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Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

Film’s portrayal of writers unfounded

Crystal’s ‘61’ tarnished by false depiction, but does anyone really care?

April 29, 2001

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Roger Maris had 58 homers, two short of Babe Ruth's record. His chest was blotched with hives. Clumps of hair were falling out of his crewcut. His deep-set, wary eyes were surrounded by gray so that he looked like a startled raccoon.

Mickey Mantle, who had been hitting behind Maris all year, and had 54 homers, was out of the Yankees' lineup with an arm injury and a bloody abscess on his right hip caused by an injection from some flamboyant Dr. Feelgood that was supposed to chase nagging flu symptoms and make him stronger than Popeye.

Billy Crystal, who adores the Yankees, has made a movie about Mantle and Maris and that home-run chase that debuted on HBO Saturday.

Crystal insists, "This is more than a baseball story." Has there ever been a baseball movie that wasn't more than a baseball story? Everybody, from here to Hollywood, knows that baseball stories don't sell unless you've got sex or scandal or dead guys walking out of a cornfield on some Iowa farm.

New Yorkers didn't love Maris. He was this scowling crewcut rube from Fargo, N.D., wearing white buck shoes in autumn, unwilling to share his thoughts with the yowling media mob.

Barry Pepper does a splendid job as Maris, awed by the big city, terrorized by the media hordes. And Thomas Jane is dazzling as Mantle, earthy, farm-smart, strong-bodied, weak-willed.

Thirty-seven years later, Americans could embrace both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they muscled past Maris' record. Mantle and Maris played in New York, their deeds (and misdeeds) chronicled by competitive sports writers for eight daily papers. Why not make them the truth-twisting villains of the film, grumpy bloodhounds frustrated by Maris' lust for privacy?

Artie Green is a thinly disguised Leonard Schecter, sour, cynical. Milt Kahn is clearly based on Milt Gross, who worked alongside Schecter on the Post. And Sam Simon represents Dick Young, the flag-waving, hard-hitting traditionalist for the News.

Kahn scolds Green, calling him a "chip-munk, digging for nuts."

It is a nickname anchored in truth. Some younger baseball writers did scratch and claw and burrow for stories, they did chatter in press boxes, they did look for human-interest angles. I confess, I was one of them.

Gross was a hard worker, but an irritating clubhouse presence, always kneeling at a player's feet, whispering his questions, hoping for a whispered answer only he would hear. If Schecter was so cruel toward Maris, how did he wind up writing the book about the outfielder? Young, indeed, deserves the credit or the blame for thinking up the asterisk.

The script, written by Hank Steinberg, mocks Phil Rizzuto, has him babbling about birthdays and lasagna during dramatic moments on the field. It takes a nasty, exploitive turn when it has Kahn asking Green, in the press box, "Did you ever play baseball?"

Writers never ask other writers that. Players, coaches, managers, bristling about a tough question, often ask it, in a mean, belittling way. If Crystal wanted to create a labor of love, and he has, for the most part, why did he have to blotch it with his harsh depiction of sports writers? And will anyone care?

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