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Billy Crystal and the movie "61*" honored at The Baseball Hall of Fame

By GARY LIBERATORE

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (WKTV) - Hollywood icon Billy Crystal said Friday was the most special day of his professional career.

Crystal was honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for his work directing the HBO movie "61*."  The ceremony was the kickoff for the Hall of Fame's 5th annual "Film Festival Weekend."

'61*," which was released in 2000, is not only about the year, 1961, it is also about the race to 61 home runs. At the time, former New York Yankee Babe Ruth held the single season home run record of 60  It stood for more than three decades, until 1961, when two more Yankees known as The M & M Boys, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris cranked home runs out of ballparks on record pace.  Fans and fellow players were divided all September, rooting for one, or the other.
     
Ed Harding, who was visiting the Hall of Fame from Pennsylvania on Friday with his wife, says he remembers the home run race like it was yesterday, "I was rooting for Mickey, I have to be honest about it.  He was always my favorite Yankee player."

There is a wing at the Baseball Hall of Fame called "Baseball at the Movies," where all of the greatest films of the baseball genre are played for guests.  Now, the one many say is the best baseball movie of all time, has its own place in The Hall.  Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson honored Crystal and many of those involved with the movie Friday morning. Idelson says it was a "'no brainer."

"If films could be inducted into the Hall of Fame, this classic undoubtedly would be a first ballot electee," he said.

The HBO movie was released in 2000. HBO President Ross Greenberg was co-executive producer along with Crystal, and was also honored by the Hall of Fame, along with actor Thomas Jane, who played Mickey Mantle in the movie, and Hank Steinberg who wrote the screenplay.  

All were onhand on Friday. Greenberg says this is also one of the highlights of his career.

"I think in all my years, 33 at HBO, there's never been a film or a project quite like this one," Greenberg said.

Crystal says he attended the Hall of Fame as a little boy, and dreamed of being inducted as a player someday.

"I thought I was going to get here as a player, but to get here as a director of this film, part of this team, that made this film, is really the greatest thrill of my performing career," was the first thing Crystal said once he was introduce on Friday.

Onhand to see the unveiling of the new exhibit honoring the movie, was HBO and NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. Costas had nothing but accolades for Crystal's work on "61*," and says the movie felt like it was shot forty years earlier.

"He captured that whole period of time authentically," Costas said. "He made the old Tigers Stadium look much like Yankee Stadium, even Hoyt Wilhelm, who was played by Tom Candiotti, a modern day knuckleballer, had a crook in his neck and he looked like Hoyt Wilhelm coming in from the bullpen."

On October 1st, 1961, the last day of the regular season, Roger Maris hit number 61. Billy Crystal was just 13 years old.
     
Crystal, a life-long Yankee actually became a Yankee for a day during spring training two years ago, and to him, this honor today may be bigger than any Oscar or Academy award he could ever win.

"Now it's permanently part of the Hall of Fame," Crystal said as he presented the Hall with his last shooting script of the movie. "And for this little second baseman, this is the greatest thrill of my life."

The "61*" exhibit will be on display at the Hall of Fame through the end of 2011.
     
Film Festival Weekend continues both Saturday and Sunday.

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