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Three Sluggers in Bittersweet Doubleheader

The only music I make . . . is with my bat.

--Roy Hobbs in “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud

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Baseball is again in the air, with today’s kadzillionaire players about to briefly share TV time with a few of their famous predecessors.

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As HBO prepares to show “61*"--its very watchable movie about Roger Maris’ tortuous brush with baseball greatness alongside Mickey Mantle--and Cinemax its winning documentary on slugger supreme Hank Greenberg, here is what many in Mudville are aching to know.

The best nonfiction sports film ever made? Gloves down, it was “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s bruising character study of boxer Jake LaMotta, played brilliantly by a bulked-up Robert De Niro.

Surely the most amusing was HBO’s part-fantasized “Don King: Only in America,” with Ving Rhames at once venomous and hair-raisingly funny while vamping it up as ruthless boxing promoter Don King.

Among the worst sports movies was “The Babe Ruth Story,” featuring wee William Bendix in a largely fantasized 1948 account of the swaggering, high-living biggest of the boppers. Ruth swung bats larger than Bendix.

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ABC’s recent “When Billie Beat Bobby” is near the bottom too, through no fault of lead actors Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, but because it inflated Billie Jean King’s tennis win over smug Bobby Riggs into the broad, influential social statement that it wasn’t.

Although King’s years of aggressive lobbying on behalf of women’s tennis did wonders for that branch of the sport, her ballyhooed duel with Riggs had virtually no impact on the wider, deeper women’s movement. In no way did beating him recast King as a breakthrough feminist in anyone’s eyes. The match was a tailored-for-TV event, an aging, washed-up, former male champion getting just comeuppance from an elite female player at the top of her game. Period. ABC blew it far out of proportion then just as it did in its frothy movie, in both cases much of the media cooperating by falling for the hype.

How will they respond to “61 *,” a very nice, though not probing film that follows the sizzling 1961 slugging duel between New York Yankees Mantle and Maris en route to the latter struggling painfully past Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable record of 60 home runs in a season?

It arrives Saturday, preceding Sunday’s Cinemax documentary on earlier baseball great Greenberg, who came within three long balls himself of breaking the homer record when he played for the Detroit Tigers in 1938.

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In some ways the two accounts coincide, even though Greenberg was crowning his career as baseball’s first $100,000-a-year player decades before the Mantle-Maris home run derby turned heads. Just as hatred of Maris crescendoed when it appeared he might pass Ruth--his sin was being boring, a new Yankee and no superstar--so did Greenberg reportedly face added wrath, for being Jewish, the year he hit out 58.

It appeared many baseball zealots had a distinct profile in mind for anyone daring to surpass the game’s most revered player, as African American Hank Aaron later would learn when encountering redneck resistance to his breaking Ruth’s long-standing career home run record.

That minefield had been crossed when two contemporary sluggers began blasting gopher balls by the dozens, for it was not Zeusian Ruth but human-scale Maris in the cross hairs when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals hit 70 homers and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs 66 in 1998.

As for “61*"? Featured here are Barry Pepper as Maris and Thomas Jane as Mantle, actors as persuasive on the field as off. No sissy swings or klutzy throws to laugh at here, thanks to tutoring by former major leaguer Reggie Smith. And writer Hank Steinberg and director Billy Crystal (as fanatical about baseball and his Yankees as about comedy) are not as worshipful as you might expect when depicting baseball’s oddest of couplings pretty much the old-fashioned way.

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Center fielder Mantle was a great player known for abusing his body through heavy boozing and fast living, the strait-laced Maris a very good player who had worthy years with Cleveland and Kansas City before being traded to the Yankees. But Maris was truly great only once, when he and Mantle spent much of 1961 launching home runs as if each were swinging Roy Hobbs’ magical bat, Wonderboy.

As their personal race heats up here, so does pressure on Maris from the media and fans, who issue him taunts and even death threats. At one point, Maris is loudly booed after hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium, followed by a standing ovation for Mantle merely walking to the plate. “Why does it gotta be they only have room in their hearts for one guy?” Maris asks his wife, Pat (Crystal’s daughter, Jennifer Crystal Foley), who’s back home. Soon Maris is buckling, smoking Camel after Camel, the stress causing him ultimately to break out in a rash and lose clumps of crew cut.

New York fans can be brutal, as Mantle himself had learned as a young player when not living up to his billing as the next Joe DiMaggio. And it took Maris’ home run binge, ironically, to redefine Mantle as an underdog deserving of New Yorkers’ full adoration.

If anything, though, “61*" is less an indictment of them than of the New York Daily News and other predatory media that fill space here by characterizing each game as epic. They’re shown whipping up fans by baiting the inarticulate Maris and twisting his locker room quotes into misleading banner headlines that portray him as a foe and his home run rivalry with Mantle as a personal war.

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At one point Mantle and Maris are in the Bronx apartment they share with teammate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer) watching a sportscaster report that they are feuding. “Are we feuding?” asks Mantle, puckishly. “I guess so,” Maris replies. “It’s on TV.”

“61*" is at its best when showing tenderness between the two players, and also when Maris angrily reproaches his night-crawling teammate for being careless with his body, the resulting argument hinting at the inner demons eating at each man.

Illness and injuries catch up with Mantle, ending his season prematurely after he slams 54 homers. From his hospital bed he watches Maris hit his record shot on the last day of season, as Crystal has the new champ slo-mo around the bases after his ball soars from the stadium.

Being a gracious loser here makes Mantle seem at least as heroic as Maris, whose 61-homer season earned a controversial asterisk (later to be removed) from baseball Commissioner Ford Frick because Ruth’s season contained eight fewer games.

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New York fans didn’t let up on Maris, staying on his back throughout 1962, when his home run total dipped, but to a still-hefty 33.

Much happier, despite its episodic anti-Semitism, is “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” Aviva Kempner’s film that channels wonderful old footage, interviews with the late Greenberg and input from his family and teammates into a profile memorable for its cultural insights and humor.

Playing nearly his entire career for the Tigers in a Detroit then known as a “hotbed of anti-Semitism,” Greenberg was a hero to many Jews in the 1930s, when major jockdom was not a large part of their self-identity.

He was about 6-4, and someone here recalls the gasps he drew one day when entering a Detroit synagogue: “My God, nobody ever saw a Jew that big. Everybody in the synagogue was 5-5, 5-6, and here comes this . . . monster.”

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Someone else recalls the big first baseman still standing “proud and tall” when epithets were called from the stands. Greenberg says hearing slurs spurred him on, while knowing that “as soon as you struck out, you were not only a bum, but a Jewish bum.”

He was a Hall of Fame hitter who hit a career .313 and once drove in a whopping 183 runs. In 1947, when the great Jewish hope was on his way out while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the great black hope (Jackie Robinson) was on his way in with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There are stories here of the support Greenberg gave Robinson on the field after hearing his own teammates shout ugly epithets at him from the dugout.

And stories, also, of Greenberg always getting joy from a game that in the early 1960s gave only despair to tormented, misjudged Roger Maris.

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* “61*" can be seen Saturday night at 9 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17, with special advisories for coarse language).

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* “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” can be seen Sunday night at 7:30 on Cinemax. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.


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