Saturday, June 8, 2013
"61*" film profiles Yankee Roger Maris & his times
The asterisk was supposed to reflect the stigma of the single-season home run record set in 1961. Roger Maris was the man in the fishbowl setting it. The asterisk tells us Maris set his record in a new, longer season. Baseball had added expansion teams for 1961. One of these was our Minnesota Twins.
A team would now play 162 games in the regular season, up from 154 which had been a comfortable, well-established norm. Maris hit 61 homers in '61, edging by one the record held since 1927 by the storied Babe Ruth. Not only did Maris break the record in a longer season, he broke it in an environment with diluted pitching caused by expansion.
I have never put much weight in the "diluted pitching" explanation. Pitchers who are a shade below major league quality really aren't that shabby. No, I think other factors were at play. Maris' 61 home runs weren't the only other-worldly stat from that season. Another was the .361 batting average by Norm Cash of Detroit. You look at the back of a baseball card and think "whoa, what happened that season?" Maybe it was "rabbit balls" (jumping out of the ballpark) or perhaps umpires looking the other way when it came to corked bats. But "something was up," I'm convinced.
Not that we really need to feel so much concern about it.
The movie "61*" follows the template for affectionate biopics. Made in 2001, it features Barry Pepper who seems almost a clone of Maris; and Thomas Jane whose resemblance to Mickey Mantle is sharp too. Billy Crystal directed.
The movie is endearing as it shows the plain and frankly rather boring Maris in contrast with the "edgy" Mantle. We admire Maris because of his upstanding values. His family is his cornerstone. He does have a nasty habit of smoking. He forms an unlikely bond with Mantle whose recklessness seems his cornerstone. We end up feeling affectionate toward both.
The asterisk seemed important enough to incorporate in the movie title. In reality there was no such thing! I learn through online research that "no asterisk was involved or mentioned in real life!" We're reminded that Hollywood is "the dream factory." Suspend reality.
After the fact, the asterisk seemed a logical way in one's mind to consider the record. Maris' record was in fact not considered legitimate until 1991 when Commissioner Fay Vincent addressed the matter. Vincent proclaimed "a season is a season." He comes out a hero. He erases the harm done by the "fuddy duddies" who wanted to spoil a good thing, right? We're pushed to this conclusion by the movie "61*".
In reality, most people in baseball considered the new 162-game schedule to be a very real issue. The commissioner at the time, Ford Frick, reflected conventional thinking. A Sporting News poll showed 2/3 of veteran baseball writers supported Frick on the matter. Frick decided Maris would have to break the record within 154 games. The movie shows Maris coming close but not quite.
So when Maris finally connects for No. 61, it doesn't seem real momentous. The fan turnout at Yankee Stadium on that day wasn't anywhere near what you might expect. The team owner is irate, saying the attendance was "pathetic." But the owners and Frick had brought this on themselves, insisting that any record set beyond 154 games would not be legitimate.
There was a reward for the fan who ended up with the ball. The reward seems ridiculously small by today's standards. Same for the salaries the players got then (pre-union of course). How quaint!
Through lens of a child
I was six years old when all this happened. It wasn't until two years later that I started paying attention to baseball. This began with baseball cards on the back of cereal boxes. I remember the Roger Maris card, the specific face photo, that got me introduced to the man. I read in the little profile that he had set the home run record with 61. His performance after that year never came close to the almost ethereal heroics he showed in 1961. Again, what was up in '61?
I became a fan of Harmon Killebrew, a power merchant if ever there was one, and never did I think he was likely to threaten Maris' record. That's why I call the Maris record "ethereal" - mysterious, begging for an explanation. A young Killebrew hit 46 home runs in 1961. He would end up in the Hall of Fame unlike Maris.
There has always been a chorus advocating for ol' Rodg to get in the Hall. I feel the best argument you can make is that Rodg played in seven World Series, winning in three. He supplied winning ingredients, one of them defense. Killebrew felt Roger should be in the Hall. One of Roger's biggest advocates has been Whitey Herzog. Herzog wrote a wonderful, underrated baseball book called "You're Missin' a Great Game."
Maris left us for that diamond in the sky in 1985, only 51 years old. So, years would pass before Vincent would emerge as a hero, declaring the 61 homers as the sole record.
But was Ford Frick really a "villain?" The movie "61*" sort of portrays him this way. Really it portrays Frick as a stiff sort of throwback, an old associate of Babe Ruth with biases. Is such an assessment fair? No!
Movies need characters covering a range of sympathetic to not-so sympathetic. Frick emerges in the latter category. There's a scene where he gets booed on opening day at Yankee Stadium. Maybe subconsciously we equate "Frick" with "prick." I just think he filled a needed role in the movie. Same with Babe's widow Claire. Neither seems excited about Maris' pace of home runs. They want his bat to go quiet.
But doesn't Frick, as representative of the owners, really just care about money? The Babe is dead and gone. Baseball always welcomes excitement.
True assessment of commissioner
OK, how is Frick to be viewed in a heroic light? Really it's easy to document. He was the National League president in 1947. You might argue he was the second most important baseball executive of all time, behind only Branch Rickey.
There was a move afoot among some National League players who were going to refuse to take the field against the Brooklyn Dodgers if they had Jackie Robinson playing. Frick vetoed such thinking 100 percent. He said he'd "go down the line" with Robinson, and "didn't care if it wrecked the league for five years." So much for Frick as a stuffed-shirt fossil type of throwback, eh? Reality can get in the way of movie entertainment.
Still, I think the script of "61*" is on the whole fun and uplifting. Maris is the family man hero who never really figures out how he should accommodate the media. The movie shows the heyday of newspapering, its absolute apex. The writers swarm like killer bees. Two stand out, one quite exploitative ("Marty") and the other more human and sympathetic ("Mitt"). It's clear baseball didn't do enough to protect players like Maris from the swarming media.
Our Twins and the Los Angeles Angels were the two new expansion teams in the American League in 1961. Our stadium, "the Met," had already been used for five seasons by the old Minneapolis Millers. In '61 it finally went big-time. That's what it was built for. We learn that Maris hit only three home runs in the 18 games that New York played in Minnesota and L.A.
He was far from being on a roll when he and the Yankees arrived at Metropolitan Stadium in early May. Would you believe he had only one home run to date? On May 3 he homered off Pedro Ramos of the Twins at the Met. The three-run blast was part of a 7-3 New York win. Many fans had driven from Maris' hometown of Fargo. Maris was a Fargo Shanley High School graduate.
Maris hit eleven home runs in May, 15 in June, and had 30 total home runs by July 4. On August 4 he hit a three-run homer off Camilo Pascual of the Twins in a game at Yankee Stadium. It was Maris' 41st home run. That same game saw Killebrew hit his 33rd home run as the Twins won 8-5.
"61*" as cinema
One movie critic suggested that "61*" was a little too long, coming in at 130 minutes. The critic suggested that while baseball fans wouldn't have their attention span taxed, others might.
Director Crystal entered this project as an unabashed baseball fan. This comes through also when he gives a monologue in "City Slickers" about when he attended his first baseball game. He also visits Yankee Stadium in "Comic Relief."
The movie "61*" was an HBO project. I give the movie very high grades. If I were to nit-pick, I might suggest it'd be nice seeing a little more of Yogi Berra. I was too young to have appreciated Berra as a player. I think of him as a manager or coach. We do hear at least one "Berra-ism" in the movie, but on the whole his presence is negligible. The actor playing him isn't too believable as a baseball player.
Robert Redford was close to being too old when he played Roy Hobbs in "The Natural." Gary Cooper was perfect as Lou Gehrig. Anthony Perkins was perfect as Jimmy Piersall. On the other end of the spectrum was William Bendix as Babe Ruth! Actually, the best actor to portray Ruth was Joe Don Baker who wasn't playing Ruth per se, rather he was playing "the Whammer" who was considered for all practical purposes the same person (in "The Natural").
A player identified as Camilo Pascual appears in "61*", pitching in the season opener at Yankee Stadium. Not that it's important, but Pascual in the movie is dark-skinned enough to be called "black," whereas in real life this wasn't the case. He was Cuban. Fans joked about how he looked like a mugger type of criminal in his face photos. "Hey mister, wanna buy a hot Buick?"
Maris only batted .269 in his signature season. But he batted .303 with runners on base and .329 with runners in scoring position. Yes, he batted only .174 when Mantle wasn't batting behind him (a big factor as suggested in the movie). But early in the season, he was batting seventh in the order vs. lefthanded pitching. He wouldn't have seen many good pitches batting seventh.
Father figure actor Donald Moffat played Ford Frick in "61*". The two prime sportswriters are played by Peter Jacobson (the aggressive one) and Richard Masur (the more feeling one). Let's acknowledge actors Christopher McDonald and Joe Grifasi as broadcasters Mel Allen and Phil Rizzuto, respectively. Allen is popular with the masses. Rizzuto has a charming eccentricity, as he often interjects subjects outside of baseball (like an Italian restaurant).
Anthony Michael Hall plays pitcher Whitey Ford. Bruce McGill plays Ralph Houk as the very stable leader Ralph Houk, the Yankees' manager. Houk gives fatherly advice to Maris down the stretch. Chris Bauer plays the chummy teammate Bob Cerv who has an interesting approach to preparing eggs for breakfast. And finally, we see Jennifer Crystal Foley as Roger's wife Pat.
Family was the cornerstone for Roger. Roger's final resting place is in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, North Fargo. He's free of sportswriters' harassing. Roger Maris, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org