who ended up on the highest profile baseball team in history, the storied New York Yankees. Then, in a summer of glorious innocence for us older guys, Maris had enough talent and good fortune to chase down baseball's most iconic record, the 60 home runs hit in 1927 by America's all-time most beloved sports figure, Babe Ruth. 

Maris was joined in his quest by his teammate, Mickey Mantle, who was probably America's second most beloved sports idol. Mantle was the loveable, talented country boy who had won New York's affection with humor, candor, and his modest fun-loving party-hearty nature. Not to mention talent. Mantle was, at the zenith of his capabilities, both the fastest and the strongest man in the majors, a rare combination, and was able to generate his power from both sides of the plate. Although Mantle stood a modest 5'11", and weighed less than 200 pounds, he was arguably the most powerful hitter major league baseball had even known before McGwire's arrival. As for speed, if I'm not mistaken, when Mickey batted lefthanded, his 3.1 speed from home to first has never been bested. In other words, he had McGwire's power and Ichiro's speed, and was a lovable guy.

So you see how the planets lined up for ol' Roger Maris. Virtually nobody in America wanted to see Ruth's record fall at all, but if it had to fall, virtually everyone wanted their young Apollo, Mickey Mantle, to be the one to do it. 

But Maris did it. In the face of the pressure and the intense scrutiny, the 26-year-old kid from Fargo broke the record. And his performance led the way to a championship that year which was impressive even by the lofty standards of the Yankees. Six guys on the team hit twenty or more homers. Elston Howard hit about as well as a catcher can hit. Whitey Ford went 25-4; Ralph Terry 16-3.  A guy who loves his game should be happiest when he's playing his best and his team is winning at a record pace, so it was a summer that should have been the happiest of Roger's life, but Maris found that his excellence brought him nothing but misery. Somehow, he was transformed by pop myth into the Sheriff of Nottingham, chasing down Robin Hood and Little John. No matter what Maris or his teammates did, the newspapers seemed to report nothing but the quest for the cherished record, and nothing Maris did seemed to please the fans or the writers. He was booed in his home park for his failures, and even for his successes, which involved the pursuit of a sacred record.

Maris' typically laconic summary: "Greatest season of my life. Wouldn't want to do it again."

The beauty of the story is that Maris is you or me. He's just a normal guy. He does what most of us guys would do if people booed us for being excellent, and then reporters stuck a microphone in our face and asked us about it. Very few of us can be like the charismatic Mantle, who was able to finesse everyone with his laid-back country charm, and if few can match his charm, none can match his gifts. But we're all a lot like Maris. We are capable of extraordinary things in extraordinary situations, if we work hard enough to be prepared for them. We can also get pissed off and alienate even the people who love us or support us. Roger's story is our story.

I'm pleased that Billy Crystal told it so lovingly.

It's a very good movie, as good as any baseball movie ever made, partly because it doesn't have to include any embellishment to make its points. It just tells it the way it was. Exactly the way it was. Crystal was fanatical about the details and the two stars (Thomas Jane and Barry Pepper) are pluperfect as Mantle and Maris. Of course, when you stand back from the film, you realize that it isn't really about baseball. It just uses baseball for its backdrop. It's really about the nature of fame, the vicissitudes of popularity, and about how cruel and fickle the media and fans can be.

If you decide to rent or buy the DVD, and if the summer of 1961 means anything to you, don't miss the "making of" featurette which may be better than the movie itself because you'll get to feel all the love that went into the project. Billy Crystal relived his childhood when he made the movie. I relived mine by watching him make it.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Although this was made for  TV, it is available in widescreen format, 1.85:1

  • It also includes a "making of" featurette and a full-length commentary by Billy Crystal




Sidebar #1: The film's accuracy.

Considering that Billy Crystal was such a fanatic about accuracy, and was so obsessive about the 1961 season, it is surprising that the film makes a historical mistake about one of its main characters, Bob Cerv, who was the roommate of Mantle and Maris during part of the 1961 season. The movie pictures Cerv on the Yankees' opening day roster in 1961. In reality, Cerv was taken by the Angels in the expansion draft, and began 1961 on their roster. He was traded back to the Yankees on May 8th.


Sidebar #2: Some thoughts on Roger Maris.

You may not realize that Maris was a very good player. Most of the criticism directed against him at the time reflected the ignorance of his critics, and had little to do with Maris's talent. People were fond of saying at the time that Ruth's record shouldn't be broken by a .260 hitter. Before the modern era of objective baseball analysis, people would praise a .300 hitter with no walks or power, and berate a .260 with 90 walks and 30 homers, completely missing the point of how games are won and lost! (Don't be too harsh in your judgment of the past. Some people still don't get that point.) The whole argument against Maris ignored the facts that:

  • In 1960 and 1961, Maris had on-base percentages in the .370s. When Tony Gywnn won back-to-back National League batting championships in 1988-89, in his prime at ages 28 and 29, his OBPs were .373 and .389. In other words, when Roger was in his prime he was about good at getting on base as a batting champion. He had a good eye. In 1961 he drew 94 walks despite the presence of Mantle in the on-deck circle, which might have made his 1961 season the best offensive year not to include an intentional walk. Despite the lack of intentional walks, pitchers knew he could hit and showed him respect.
  • In 1961, Maris led the league in runs scored as well as runs batted in. Does that sound like a guy who couldn't get on base?
  • Maris was a two-time MVP, edging out Mantle himself both times. Does that sound like a schmuck?
  • Maris played to win. That is what really measures a man's contribution. He was a complete player. He could throw; he played centerfield when Mantle was hurt; he'd lay down a bunt or steal a base if the team needed him to do so for a victory. 

Roger's only real weakness was that he wasn't as talented as Mickey Mantle, a weakness he shared with all other members of the human race and maybe some Kryptonians as well.

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews

  • nominated for several Emmy awards

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.7
  • made for TV
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a very high C+. I certainly recommend it for my fellow baseball fans, since it's one of the best baseball movies, made to be as accurate and realistic as possible. I can't call it a B, because there's just too much baseball in it to make it interesting for non-fans, but it certainly touches on a lot of non-baseball themes about our obsession with celebrity, and the price exacted by fame.

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