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Billy Crystal, the Natural to Direct a Film on ’61 Yankees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is dusk in Los Angeles, and some of the greatest Yankees ever are standing in front of a gray concrete wall, defending themselves against the little man with the thick-handled baseball bat.

They flip the baseball, he returns it with an easy turn of his wrists, a blur of old wood, a damp thwack and a tiny dark shadow back across the moist grass.

Billy Crystal is believed to be the first person to direct a film while wearing black Nike baseball spikes, not to mention the first to pelt extras with line drives, the L.A. Memorial Coliseum dressed behind him as old Baltimore Memorial Stadium.

These Yankees, the greatest ever--junior-college players in gray wool uniforms with numbers retired at Yankee Stadium for 30 years--trot off to start their acting careers, as extras in a movie titled “61*,” and as teammates for immortals Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

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It is Crystal’s film, premiering Saturday night on HBO, and it has been in the making since the afternoon Crystal walked into the real Yankee Stadium, witnessed a home run by the real Mickey Mantle and became possessed by it all. Forty-five years later, short a month, comes the story that grew from that day, from the 10-year-old Billy, the 90-minute drive from Long Island, the walk with his father down Jerome Avenue, and Yankee Stadium rising before them.

“There’s this, my God, this thing that just ate up the Bronx,” Crystal says.

Then it devoured his life, game by game, October by October, growing into a friendship between the famous actor and his childhood hero that included long, late nights in hotel bars with a boozy Mantle. In one of those encounters--maybe it was at the Regency Hotel in New York, where he often stayed--Mantle told Crystal that if a movie was made of his life, Crystal should do it. You know me, Mantle told him, and you understand me.

From that--along with a script from Hank Steinberg, countless calls from HBO executives, and a reexamination of a relationship that died with Mantle in 1995--was born “61*.” It is the story of the 1961 baseball season, when the carousing Mantle and the joyless Maris raced to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record of 60. The project cost about $16 million to make, the most expensive two-hour film ever made by HBO, according to Colin Callender, president of HBO Films.

“There’s more of me in this movie than anything I’ve ever done,” says Crystal, who directed “Mr. Saturday Night” and “Forget Paris.” “And it’s not even close. . . . You know, I actually resisted directing it. Maybe I was afraid of what it might have made me feel at the time.

“Would it grab me and would it hold me? . . . But it was great once I got into it. I was, like, ‘All right, I know how to do this.’ ”

Maris hit a record 61 home runs that season, despite boos and death threats from Yankee fans who preferred the likable, home-grown Mantle. Under pressure from media and fans, Ford Frick, then baseball’s commissioner, attached an asterisk because Maris set the record over a 162-game schedule, whereas Ruth established the record in a 154-game season in 1927.

Mantle became ill, played 153 games and finished with 54 home runs.

A decade later, sitting with a friend in a high school gym, far from the press that tormented him in seven seasons as a Yankee, Maris confided he often wished he hadn’t broken the record.

Indeed, in the movie Maris asks his wife, Pat (played by Crystal’s daughter, Jennifer Crystal Foley), “Why does it gotta be they only have room in their hearts for one guy?”

According to many accounts of that season, Mantle and Maris became enemies, set against each other by popular opinion and the stress of chasing a vision of Ruth in the town that wouldn’t have it.

Years later, over the dinners they often shared, Mantle told Crystal of an odd-couple bond that developed with Maris, of the loneliness that killed their joy, and of the moments of joy--the long home runs into Yankee Stadium’s right-field bleachers--that allowed them to forget their loneliness.

Maris had his family. Mantle had all of New York and a round for the house. Occasionally, they had each other. That’s how Crystal tells it, believably, humorously and poignantly.

“He was the guy to do it, because of his passion for the Yankees,” says Yankee Manager Joe Torre, a friend of Crystal. “It means something to him. It had to be done right because of his passion for the Yankees and Mantle.

“He had a screening at the White House and he had both Roger’s and Mickey’s wives there. He’s been in touch with everybody. He talked to the people who actually know.”

Teaching ‘Mantle’ to Hold a Baseball

Thomas Jane, the auditioning actor, stood before Crystal saying, sure, he’s played a little ball. You know, a little, here and there.

Crystal, who’d played baseball in college and wasn’t too bad, knew a ballplayer, an athlete, when he saw one. Crystal knew Jane wasn’t either, but he looked a lot like the Mick, and he sensed that given the chance, Jane would learn to act like him, talk like him, be like him.

Someone had to play Crystal’s hero.

“A leap of faith,” Jane says.

And then Jane had to be taught how to hold a baseball, so in a month he could be Mickey Mantle, the ballplayer every man once wanted to be. Like Barry Pepper, who plays Maris, Jane went off to Reggie Smith’s baseball school in Encino.

“Ten days later, we’re at a Little League field in Encino,” Crystal says. “There’s all these squirts running around who are better than my Mickey Mantle. Now there’s Tom shagging balls in the outfield. He looks different. I had him cut his hair. He’s already 6, 7 pounds heavier and getting bigger, and I looked at him and said, ‘Mickey!’ He waved and comes running over and I said, ‘When you run, make sure it hurts you a little bit.’ ”

Inside a month, Jane and Pepper had little oval calluses on their hands, where the knob of the bats rubbed. While Pepper learned to bat left-handed, Jane was taught to switch-hit, and both became enamored of Smith, a taskmaster who hit 314 home runs in a 17-year big-league career.

“Playing ball with Reggie Smith on the field was such an intense experience,” Jane says. “I kept welling up with emotion, starting to cry on a baseball field. That’s when I knew, I understood how much the game means to these guys.”

That’s how Jane, who had to be taught how to hold a baseball, became Mantle, the Yankee purebred and legend.

“And a faulted man,” Crystal says. “It was hard for me because I loved this guy so much and knew that if I didn’t tell it honestly, then I was a [jerk]. And that Mickey would have hated it. So I would sit with Tom and we would talk. And he’d say, ‘How does he sound?’ I would be Mickey for him, the same way I would be for Hank when we were writing the script.”

For ‘Maris,’ Role Was Experience of a Lifetime

Barry Pepper, who played the embattled Maris, lost none of his hair during the filming of “61*,” as Maris had. At times, though, Crystal wondered.

“He was so Roger Maris,” Crystal says. “It just got ahold of him, and all of us. I know it changed his personality at times, playing edgy and moody.”

Pepper spent the moments between takes of Maris’ home runs grinding through sets of curls, hoping to raise veins on Maris’ meaty forearms. Months later, the morning after sitting through a screening of the film with Maris’ four children, Pepper wiped tears from his eyes.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life, besides something similar to the veterans sitting in the theater screening of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ” says Pepper, who played the sniper in that film. “To be sitting beside Roger’s sons and his daughter, it was really emotional.”

The last time Crystal heard from Mantle, the legend sent a letter about his golf tournament. “It was a form thing,” says Crystal. “On the back of it was a handwritten note: ‘Please come. I can’t wait for you to see me now that I’m sober. Mickey.’ ”

Beneath that, “I’m a very different person. You’ll like me better.”

Mantle, who liked to say that if he knew he was going to live so long he would have taken better care of himself, died in 1995. Crystal sighs and ducks his head to the side.

“I liked the old guy,” Crystal says. “I just felt bad for him.”


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