Jeff Kolpack, Published June 26 2009
‘61*’ stars shine SaturdayThe chair from the original Yankee Stadium sits in Billy Crystal’s office. It was signed by Mickey Mantle with the following sentence: “Wish you was still sittin’ here and I was still playing.”
In a sense, they will be here on Saturday night, walking out of a corn field from one classic baseball movie and into The Fargo Theatre for another one. Crystal and Bob Costas will host a showing of Crystal’s film “61*,” the story of Roger Maris, Mantle and the 1961 Yankees, followed by a question-and-answer session.
It’s been eight years since the 2001 release, but better late than never for the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament weekend. Crystal said he’s been trying to make it to Fargo for several years, but has always had conflicts, mostly family related.
After watching Maris in his hometown of New York, Crystal is now coming back to Maris’ hometown of Fargo.
“I could just never get there and I felt bad,” Crystal said earlier this week. “Bob and I were in New York together and we talked about it and said, ‘Why don’t we make it really something?’ I haven’t seen the movie in awhile and, in fact, I only saw it twice on the big screen.”
The “61*” event is more than Crystal and Costas. It includes Crystal’s daughter, Jennifer Foley Crystal, who played Pat Maris in the movie. It includes Barry Pepper (Roger Maris), Paul Borghese (Yogi Berra), “61*” producer Russ Greenburg and David Mantle, the son of Mickey Mantle. Mantle died in 1995 and Maris 10 years earlier.
Crystal and Mickey Mantel were friends over the years, so close that Crystal and Costas wrote Mantle’s eulogy.
“The movie is a two-hander, it’s about the both of them,” Crystal said. “When we first finished the movie, one of my favorite moments was when the families got together and we showed the picture to them. They didn’t know each other that well when their dads were alive. It was very healing for both of them.”
The movie is still a regular on HBO, especially when baseball season rolls around. It’s a staple on top 10 lists for all-time best sports movies.
“And it’s just not a baseball movie,” Crystal said. “It’s a movie about friendship, respect and a different time in America.”
He says the crowning moment of the film is the scene where Maris and Mantle shake hands in Mantle’s hospital room after Maris hit his 61st home run.
Crystal never met Maris, but has done enough research on him to do a doctoral thesis. He’s frequently referred to Maris as “the most misunderstood ballplayer that ever lived.”
“I never heard anyone who had a bad thing to say about him from those who really knew him,” Crystal said. “That, to me, is the greatest testimony.”
The greatest testimony to the movie is probably from Pat Maris, whose family of kids and grandkids will once again descend on Fargo en masse.
“He portrayed him well and went into a lot of depth with him,” Pat Maris said. “I haven’t watched the movie in quite some time, but I still get letters from people about it. It’s brought a lot of new fans to Roger and that’s good.”
There’s no bigger fan than Crystal, who grew up going to Yankee games. He saw Mantle hit a towering home run in his first game at Yankee Stadium in 1956. And then came 61 in ’61.
And the movie from the memory of Crystal’s youth.
“This movie is the remembrance of the ’61 season,” Crystal said. “It’s something where I didn’t need the research books or a set designer to design the locker room or who was pitching. Or who pinch hit. It was a remarkable time in New York. You had these two guys and a great pennant race until Labor Day. It was truly a magical time.”
Jeff Kolpack can be heard on the WDAY Golf Show, 10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5546.
Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found