The sports weekend on TV has been filled with college basketball and NFL football. (My assignment covering the Queens-Limestone game last night saved me from having to watch the Panthers’ playoff debacle against Arizona.)
But earlier today I was going through some old VHS tapes — yes we still have a VCR — and I found the HBO movie “61*” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250934) that I had taped off TV when it came out in 2001.
Directed by comedian and lifelong New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal, the movie is a dramatization of Roger Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961. It’s pretty well-researched, written and artfully-acted, especially by Barry Pepper (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001608) as Maris. (The Canadian-born actor has also portrayed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a TV movie.)
As a sports writer, I’ve always found the movie’s portrayal of the media coverage of the record chase to be quite interesting, if borderline stereotypical. But much has been written about the media’s treatment of Maris, a stoic Minnesotan who was generally self-effacing, quiet and not very quotable, as he neared the magic 61 home run total. Reporters preferred the more approachable (usually) Mickey Mantle, who was always ready with a quote.
In case you’ve ever wondered, this view of the media is pretty much spot on. Reporters tend to gravitate toward the players who will give them the best story, while being much less charitable toward an equally talented player who may not be as good an interview subject.
I read a story today about former Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, who is a case in point. This year is his last shot at being elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame before he goes into that pool of veterans who have been retired 15 years or more without being elected. Rice, whom I first saw play in an American Legion game in my hometown in the late Sixties — he hit a couple of homers that may well still be in the air somewhere — has career statistics that are probably Hall-worthy. But he gained a reputation in his career for being uncooperative and surly with the media, who are the voters for the hall. This also explains the absence of Dave Kingman (442 career home runs) from the Hall, I believe. Well, that and a .236 career batting average.
But I digress. On re-viewing the movie I was struck by a couple of things. The story starts in 1998, with the Maris family (he died of cancer in 1985) watching St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire on TV as he hits his 61st homer of the season — they then get ready to fly from their home in Gainesville, Fla., to St. Louis to watch McGwire break the record.
The movie came out before the full extent of steroids use in baseball had received a lot of media attention, so there’s a little irony in going back and watching it now in that context.
And I had to laugh at a little scene at the beginning of the movie. Maris, who had been traded from the Kansas City Athletics to New York in 1958, had won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1960 for a 39 home run, 112 RBI season. As the 1961 season started he had what apparently had become an annual conversation with his wife on buying a home in New York while keeping their residence in Kansas City, where the kids were in school.
“But, honey, you know we can’t afford two houses,” Pat Maris tells her husband.
I suspect it’s been a while since the reigning MVP of any major pro sport has had to hear something like that.