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61∗, released recently on video and in November on DVD, is about the 1961 home-run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It is maybe the best baseball movie since Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham.

The real story is so perfect it requires no embellishment. Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane), 30, a blond god at the height of his power and popularity, is confronted by the first challenge to his sovereignty since coming to the Yankees: another blond god named Roger Maris (Barry Pepper, the sniper with the cracker accent in Saving Private Ryan). The real Maris beat out Mantle for the Most Valuable Player award in his first year on the team, 1960. The next year, each spurred on (and in large part aided) by the other man’s presence in the lineup, the two made an unprecedented assault on Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs.

Mantle, hobbled by injuries and by an addiction to the high life, eventually faltered and watched from the dugout as Maris endured an enormous media blitz. But as Maris approached the record, an amazing thing happened: Mickey Mantle matured. This seems like the stuff of which sports fantasies are made, but it happened. Mantle, a miner’s son from Oklahoma, had been pushed hard into baseball as an alternative to the mines. No male in his family had lived to see 40 in at least two generations, and Mantle believed he wouldn’t make it either, so his private life became a sex-, alcohol- and painkiller-drenched self-fulfilling prophecy.

The arrival of Roger Maris, raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and happily playing right field for the Kansas City Athletics before the Yankees traded for him, took part of the spotlight and then much of the pressure off Mantle; the overgrown man-child who smashed water coolers when he struck out was exorcised. Meanwhile, Maris’s own problems had only just begun. Besieged by an unwanted press, the right fielder took to smoking six packs of cigarettes a day—he would die of cancer at 51—and his hair fell out in clumps.

Billy Crystal, who directed the film, tells the story well, with an able assist from Haskell Wexler’s video-tinged cinematography, which evokes the look of how most of us remember the events of ’61. And he has been very fortunate in his casting. Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane bear an uncanny resemblance to Maris and Mantle, and both are good enough to convey the loneliness of the long-distance swingers without much of a script. “You don’t know shit about me,” bellows Jane’s Mantle. “Yeah, fine,” snarls Pepper’s sullen Maris, who bangs on walls to release pent-up emotion. “This is your one shot to show ’em what you’re made of,” says a repentant Mantle. These are men of few words, you think, probably because they only know a few.

But, then, the skill with which Jane’s shrewd country boy finesses the city-slicker New York press, or the way he flips his cap, boyish grin angled perfectly toward the camera, tells us more about why Mickey Mantle was an American folk hero than dialogue could. A shot of Pepper alone at his locker, staring wistfully into space after Maris breaks the record, unable to comprehend what he has just done, says more about the pressure of unwanted celebrity than any speech ever has.

Maybe you have to have been there to really appreciate 61* . On the other hand, 61* might just make you feel as if you had been. ( NOTE : The DVD has excellent interviews with cast members and historical advisors, including former players such as Yogi Berra.)

—Allen Barra