Jewel of a film

Crystal ensures legacy of 61* will live on in Cooperstown

October 01, 2010
Billy Crystal served as the director and executive producer for the classic American film 61*. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

American's love affair with both the silver screen and the national pastime has been evident for over a century. One shining example of this rich history was recently on display at the game's ancestral home.

With many of the key filmmakers on hand, a movie that portrayed Yankees' sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle's epic pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record nearly five decades ago, 61*, was honored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum late Friday morning.

On the opening day of the fifth annual Baseball Film Festival, and exactly 49 years to the day in which Maris hit his 61st round-tripper of the 1961 season to eclipse Ruth for the new record, director and co-executive producer Billy Crystal of the HBO film 61* was on hand to donate several artifacts to the Hall of Fame.

In an event held outside the Museum's Baseball at the Movies exhibit and in front of the new exhibit dedicated to 61*, Crystal shared with the overflow crowd what this honor meant to him.

"I thought I was going to get here as a player," he joked, as onlookers laughed along, "but to get here as a director of this film, part of this team that made this film, is really the greatest thrill of my performing career."

Well known for his comedic work, Crystal got serious when reflecting on the making of 61*.

"When you are in this business you get some fringe benefits. You get to meet people and be with people that you normally would not get a chance to. And in my life I grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle and then we became friends," he said. "And when the chance to direct the movie came my way it hit me in a place that very few things do... I was 13 all over again. And now that '13 all over again' is forever."

According to Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports and co-executive producer of 61*, none of it would have been possible without the tender loving care of a Crystal, "an American icon who also has a magical feeling for this moment in time."

Greenburg added, "I think in all my years, 33 at HBO, I don't think there has ever been a film or a project quite like this one."

Actor Thomas Jane, who portrayed Mantle, called working on 61*, "the best film experience I've ever had. I'm still waiting to top it."

"I got to go play baseball every day from morning until the afternoon for a good six hours every day, five days a week," Jane said. "It changed me. It changed me as a person. It changed me as an actor. It made me a better human being. And it opened my eyes a little bit to the beauty, majesty and the power of a simple game called baseball. Phenomenal. For that I'll be eternally grateful."

Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson began the day's proceedings speaking glowingly of the 2001 release.

"If films could be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, this classic undoubtedly would be a first-ballot inductee," he said. "Today we're here to celebrate its important place in culture.

"Baseball and film have been bedfellows since Thomas Edison got into the act in 1898 with his film The Ballgame. In total, more than 150 films have used baseball as a subject or metaphor, which is why this exhibit gallery right here, Baseball at the Movies, exists today."

At the event Crystal donated a bound 61* shooting script, to which Idelson followed up by presenting him with lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame. Crystal previously donated such 61*-related items as movie story boards, a Yankees jersey and a certificate presented to him for a Best Picture nomination.

Among the artifacts included in the new 61* exhibit, which will remain on display throughout 2011, are a Yankees jersey with reverse lettering and numbering worn by actor Anthony Michael Hall (a right-hander who was portraying Yankees' left-handed pitcher Whitey Ford); a Yankees jersey and batting helmet worn by Jane; and newspapers, baseball cards and press credentials used in the film that were copied from 1961 originals.

Crystal, a lifelong baseball fan, ended the festivities by telling those in attendance, "Thanks you so much for making us a part of forever."

On Friday night, with famed broadcaster Bob Costas serving as moderator, Crystal joined Greenburg, Jane and Hank Steinberg, the writer of the 61* screenplay, for a sold-out roundtable discussion of 61* in the Hall of Fame's Grandstand Theater.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum