There was a moment, after months of preparing for his role in 61*,
when actor Barry Pepper truly became Roger Maris. It happened on
a sultry night last summer at Detroit's old Tiger Stadium (which
had been made to look like Yankee Stadium) in front of 400 extras
who were waiting to cheer a home run. However, as the tape rolled
again and again, burning expensive film, all Pepper could do was
pop up, and after 30 homerless minutes, it happened: The fans
started booing, just as the film portrays the real Bronx faithful
doing 40 years ago when Maris began threatening Babe Ruth's
single-season home run record. "It was amazing; the extras were
actually getting on him," says Reggie Smith, the former big
league slugger who now has an instructional center in Encino,
Calif. and was hired to teach Pepper and Thomas Jane (Mickey
Mantle) to play like major leaguers for Billy Crystal's movie
about the home run race of 1961. "You could see him tighten up.
Barry had been trying to get the look for so long, and now he
felt it for real, the stress and frustration."
On screen, Pepper eerily resembles Maris. That's exactly what
Crystal was hoping for when he contacted Pepper in 1999 after
seeing him in Saving Private Ryan (Pepper was the sniper, Private
Jackson) and noticing his facial similarity to Maris. The
righthanded Pepper had to learn not only to imitate Maris's
lefthanded swing but also to hit home runs from that side of the
plate. "The goal was to have Barry and Thomas be able to play
their baseball scenes without any digital enhancement," explains
To that end, Jane and Pepper spent eight weeks last summer under
Smith's tutelage. Within a week Pepper, who had never played
organized baseball, not only had mastered lefthanded hitting but
also had gone yard. For Jane it took three weeks, but he hit home
runs left- and righthanded. (Mantle was a switch-hitter.) Jane
even hit one shot to left center that landed on the roof of a
house behind the wall, 410 feet away. Soon, like Mantle and
Maris, Pepper and Jane were competing. "It was an unspoken thing,
but I encouraged it," says Smith. "It helped them get into
The practice paid off for Pepper as the catcalls cascaded down at
Tiger Stadium. "Like magic," as Smith describes it, Pepper locked
in on a fastball and sent it hurtling into the rightfield seats.
In doing so, Pepper did something the film shows Maris struggling
to do--silence his critics with his bat.
Soon, like Mantle and Maris, 61* stars Pepper and Jane were
staging a home run derby.