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 Smith.
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 left-handed 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 character."
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.