(2001) "The right guy is going to break that stupid record," says Ralph Houk (Bruce McGill). In 1961 Roger Maris (Barry Pepper), 26 years old, and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane), 30, were teammates, M&M, Bronx bombers in the outfield for the New York Yankees baseball club. They were also friendly rivals chasing after Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, set in 1927 when the Sultan of Swat was 32.
Billy Crystal (who during spring training this year briefly played in one game for the Yankees) directed this HBO movie, homage with honesty for a home-run contest; his daughter Jennifer Crystal Foley has the role of Pat Maris, Roger's wife.
In the official record book for Major League Baseball there never was an asterisk beside the statistic of 61 home runs for Roger Eugene Maris, born in Fargo, ND, on September 10th, 1934, though in 1991 a separation of records, distinguishing between those set pre-1961, invoked by Commissioner Ford Frick, was discarded. "Nobody can ever take that away from you," says Mickey. Statistics - "In baseball they count everything," explains Billy Chapel to his girlfriend in For Love of the Game - are much of what makes baseball a passion of its fans.
Roger was a serious family man with three children and a fourth on the way; his lackluster mien - one sportswriter refers to him as "most vacant personality" for MVP - couldn't compete with Mickey's playboy, good-old-boy flare and flame (former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton wrote of his teammates' antics, including Mantle's drinking and womanizing, in his book Ball Four), of whom a fan says of Mantle (80% of fans were rooting for him): "he's a real Yankee." In Yankee Stadium ("the house that Ruth built") Yankee fans boo Roger when he comes to bat.
Unable to afford to bring his family to New York City on his $38,000 salary, Roger ("Maybe I'm just not a New York-kind of guy") keeps in touch with Pat and the kids by phone and infrequent visits (he misses by days the birth of his son Randy) when the team plays in Kansas City. In the home-run derby as he pulls ahead, approaching the Babe's record, the pressure from the press ("Damned if he does and damned if he doesn't"), hate mail (including death threats), strain on his relationship with Mantle (Mickey's "never been the underdog before"), the stress causes him to increase his cigarette consumption, break out in hives, and lose hair from under his ball cap.
Attempting to help Roger deal with the burdens of media attention and the public's misapprehension, Mickey offers advice for dealing with the bloodsucking sportswriters, telling of his own struggle as an 18-year-old kid coming up to the majors in the shadow of Joe DiMaggio and then the sudden loss of his father at 39 to Hodgkin's disease. (Maris's older brother Rudy, whom he describes as having been a better ballplayer, was struck down with polio.) Teammate and housemate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer) says: "I'm not even good enough to write about."
"They're never going to forgive me if I do it," Roger says to manager Ralph Houk, who answers: "Whether you like it or not, [now] you're bigger than the game." The controversies surrounding Maris's feat are that in the year he surpassed the Bambino's performance 24 years before, the American League expanded (in 1962 the National League would follow suit) from its traditional eight teams to ten, requiring that eight games be added to each team's schedule (from 154 games in a season to 162).
Is a season a season? Since in 1927 Ruth had fewer opportunities in which to hit 60 home runs (more dingers than any of the other seven American League teams' entire roster could hit) - he actually played in 151 of the team's 154 games - many traditionalists considered Maris's new record (Roger played in 161 games - note the coincidence of all the sixty-ones) unsporting to the usurpation of their legendary hero's rightful place at the pinnacle of what many fans consider baseball's, if not sports', supreme achievement.
Additionally the critics argue, in the expansion year, the quality of the talent was diluted, giving a batter an advantage over weaker pitchers. (Mickey, however, points out that Ruth never had to fly from East Coast to West Coast or play under the lights - he didn't add that in 1927 some of the best baseball players and pitchers were restricted to being in the Negro leagues.)
Further, if anyone deserved to break the Babe's record, that man would be Mickey Mantle in his 11th year as a Yankee, an incredible athlete who played through pain with multiple injuries to knee and shoulder (the Army refused to take him when he tried to enlist in 1953), an American matinee idol destined for the Hall of Fame; Maris in just his season with the team (obtained in a trade from the Kansas City Athletics before the start of the 1960 season), though he had won the Most Valuable Player award, had not established himself as a worthy champion. You can almost hear Babe Ruth's wife Claire thinking: "Mister Maris, I knew the Babe, and you're no Babe Ruth."
While Mantle had previously slammed a season-high of 52 round-trippers in 1956, winning the home-run king title in four previous seasons, the year before had seen Maris's best power production of 39. (Nor would he ever again come close to 61 - a point critics of Barry Bonds should keep in mind.)
The movie opens with actual footage of Mark McGwire closing in on Maris's record, ending with his rocketing number 62 into the left-field stands.
(In case you were wondering, Mickey recovered well enough from his hip infection to play in just two games of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, getting just one hit in six at bats, while Roger played in all five games - the Yankees won the series - hitting a double and a home run in 19 official appearances at the plate. Whitey Ford hurled two shutouts.)
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