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HBO revisits Mantle, Maris home-run race of '61

Wednesday, April 25, 2001

By BETH HARRIS, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Billy Crystal walked into Yankee Stadium on May 30, 1956, to see his first New York Yankees game. Forty-five years later, he combines his love of baseball and fondness for nostalgia in HBO's "61".

"I've been in pre-production on this movie since 1956," said Crystal, who directed the film, which airs Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT. "It was the best experience I've ever had as an actor or director."

The title refers to the home run record set by the Yankees' Roger Maris in 1961.

Some sports writers talked about Maris' record carrying an asterisk because it came in a 162-game season, eight games longer than when Babe Ruth set the mark of 60 in 1927. Commissioner Ford Frick passed on the asterisk but ordered both records be listed -- Maris' for the 162-game season, Ruth's for the 154-game season.

In 1991, commissioner Fay Vincent simplified the issue, deciding on one listing for the single season record -- Maris' 61.

Maris died of cancer in 1985. His record stood until 1998, when St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire broke it on his way to hitting 70 homers in a season.

The movie opens with Maris' children and widow, Pat, watching McGwire hit the record-breaking homer. As the ball sails through the air, the scene switches to Yankee Stadium on opening day in 1961.

In the clubhouse, players swear, drink beer and smoke in front of sportswriters wearing jackets, ties and fedoras. The writers debate who will have the bigger season: Mantle, a 10-year veteran, or Maris, who, in his first season with the Yankees, won MVP honors in a narrow vote over Mantle.

The movie chronicles the close relationship between the hard-drinking, womanizing, flashy Mantle, and the North Dakota farm boy Maris, who doted on his family and shunned the spotlight.

Crystal possesses a fanatical knowledge of baseball and insisted on precise attention to detail.

"My memories are ridiculous," he said. "They were calling me Rain Man on the set."

He recreated batting stances from memory and showed the actors clips of individual Maris and Mantle at-bats.

"I've been imitating these guys since I was a little kid, so I said, 'Just watch me and I'll show you,'" he said.

Crystal also credits former major leaguer Reggie Smith for turning actors Barry Pepper (Maris) and Thomas Jane (Mantle) into legitimate sluggers. They worked daily for eight weeks with Smith.

Pepper, who played as a teen-ager, only had to learn to hit left-handed. Jane was a major project, having lied to Crystal that he could play when he auditioned for the part.

"I get out there and he can't throw a ball. There's all these little kids who can hit and throw better than Tom Jane," Crystal said.

"I didn't know it, but I think I was under some kind of trial period," said Jane, who learned to switch-hit. "If Billy didn't see what he was looking for, that would've been it."

Pepper called Crystal "Mr. Baseball."

"He'd look down at your cleats and he'd say, 'Roger never wore those Wilsons in '61. Tell the costume department he had Spaldings with black laces,'" said Pepper, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Maris.

Pepper listened to taped interviews of Maris to capture what Crystal called "that lonely sound in his voice, that voice with no personality."

Crystal studied vintage photos to set up camera angles that matched the era's, to duplicate the exact spot where Maris stood at the plate, and even to replicate the items players kept in their lockers. Detroit's Tiger Stadium stood in for The House That Ruth Built.

"It had to be really right," said Crystal, who would demonstrate a particular pitcher's windup on the spot. "Everyone would sort of stare at me, but it was so vivid in my mind."

Crystal met Mantle in 1977 when both were guests on Dinah Shore's talk show. Crystal brought a program that Mantle had signed for him in 1956, and Mantle signed it again.

Mantle later came to see Crystal's standup routine in Las Vegas, and the men cemented their friendship over late-night get-togethers.

"I'm this weird little Mickey museum," Crystal said. "I spent so much time with Mickey I can give you inflections, because I'm a good mimic."

Crystal doesn't sugarcoat his childhood idol. He shows Mantle's partying and drinking, which led to the liver disease that killed him.

"If I didn't portray him the right way, he would've been mad at me," he said. "It was important to show the pain and fear he was in. No one just drinks, they drink for a reason that they probably don't understand at the time. His was his fear of dying young and the loss of his dad."

Maris and Mantle were both competitive and protective of each other. What should have been a thrilling season of battling each other to break Ruth's record was marred by intense pressure from the team, media and fans.

As both men approached the mark, Maris' hair fell out, and he was scared by hate mail and death threats. An infected hip forced Mantle to sit out the rest of the season, leaving Maris to cope on his own.

"It's a sad story," Crystal said. "Roger didn't want the attention and he couldn't handle it. He couldn't give enough; he wasn't the other guy."

Pepper marveled at the idea of Maris inviting Mantle to share his small apartment in Queens, where Maris prohibited women visitors.

"They were both flawed men. They had a really strong bond, but I don't think the media ever picked up on that," Pepper said. "You can't even fathom someone like the 2000 Yankees living together."

Crystal dedicated the movie to his father, Jack, who died in 1963.

"I thought of my dad the entire time. What a thrill he would've felt if he had been on the set and saw what I was doing with my life," Crystal said. "If he'd been a Dodger fan, this movie never would've happened."

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