Sports Movies: “61*” (2001)

Screenshot Barry Pepper as Roger Maris in 61 movie

There was a time when baseball’s home run record really meant something. It was mythical. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, hitting more home runs than 12 teams that year!

Ruth’s home run record stood for 34 years, until Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, though Major League Baseball shamefully put an asterisk next to Maris’s record. The Babe had set the record during a 154-game season, while Maris broke the record during a 162-game season. Maris also broke the record in a season following expansion, further angering baseball purists who felt he didn’t deserve to be labeled the Home Run King.

The steroid era made discussions of the record even more controversial. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the record in the memorable 1998 season when McGwire hit 70 home runs and Sosa hit 66. Barry Bonds followed that with an amazing 73 in the 2001 season. But the steroid scandal exposed McGuire, Sosa and Bonds, making a mockery of the home run record. This context helps explain why so many wanted to crown Aaron Judge as the “true” holder of the record with his 62 home runs in the 2022 season.

“61*” is a historical drama that tells the story of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they chased the Babe’s record in the 1961 season. Mantle was already a legend in the minds of most baseball fans, while Maris was the new kid on the block on New York even though he won the MVP in 1960 in his first season as a Yankee.

The film brilliantly chronicles the home run chase and the pressure it put on Maris and Mantle, particularly Maris. Director Billy Crystal captures this iconic time in baseball history when baseball was the national pastime and the Yankees ruled the baseball world. The story centers around the unique characters of Mantle and Maris, their personal relationship, and their interactions with teammates and the press.

The casting of this film is suburb. Barry Pepper (Maris) and Thomas Jane (Mantle) carry the film with memorable performances as the two sluggers. Pepper is brilliant as the stoic and honorable Maris who feels uncomfortable with the media’s and public’s obsession with the record chase. Jane is equally compelling as charismatic but troubled Mantle. It certainly helps that both actors look remarkably similar to the famous ballplayers, but both also give nuanced performances that seem to capture the essence of both men.

Screenshot Thmoas Jane as Mickey Mantle in 61 movie

The press is cast as the villain in this film, with brutal stories taking Maris’s words out of context, while also providing context on the pressures sportswriters faced in an era when multiple beat writers followed the team and battled for scoops. Some writers had it out for Maris from the beginning, while others turned on Maris when he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give them what they needed for their stories.

As the season unfolds, Maris struggles to handle the pressure, giving the press plenty of fodder to cast him as the villain as he gets closer to the Babe’s record. He’s a quiet man of few words who’s uncomfortable in the spotlight. He gets hate mail from fans, even kids, and even starts to lose his hair towards the end of the season. Yet he continues to perform and blast home runs.

Mantle on the other hand handles the press with ease. He’s comfortable being the biggest star in the city, and loves indulging in booze and the attention of women. But his fast-paced lifestyle starts to catch up to him.

The growing friendship between these two men anchors the film. They’re polar opposites in many ways, yet they forge a bond around a shared experience that’s hard to appreciate for most of us who’ve never faced the intense media spotlight.

The film was released in 2001, shortly after McGwire’s and Sosa’s record-breaking season but before Bonds blasted 73 and the steroid scandal broke. The story is told in the context of the Maris family reacting to the record being broken while Maris’s wife relives the 1961 season. The aftermath of McGwire’s record-breaking season also seems like a distant memory today in the post steroid era game and this season’s milestone by Aaron Judge. Maris’s family was very respectful of McGuire in the film, while that has naturally changed over the years. Roger Maris, Jr. stated that Judge was the “actual single-season home run champ.”

Hollywood has produced some excellent baseball movies over the years, and “61*” ranks up there with the best. In many ways it comes across as a nostalgic look back at the glory days of major league baseball, while also providing a nuanced portrayal of Maris and Mantle and the challenges they both faced during their dramatic chase of the Babe.

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