December 21, 2013 -- This is a lovingly produced drama about the Yankee boys of summer in 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they chased Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60 homers. Billy Crystal, an unabashed Yankee and Mickey Mantle fan, produced and directed this tribute to Maris and Mantle.
In the 1961 season, the American League had added two expansion teams, the Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels, and had added eight games onto the league's regular season schedule, from 154 to 162. Because of the expansion, pitching talent was weak in the league, improving the chances for home run hitters to flourish. This was a year in which six Yanks hit over 20 homers each and the team set a record with 240 homers.
According to the film, Mantle, an established star with the Yankees and Maris, playing in just his second year with the team after being traded from Kansas City, both got off to slow starts. Mantle (played by Thomas Jane of “The Mist”) a notorious womanizer and drunk, was persuaded by the straight-laced Maris (played by Barry Pepper of “We Were Soldiers”) and his teammate, Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer of “The Conspirator”) to room with them in an apartment, away from the women and booze that kept getting him into trouble.
Soon, Mantle and Maris were both hitting lots of homers, and were both chasing Babe Ruth's record. They became known as the “M and M” boys. They even trademarked the name. Sports writers invented a story about a rivalry between the two based on Mantle's jealousy over Maris having won the Most Valuable Player award in the league a year earlier. This film indicates, however, that the two were friends, for the most of the season, anyway. Things got difficult later in the season as the pressure to beat the record began to build.
Mantle was a favorite of fans and sportswriters, being gregarious and having an easygoing, folksy way about him. Maris, however, did not know how to deal with sportswriters or fans. He was ill at ease around them and wanted to be left alone. Fans, even New York Yankee fans were against him and strongly wanted Mantle to beat him in the home run race.
This film is well-acted by Jane and Pepper with strong supporting performances by Richard Masur (“Play it to the Bone”), who plays sportswriter Milt Kahn, Bruce McGill (“The Sum of All Fears”) who plays Yankee team manager Ralph Houk, and others. Great pains were made to recapture the early sixties period with recreations of Yankee Stadim (using a dressed-up Tiger Stadium) along with period cars, clothing, uniforms and locker rooms. The baseball scenes look realistic in the film.
Crystal does a nice job directing this film, getting all the little details right. This is a labor of love for him. He knows the characters and he knows the game, and it shows. This is one of the best baseball movies (an HBO movie) I've ever seen. It rates a B.
Epilog: There is a nice feature on the DVD about the making of the film. Evidently this film was made prior to the revelations about steroid use in baseball. The film features news footage of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa breaking Maris' record in 1998 without any mention of performance enhancing drugs.
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