22 November 2008 | bkoganbing
To Be A Yankee In 1961
I was 14 and living in Brooklyn during the baseball season of 1961. We were still a borough in mourning at the loss of our beloved Dodgers in 1958 and even their rivals the Giants from Manhattan. For four seasons and 1961 was to be the last of them the Yankees had the exclusive attention of the New York baseball fans.
Another of those fans at the time was Billy Crystal who grew up to be a comedian of some note and on the 40th anniversary of that season and the home run chase for Babe Ruth's seasonal record of 60 home runs, sought to bring back that season and what it meant to be a Yankee and a Yankee fan that year.
Barry Pepper and Thomas Jayne play Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle who went on a dual chase that year for that most sacred of all records. Sacred because it had been set by a man who revolutionized the game itself and was one of the most colorful sports personalities that America ever produced. It was so held sacred that former sportswriter Ford Frick who was baseball commissioner at the time and former Babe Ruth ghostwriter decreed that it could only be broken in the first 154 games, that if it was broken in the new 162 game schedule, separate records noted with the asterisk would be in the books.
The Yankees themselves were on fire that season. They were not just about Mantle and Maris. The middle infield combination of Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek seemed to be turning double-plays on an almost alarming routine basis, becoming the best at what they did. Elston Howard in his first year as the regular catcher hit for the highest average on the team, .348 and contended for the batting title. Whitey Ford who previous manager Casey Stengel would not give rotation starts to, was put in a set pitching rotation by Ralph Houk and responded with his career season of 25 and 4. He also did his assault on Babe Ruth by breaking his pitching record of 29 2/3 scoreless innings in the World Series against Cincinnati that year.
As for home-runs, the team itself set a record of 240 season home-runs for a team. Everybody pitched in that year to win the pennant and blow Cincinnati out in five games in the World Series.
But the story was Mantle and Maris who despite rumors fueled by sportswriters looking for or to create a good story, Mickey and Roger actually shared living quarters in Queens with teammate Bob Cerv. By the way if there are villains in this film it's the writers. They are really shown as one scurvy lot. I think that if Mickey and Roger saw the film, they'd just groove on the way they were portrayed.
Although both guys were from red state Middle America, they were as opposite as you can get. Mantle was quite the hedonist back in the day and Crystal doesn't flinch in showing him that way. Maris on the other hand was a family man first and foremost. He was also very conscious of the fact that Mantle was there in New York first and fans wanted him to be the record breaker.
Watching 61* was certainly reliving a lot of my 14th year over again. The Yankees were awesome that year, like I've never seen them before or since, not even the recent teams with Joe Torre as manager. 61* now ranks as one of the great baseball films ever.
No summer like that summer of 61*.