“The separate single-season home run records remained until 1991, when Fay Vincent, the commissioner of baseball, ordered that there be only one record. Roger Maris died six years earlier, never knowing that the record belonged to him.”
Baseball is a game of myths. It’s full of heroes, gods, and legends; villains, scapegoats, and fools. It’s a game played in the dirt by frail, imperfect, ordinary men, but it’s transcendent in the imagination of American history. Early baseball writing had as much in common with Homeric epic as it did with modern sports writing.
Within that context, the story of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s 1961 chase of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is the ballad of a hero, but it’s a tragic ballad all the same.
So, perhaps it’s fitting that 61* is more a lionization of Maris and Mantle than it is a measured telling of the events of that remarkable season. Maris was unfairly villainized at the time, so getting the hero’s treatment now is well-deserved, albeit far too late.
Maris was a quiet, hard-working player who was ostracized because he played for the New York Yankees without media-savvy or star power. He had the audacity to break a record set by one of the consensus greatest and most beloved players of all time — many would say the greatest. And even more, he was attempting the feat in competition with his friend and teammate, and perhaps the most beloved Yankee of all time, Mickey Mantle.
By all accounts, Maris was a good man, and he played his ass off. From 1960-1966, while playing for the most celebrated team in the world, he won back to back MVP awards and a gold glove, led the league in RBIs twice, made 3 all-star teams, and helped the Yankees win two World Series titles. Yet, during the chase for the record, he was excoriated by writers, and reviled by fans — to the extent that he regularly received death threats. He was also ignored by the MLB throughout the home run chase, another example of the institution of baseball harming the game in the name of saving its so-called purity.
He wasn’t a bad guy, but the baseball world felt he wasn’t the “right” guy to break such a hallowed record (one that was considered unbreakable until then). Mantle is one of the greatest and most charismatic players in history, the sort of hero fans felt deserved to play for the world’s most famous team. The idea that he’d be bested by a boring, ordinary guy who just wanted to play baseball and didn’t like talking to the media was, apparently, unforgivable. Fans and writers wanted their myth, they wanted a demigod to break Ruth’s record, and they found Maris lacking.
Of course, in the act of breaking it, Maris proved he was the right guy to break the record. There are no prerequisites for greatness aside from achieving it. The record he set that year stood until the steroid era, 37 years later.
61* certainly has its weaknesses — for example, the scenes set in 1998 are cringe-worthy. Yet, overall, it’s well worth a watch, and the performances by Barry Pepper and Tom Jane as Maris and Mantle are the highlight of the film. Billy Crystal, who directed, is a huge, lifelong Yankees fan who turned 13 just before the 1961 season started, so he isn’t exactly impartial. His nostalgic affection for both players certainly shows in the finished film, but maybe the result is exactly the sort of glorification the legacy of Roger Maris deserves.
Next up: Damn Yankees, the first of two baseball musicals I’ll be watching throughout the month.