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In Own Way, Crystal Set Record Straight

April 27, 2001|MIKE PENNER

Somewhere, off in some celestial piano lounge perhaps, the ghosts of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Bobby Riggs are sharing a few cold ones when talk turns to television movies, turning Riggs a little cranky.

"Man!" he says, slamming a fist on the cosmic tabletop, spectral peanuts shells flying. "You boys sure got a better shake than I did!"

Mantle and Maris nod sympathetically, and the Mick tries to cheer up the old hustler, leaning over to Riggs to remind him, "Hey, I was friends with the director."

Even in the afterlife, it all comes back to who you know.

If you're going to have your athletic legacy chronicled and recreated for the television-watching masses, you certainly want go the route Mantle and Maris did with Billy Crystal's "61*," which airs on HBO Saturday night at 9 p.m. Crystal makes no bones about it: He grew up a Yankee fan and Mantle was his idol, he was an awe-struck 8-year-old when he watched Mantle hit a mammoth home run during Crystal's first visit to Yankee Stadium, and he was 13 when the M&M boys launched their pursuit of Babe Ruth's hallowed single-season home run record in 1961.

Looking back 40 years through the rosy prism of childhood wonder, details and reality are easily distorted. Crystal is no objective observer when it comes to this team and its era, and try as he might to present balanced portraits of Mantle and Maris and their various flaws, it's ultimately unavoidable: When in doubt, the tie is going to go to the runner.

In "61*," Mantle is shown to be a drunk and disorderly womanizer, Maris is presented as sullen and moody, but with both characterizations, there's an asterisk attached. Mantle carouses because his dad died when he was young. Maris withdraws into a shell because he's a small-town boy in the Big Apple who wakes up in the middle of his greatest season with the entire world against him--the fans, the commissioner and, of course, the howling jackals of the sporting press.

Crystal has said one of his reasons for pursuing this project was to rehabilitate Maris' public image and revisit his harrowing home run chase--a crusade so filled with pressure and hatred, Maris began losing chunks of hair from the stress. It's a worthy cause. As America discovered during Mark McGwire's 1998 pursuit of the home run record, Maris was a decent man, a good father and husband, whose greatest failing was lacking the charisma required for breaking baseball's biggest record on its biggest stage.

In actor Barry Pepper, Crystal found a remarkable physical ringer for Maris. For the role of Maris' wife, Pat, Crystal went to his daughter, Jennifer Crystal Foley. Directorial empathy for this couple wasn't tough to find.


To hammer the point home, Crystal lines up an unholy trinity of evil outside forces to torment the Marises. In descending order of vileness, the villains are:

* The fans: Bad.

* Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who stuck the asterisk next to Maris' record: Very bad.

* New York baseball writers: Worse.

Baseball fans watching "61*" will delight in the movie's obsessive attention to game detail: Tiger Stadium repainted and digitally enhanced to resemble old Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard on the P.A. microphone, Tom Candiotti playing Baltimore knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm so faithfully, he even walks with a crick in his neck.

Baseball writers will be amused, as well, to see the 1961 Yankee media corps turn on Maris for being aloof and uncooperative when this Maris calls writers by their first names, answers in full sentences, even takes time between hacks in the batting cage to answer questions. Imagine what they would have done with Eddie Murray.

Try interviewing a ballplayer today while he's in the cage taking his swings and you'll either get no response, language best suited for "The Sopranos," or, once he leaves the cage, the fresh scent of Louisville wood waved beneath your nostrils.

Former Yankee outfielder Bob Cerv, who roomed with Mantle and Maris during 1961, told the Associated Press that the movie is "about 75%" accurate. For instance, Cerv said he couldn't remember sharing a hospital room with Mantle listening to radio as Maris goes after No. 61, or a fan throwing a bleacher seat at Maris, or Maris getting booed at Yankee Stadium after hitting a home run.

"Some of the stuff is fictitious," he said. "But it was 40 years ago. That's a long time."

In a promotional interview with Bob Costas, whose show also is on on HBO, Crystal said he was happy to report that the Mantle and Maris families approved of the movie. Certainly, "61*" aims to please.

Riggs, whose 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against Billie Jean King was mangled beyond recognition by ABC, should have been so lucky.

I mean, Fred Willard as Howard Cosell?

On second thought, casting Anthony Michael Hall as Whitey Ford doesn't sound so bad.


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