A Mantle of Respect for Billy Crystal

The headlines are going to read "Billy Crystal Hits a Home Run." Or a grand slam. And they're all deserved. When HBO airs Crystal's movie, 61*, this weekend you will see that there was a time, 40 years ago, when people were fighting over asterisks as if they were chads.

61* is the true story of New York Yankees Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they fought their way to the home run title in 1961. Maris would eventually set the record of 61 homers, but with that bothersome asterisk. This was because 1961 was the first year that baseball went from 154 to 162 games. Maris' accomplishment was considered inferior to that of his predecessor, Babe Ruth, who hit 60 home runs in 154 games (Maris had only 59 home runs after 154 games).

Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent removed the asterisk in 1991. But it was too late — Maris had been dead then for seven years. Mantle would die soon after.

On Monday night former and current Yankees, a smattering of Sopranos and the great Robin Williams all turned out for the 61* premiere. Current: Derek Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, Tino Martinez, Luis Sojo, Clay Bellinger, and manager Joe Torre. Former: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Bobby Murcer, and Bob Cerv, who plays a pivotal part in Mantle/Maris story.

Also on hand: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was also wrapped up in girlfriend Judith Nathan (she actually said, "It's Judith, not Judy" to the Daily News' Mitchell Fink). And I mean wrapped. And no, the mayor is not divorced or even legally separated from wife Donna Hanover. He and she and their two kids all presumably live together in Gracie Mansion. But the mayor is a big Yankee fan.

You'd think Giuliani and Nathan would be embarrassed or discreet, but then again the audience had just seen Mickey Mantle's personal history of drinking and womanizing splashed across the screen. This, despite the presence of Mantle's widow Merlyn, and her three kids and their wives.

Dave Mantle, 45, Mickey's oldest son since Mickey Jr. passed away, told me the family is basically happy with the movie. "All of what you see up there is true, and it's all part of the drinking." Dave told me that literally the whole family suffers from alcoholism. "One by one we all went to AA," he recalled. As for his father's last minute liver transplant, he said: "He never got preferential treatment. People think that, but he just waited his turn."

Personally, I think Mickey Mantle should have been tops on the list. He played baseball in tremendous pain, and gave his all. During the last part of the 1961 season he dropped out of the home run race with Maris, and was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection. On screen, the wound — caused by a Dr. Feelgood's bad injection — is quite alarming. It was in real life, too. "My mother said you could see right through to the bone," Mantle said.

Bob Cerv, the New York Yankee who shared a house in Queens, N.Y., during the summer of 1961 with Maris and Mantle, gave Crystal a thumbs-up. "It wasn't like Mickey was always bringing women back to the house. It was only one time, and they show it in the movie. Otherwise, he was pretty well behaved." Cerv turns out to be a mediating character in the main players' lives. But he was present when the pressure of playing in New York got to Maris, who started losing his hair. "I can remember him finding the spots on the back of his head where it was gone," Cerv told me.

Mantle is played in the film by Thomas Jane, a dead ringer for the young ball player. Maris' part is done by Barry Pepper, whom you may recognize from Saving Private Ryan. Together they have breakthrough moments as actors and as new stars. Their performances are uncanny, astute and memorable — as is the film itself, which could easily have been released to theaters first before going the cable route.

At least, that's what Robin Williams thinks. Of course, he's Crystal's close friend so he's not impartial. But Robin told me: "I think HBO should put it in a theater for one week, at least in New York. People should be able to see it on the big screen."

Williams, who could not stop quipping in spite of himself, has only recently become a baseball fan. "I have season tickets now to the San Francisco Giants." A Detroit native, he never went near a Tigers game when he was growing up. And the Yankees, well, forget that. He signed a lot of baseballs on Monday night, though.

Williams and Crystal have starred in a movie together — the lamentable Father's Day — but Robin is looking forward to Billy directing him. "We have to find a really good comedy," he told me. "But I would do a drama with him. I would do anything with him."

Indeed, Billy Crystal's stock as a director rose faster than last week's NASDAQ after 61* was shown. It's that good.

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