If I don’t wanna talk about things, and I don’t know what they wanna hear, and I just wanna play ball. Does that make me the bad guy?
Being English I don’t really have an affinity with a lot of American sports, infact the only one I have a true interest in is ice hockey, but there is always been a mild interest in baseball after watching films such as “A League of Their Own”, the “Major League” franchise and more recent “Moneyball”.
Following that I watched a film a few years ago called 61*, a baseball movie based on a professional rivalry between baseball legends Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris as both try break the record set by “Babe” Ruth for the most home runs in a season.
Whilst it might not have the big budgets that some of the aforementioned films had, and the fact it was a movie made for American television, it’s hardly surprising that it’s not that well known outside of America or outside of the sport of baseball, however, it is an interesting look at how two very different characters dealt with the increasing pressure as they neared the record.
The 1961 baseball season sees the New York Yankees making headlines as two of it’s high profile players both compete to break the record of the legendary “Babe” Ruth. Mickey Mantle (Jane) is the media darling, loved by everyone and is widely regarded as the best player for the Yankees, Roger Maris (Pepper) is the opposite, a family man who despite winning the MVP award for the previous season, isn’t in the spotlight and that suits him just fine.
Both hit early slumps in their season and Maris is even threatened with being traded, however, as the season goes on both hit form. As their friendship grows, one where who will break the record is joked about, both must deal with the pressure of approaching the record. It’s a pressure that keeps growing to the point where the administrator of the league becomes desperate to see that Ruth’s record remains intact due to their friendship, changing the way records are kept midway through a season.
Things continue as normal for Mantle as he loved by the public, but things are very different for Maris as he is often purposefully misquoted by the media and portrayed in a very negative light, leading to him being booed at his own stadium, receiving death threats through the mail and having someone threaten to kidnap his new born son.
As the stressful situation becomes more strained, especially when “fans” start trying to assault Maris on the field, can either of them actually hold up to the pressure and break the record?”
Is it just like every other sports movie?
In many ways it is because like most sports movies, it has a happy ending. I’m not sure if it would technically count as a spoiler though as it is, for the most part, an historically accurate film for what happens on the pitch. Whilst “Moneyball” bent the truth somewhat (such as suggesting that some of the players were new to the club when they had actually been at the club the year before, such as Chad Radford), “61*” seems to remain truth to historical events on the field. Now, I would caveat that by saying I’m not a huge baseball fan and the stating that it seems to be historically accurate is based on the Wikipedia page.
What I found very interesting about the film was the media manipulation of Roger Maris. Whilst I’m sure it still happens today, because of the lack of major media coverage back then, it would be very easy to ruin Maris’ reputation in the media and that’s what happens when, because he gives only basic answers, the media puts his quotes into the wrong context and vilify him. The media treatment he receives causes severe stress, hair loss, death threats and other such things, and it reminded me a lot of when David Beckham was sent off in the World Cup in 1998 and how he was made out to be public enemy number one.
One other mis-representation by the media in the film is that despite forming a corporation together, Mantle and Maris couldn’t stand each other. This was far from the truth as they lived together and Mantle often acknowledges that Maris turned his life around by helping him stay off of alcohol and leading a more mature lifestyle.
Maris is excellent played by Barry Pepper. If Maris really was that serious in real life then Pepper is probably the best actor around to have played him. Pepper, in a carer spanning more than 20 years, has rarely had a lead role and has often been restricted to sub-roles, and is is interesting to see that some of the films that he has been in are some of the biggest in recent memory, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Green Mile”…..the less said about “Battlefield Earth” the better. He has always been an actor that has on occasion been allowed to show emotion, but often ends in roles where his character is of a serious nature, and he does it excellent each time.
Thomas Jane is also partly enjoyable as Mantle, I say partly because he is excellent at portraying the character when drunk, however, when the character starts renouncing alcohol you get the feeling that you could have really gotten any actor to play the role and it wouldn’t have made a different. That’s not anything against Jane, it’s just the character is not written very strongly after he gives up alcohol
Sub-plots are also important to the movie and the one where the league administrator doesn’t want Maris to break the record because he was friends with “Babe” Ruth. Ford Frick, played by Donald Moffat, is so against someone who isn’t “bigger than the game” breaking the record that he changes the rule midway through the season and openly hopes it doesn’t happen. Almost 20 years after the season, Maris said (not in the film) “They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the records books or something.”
I only have two concerns with regards to the film, the first of which is the music. It’s a very strange soundtrack accompanying the film, for example, when Roger is talking about the threats with Mickey, there is music in the background that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Disney film when they’re discovering something awesome for the first time. It just didn’t feel well used at all and ruined some scenes that were supposed to be very serious.
The second concern isn’t even really a concern and that is that there’s no character development at all, with the exception of Mickey giving up alcohol. The only reason I say it’s not a concern when it’s usually one of the things I look for is that it’s hard to really have character development in a film based on actual events.
An enjoyable two hour movie that tells a good sporting story. Don’t expect anything that you haven’t seen before, but if you enjoyed all of the aforementioned baseball films then I think you will enjoy this.
As it was a made-for-TV movie, it’s unlikely that if you live outside of the US that you will see this anywhere other than on the internet, but if you have a spare two hours then I would recommend it.