61* Reasons to Believe in Collusion

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: July 5, 2008

“As I stand here this afternoon, it is impossible not to think of the Babe; not to feel his presence here even now. He was more than a ball player. He was everything that is special about this game. He was everything that is special about America…”

— Donald Moffat as Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick in “61*”

“I bet I got more pussy than he did.”

–Thomas Jane (Mickey Mantle) to Anthony Michael Hall (Whitey Ford) in “61*.”

PHILADELPHIA — Recently, my BASN colleague and friend Gary Gray provided a great take on the American Film Institute’s All Time Top 10 Sports Films (“Going Where The AFI Won’t Go”– entertainment icon) and got the gray matter going.

In any artist’s collective desire to say something profound, sometimes the best stuff kinda escapes us until we get to wrap it all around the old medulla oblongata multiple times.

That said, movies of said ilk sliding under the radar of the initial response (subjective, of course) of “great” may prove to be more enjoyable and profound as time goes by.

Given the current state of sport — and journalism — one flim aptly fitting the bill, is Billy Crystal’s “61*.”

Crystal, comedian, actor and unabashed New York Yankees fan, produced the flick that chronicled the Bronx Bombers’ 1961 baseball season and the home run chase by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Many movies have their tease phrase which seeks to encapsulate the theme or salient point of the movie. For Crystal’s film, the tag line was: “Mantle and Maris: Why did America have room in its heart for only one hero?”

And this is where, in my humble opinion, Crystal fucks up big time.

Because “America” never gets a say in the matter; one pernicious truth of 61* is it gives pronounced clues to the timbre of gutter journalism coming into the 1960s. Two white hero figures in a town with 15 newspapers provide breeding ground for a nebbish scumbag beat reporter to vilify the character of one guy (Maris) because he won’t provide him with the necessary sound bites to further expedite his career.

Not because Maris killed babies or had sex with pre-pubescent children, but because his approach to the game was to play as hard as he could. To let his actions do the talking; and because his words after the game failed to reach the heights of his actions during it.

Given the names are changed to protect the not-so-innocent, the tone implies it was endorsed by management at certain newspapers, because, as we in this business knows, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Add to this the desire to protect the designated hero (Mantle), a charismatic, boozing womanizer with God-given talent and a “Blade Runner” lifespan by the same press that pounced on every attempt to twist Maris’ words into negative copy because his persona didn’t register with all the news that’s fit to print.

But at the very heart of it all, a thinly-veiled attempt to protect baseball’s golden idol; its fatted calf in Babe Ruth — and his “sacred” home run record, guided by then-Commissioner Ford Prick, er, Frick.

Frick’s desire to safeguard Ruth’s single season record becomes so intense, he announces to the world at large because the 1961 season is the first to have a 162-game season, any record broken beyond the old standard of 154 games would be denoted with an asterisk as a separate and distinct record.

“Ruth this, Ruth that, 24 hours a day — we’re chasin’ a ghost, Rog; you go in that clubhouse, he’s there – at home plate, he’s there; in the outfield, he’s there. The fat fuck, he’s everywhere.”

–Thomas Jane to Barry Pepper – Mantle to Maris – in “61*”

As Maris looks to keep the troubled star focused, Mantle tries to school Maris on the ways of the “modern” press. It’s no accident the machinations of some elements of the press then give rise to the malodorous entity we now know as sports talk radio; where facts are never as important as an agenda and a loud voice.

Ironically, another telling taint lies in an exchange between two reporters who personify each end of the journalistic spectrum after both Yankees fail to hit the magic number in 154 games:

Question: You ever play baseball, Arnie?

Answer: No, no, never.

Questioner: That’s what I thought.”

–Richard Masur and Peter Jacobson in “61*”

I have seen first-hand accounts of this kind of bullshit in the locker rooms and during the press conferences throughout my years covering sports, knowing many of these muthafuckas never strapped on or played a down of football — so how the fuck could they really know? For many of them, the lack of knowledge escapes with each banal question emanating from their mouths.

In spite of those in the press who did appreciate Maris’ efforts, the vile, vociferous minority used their bully pulpit to cause so much stress clumps of hair fell out of Maris’ head. All this while hypnotizing the thousands of sheep masquerading as baseball fans into believing Maris was evil incarnate.

As badly as Maris was treated, it’s no stretch to understand Black players caught far more hell than Mantle or Maris ever would. Rest assured even Elston Howard had enough sense to know he couldn’t have a suite at the Hotel St. Moritz because Mantle knew, if he was Black like Howard, he’d be in the same boat.

For every catcall Maris got, Jackie Robinson got black cats tossed at him by racist muthafuckas like ex-Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman and lackeys like Joe Garagiola.

For every hate letter Maris got, Henry Aaron got a thousand; while he got fucked by another scumbag with a title, Bowie Kuhn, while passing Mr. Third Place on the home run food chain.

But in spite of how the movie ends, the ending mirrored the same hypocritical agenda; the anointing of a Great White Hope; Androstenedione’s New Sultan of Not, Mark McGwire — a fucking cheater — eclipsing Maris’ record in Bunyanesque fashion. Once again, the memory of a good man who only wanted to play ball gets fucked over for someone who couldn’t carry his jock.

In spite of its flaws, Crystal should be commended for taking the sheet off the media’s hypocrisy in directing this film. So much of it resounds in present day activity with the blackballing, blacklisting and character assassination (like him or not) of Barry Bonds (who, unlike McGwire, can actually hit) and the ongoing covenant by every asshole in the front offices and beat writers of Major League Baseball spanning over 30 years who knew what the fuck was going on and refused to speak on it; because they were all in on it.

I’ll tell you this, designer Mark Ecko wouldn’t have pulled that bullshit stunt of putting an asterisk on Barry Bonds’ 762nd home run ball if he knew there was a boycott of his clothing.

For those who say don’t hate the messenger, let’s recognize the recent Associated Press Sports Editors’ studies which show 94% of all sports editors, 91% of all assistant sports editors, 89% of all copy desk people and 87% of all sports reporters are white and male.

It’s the Press Box, Stupid! And the News Room, Stupid!!

Did you really need to do a study on this? You coulda gave me cash up front and I would have told you what you already knew for a lot cheaper, you dumb muthafuckas; unless you have the balls, of course to admit Jose Canseco has more journalistic ethics than the lot of you.

C’mon, say that nasty word with me — Collusion!!!

I know there a lot of young knuckleheads who may be aspiring athletes or who are in the early stages of their pro careers in several sports who would do themselves well to take a peek at films like Hoop Dreams, Soul of the Game, Disposable Heroes, North Dallas 40, Rollerball, Any Given Sunday, the abruptly cancelled series Playmakers (ESPN), the upcoming Fosty Brothers documentary “Black Ice,” and 61*.

To not see these flicks as just entertainment, but as a blue print for negotiating their way through the cesspool of the media, and seeing perhaps pieces of a bigger, sinister picture as they flex their brain cells for similar reasons; which may pause for them to perceive these movies as great now regardless of how they were perceived then.

As for the asterisk, I think you know what y’all can do with that.