Play ball! Yankees fan Billy Crystal talks baseball and directing the classic sports movie ’61*’

Growing up as a baseball-loving child in the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s, Billy Crystal cheered on his favourite New York Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris from the Yankee Stadium stands. Twenty years in the past, the actor entered the Baseball Movie Hall of Fame when he directed 61* — the acclaimed made-for-HBO characteristic that drew instantly on these childhood recollections. Premiering on April 28, 2001, the movie recreated the workforce’s pivotal 1961 season, when Mantle and Maris (performed by Thomas Jane and Berry Pepper, respectively) competed to shatter Babe Ruth’s longstanding single-season report of belting 60 dwelling runs. “I was 13, and a huge Mickey Mantle fan and Roger and that ballpark,” Crystal tells Yahoo Entertainment about how his personal life knowledgeable the movie. “I just loved directing that movie.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Crystal stays simply as loopy about baseball at the moment, and with the 2021 season at present underway, he’ll doubtless be again 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 performed with out followers in the stands because of 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!” 

Thomas Jane performed Mickey Mantle in the Billy Crystal-directed baseball favourite, 61*. (Photo: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection)

While watching baseball is a thrill for followers, directing baseball for characteristic movies generally is a chore — simply ask the makers of classic baseball footage like The Natural. “Shooting films to start with might be fairly mechanical, and baseball video games are actually by the numbers,” that movie’s producer, Mark Johnson, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. “The pleasure wore off fairly shortly.” But Crystal says he never got tired of recreating the on-field action he watched as a kid. “I beloved getting it proper,” 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 lovely stadium, which was, at the time together with Fenway and Wrigley, one among the oldest stadiums in baseball. Every day was a present 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 personality research of those two guys,” he explains. “[People] had blended emotions about Mickey, as a result of he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio. He inherited middle subject when he was only a child and not prepared for the consideration, and with all of the super-talent that he had, there have been a number of accidents and issues like that.” 

Barry Pepper as New York Yankee Roger Maris in Billy Crystal's 2001 baseball movie, '61*' (Photo: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Barry Pepper as New York Yankee Roger Maris in Billy Crystal’s 2001 baseball movie, 61*. (Photo: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection)

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 instructed me all of those tales over the years about he and Roger dwelling collectively and so forth. So when HBO got here to me with the script, I stated, ‘Let me work on a script a little bit bit, as a result of we might make this higher.’ They introduced in a younger author named Hank Steinberg, and we put in all of this stuff that Mickey instructed me.” 

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2001:  New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre is joined by (from left) Thomas Jane, Billy Crystal and Barry Pepper at Yankee Stadium. Crystal directed the TV movie

Thomas Jane, Billy Crystal, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Barry Pepper at Yankee Stadium in 2001. (Photo: Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

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 time that they completely fell in love with [Mantle], and rather a lot it was as a result of they did not need it to be Roger [who broke the record],” he explains. “It ought to have been Mantle to a number of these folks. There had been a number of issues to combine into the script. We stated on the poster: ‘Why did America solely have room in its coronary heart for one hero?’ I believe with what is going on on politically at the moment, it is actually fascinating to see there’s even division on sports heroes.” 

61* is at present streaming on HBO Max.

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