Growing up as a baseball-loving kid in the 1950s and '60s, Billy Crystal cheered on his favorite New York Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris from the Yankee Stadium stands. Twenty years ago, the actor entered the Baseball Movie Hall of Fame when he directed 61* — the acclaimed made-for-HBO feature that drew directly on those childhood memories. Premiering on April 28, 2001, the film recreated the team's pivotal 1961 season, when Mantle and Maris (played by Thomas Jane and Berry Pepper, respectively) competed to shatter Babe Ruth's longstanding single-season record of belting 60 home runs. "I was 13, and a huge Mickey Mantle fan and Roger and that ballpark," Crystal tells Yahoo Entertainment about how his own life informed the film. "I just loved directing that movie." (Watch our video interview above.)
Crystal remains just as crazy about baseball today, and with the 2021 season currently underway, he'll likely be back in the stands now that stadiums are steadily re-opening to the public. "I watched games and, like my grandfather, yelled at the screen," he says of the truncated 2020 season, which was played without fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic. "I got my first vaccine shot at Dodgers stadium, which was kind of perfect in its own way. God I miss being able to go to a game!"
While watching baseball is a thrill for fans, directing baseball for feature films can be a chore — just ask the makers of classic baseball pictures like The Natural. “Shooting movies to begin with can be quite mechanical, and baseball games are really by the numbers," that film's producer, Mark Johnson, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. "The excitement wore off pretty quickly." But Crystal says he never got tired of recreating the on-field action he watched as a kid. "I loved getting it right," he says, adding that he particularly enjoyed transforming the old Detroit Tigers stadium — which closed in 1999 — into the Yankee Stadium of his youth. (The original Yankee Stadium was demolished in 2010.) "That beautiful stadium, which was, at the time along with Fenway and Wrigley, one of the oldest stadiums in baseball. Every day was a gift to me."
At the same time, 61* isn't simply a gauzy nostalgia trip: Crystal wanted the movie to confront some of the less-savory aspects of the Mantle/Maris rivalry, from the hostile public reaction to the players' own flaws and foibles. "It's a character study of these two guys," he explains. "[People] had mixed feelings about Mickey, because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio. He inherited center field when he was just a kid and not ready for the attention, and with all of the super-talent that he had, there were a lot of injuries and things like that."
Ultimately, Maris — not Mantle — broke Ruth's record, although his achievement came with an asterisk that became part of the film's title. Midway through the 1961 season, MLB commissioner, Ford Frick, decreed that players would have to break the 60-home run barrier within 154 games, the length of a season in Ruth's day, or the record would be noted separately. Maris hit his 61st home run during Game 162 and was listed below Ruth in the 1962 Official Record Book. MLB officially recognized Maris as the sole record holder in 1991 — six years after his death — and his achievement stood until later that decade when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had their famous home run duel. Barry Bonds eventually surpassed both of them, hitting 73 home runs in the 2001 season, a record that stands to this day.
Mantle passed away a decade after Maris in 1995, and in his later years he and Crystal became good friends. In fact, the director credits his childhood idol with sharing inside baseball secrets that made their way onscreen. "He told me all of these stories over the years about he and Roger living together and so forth. So when HBO came to me with the script, I said, 'Let me work on a script a little bit, because we could make this better.' They brought in a young writer named Hank Steinberg, and we put in all of these things that Mickey told me."
Just as baseball is considered America's pastime, Crystal sees 61* as a distinctly American story in terms of how it addresses hero worship. "That was the summer that they totally fell in love with [Mantle], and a lot it was because they didn't want it to be Roger [who broke the record]," he explains. "It should have been Mantle to a lot of these people. There were a lot of things to mix into the script. We said on the poster: 'Why did America only have room in its heart for one hero?' I think with what's going on politically today, it's really interesting to see there's even division on sports heroes."
61* is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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