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Film / 61*

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"Why did America have room in its heart for only one hero?"

61* is a 2001 HBO Based on a True Story sports film directed by Billy Crystal.

In 1961, the New York Yankees seemed poised to make another run at the World Series, having lost a tough seven-game series the year before. Fans are highly optimistic due to the wealth of talent in pinstripes, led by Living Legend Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and the previous year's MVP, Roger Maris (Barry Pepper). In addition, with more games on the schedule to accommodate new teams joining the league (read: more roster spots for fringe pitchers), there is serious belief that someone could make a run at Babe Ruth's fabled single-season home run record of 60, set in 1927.

As the season progresses, the Yankees are winning, but even more importantly, both Mantle & Maris are on pace to break Ruth's record. When the record has a real shot of being felled, sides are taken from everyone in the baseball world. Fans rally behind Mantle, already regarded as one of the best to ever play and heir apparent to Yankee greatness; his charming persona, movie-star looks, and embracing of the New York spotlight makes him the most beloved man in the Bronx. Meanwhile, Roger Maris is his complete antithesis; perceived as not a "true Yankee" due to being acquired in a trade, his country-boy roots show through his quiet, private personality amidst the hoopla, which leaves baseball fans — especially Yankee fans — uninspired. The baseball higher-ups also seem to conspire against both men, as commissioner Ford Frick, in an effort to preserve the sanctity of Ruth's record, rules that one must best Ruth's record in 154 games, as Ruth did; if it is beaten in the expanded eight games beyond that point, it would be treated as a separate record.

With Mantle struggling with his alcohol-related issues and mounting injuries, and Maris combating the tough media and lack of support as he pulls away from Mantle and stays with Ruth's pace, all while both are still trying to lead the team to a championship, what should be a celebrated chase for history is instead a stress-inducing trial that will test both men's reserve as they chase a ghost and a number.

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Anti-Climax: When Maris has a chance to pass Ruth on the last day of the season, the baseball world is so apathetic that Yankee Stadium is barely half-full and Commissioner Frick isn't present. Sadly, Truth in Television.
  • Artistic License – Sports:
    • The film leaves out that part of Frick's motivation for having separate records was that the National League, not having expanded to more than eight teams yet, still only played a 154 games at the time and he felt it would not have been fair for those players to not have the benefit of an additional eight games their American League counterparts did.
    • No asterisk was ever officially tied to Roger's record, though it was treated as a separate record for 30 years.
    • The scene with the angry fan hurling a chair at Roger never happened.
    • Bob Cerv joined the team mid-season as opposed to beginning the year on the team and as Roger's roommate.
  • Bash Brothers: Mantle and Maris, dubbed the "M&M Boys", anchoring the heart of the Yankee lineup. They also lived together during the season, as a way to keep Mickey in a low-key environment and away from the temptations of the city.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Commissioner Frick and Babe Ruth's widow, who put on a pleasant face in front of Mr. and Mrs. Maris, but are actively shown to be rooting against Roger breaking the record.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Roger sets the home run record with 61, but it is indeed treated as a separate record. By the time Commissioner Fay Vincent amended the record books to have one set of records in 1991, leaving Roger as the undisputed home run king, he had already died in 1985. In real life, it's even worse, as the first three players who have since passed Maris — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa — have ties to performance-enhancing drugs. (Aaron Judge, who passed Maris in 2022, does not.)
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the Maris children and widow Pat watching Mark McGwire break Roger's record.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Poor Roger. He takes a photo with admiring fans and his wife questions his faithfulness. In a rare moment of humor, when a fan asks for his "X" for his kid, Roger scribbles an X on the baseball, but the fan rushes off and Roger is ushered on the team bus before he could put his real autograph on it, which angers the fan when he realizes what happened. When Roger snaps to the press that he's "not a New York kind of guy", meaning that he's not a guy who loves the spotlight, the writers turn it into an affront to the city, which turns the fans on him. And so forth.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Roger begins chain-smoking as the pressure on him rises.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Yogi Berra ("90 percent of this game is half mental") and color commentator Phil Rizzuto.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: Roger is terrible at making scrambled eggs, but when he tells Mickey that he hit a home run when he ate them, Mickey wills himself through it because he's slumping. Mick hits a home run that day.
  • Creator Cameo: Doubles as a Freeze-Frame Bonus, in the upper deck crowd shot when Mickey Mantle warms up at bat, Billy Crystal was digitally inserted into the cheering fans at the railing.
  • Dare to Be Badass: When Maris begs off wanting to play one day, he tells manager Houk that the record doesn't mean anything to him and he owes nothing to the fans who have nothing but contempt for him. Houk instead challenges him, saying that by backing down, he's giving all the naysayers the satisfaction that they broke him and that this is his one opportunity at sports immortality. Mantle also echoes this to Roger once he's shut down with injury.
    Mantle: He's all yours, if you want him. You go get that fat fuck.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Baltimore coach threatens Wilhelm with a $5,000 fine if he throws Maris a fastball. This was equivalent to almost a quarter of his yearly salary.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: While Mantle and Maris chat in the on-deck circle before Mantle goes to bat, Mantle notes to Roger before he leaves that there's a woman behind the dugout with "the biggest pair of tits I've ever seen." Even Roger can't help but look.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Even Sam Simon note , who has been rooting against Maris the entire time, thinks it's a cheap move to bring in knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm just to pitch to Roger and calls out Artie Green for supporting it.
  • Executive Meddling: In-Universe; when Maris begins to gain separation from Mantle in the home run chase, Yankee brass want manager Ralph Houk to flip-flop them in the lineup to benefit Mantle. Houk stands up to them, saying that as long as he's manager, the lineup will reflect their best chance to win and when it comes to the chase, "the right man is going break that stupid record."
  • For the Evulz: During the final inning of 154th game of the season with the game and AL pennant out of reach, the Orioles bring in Hoyt Wilhelm, a knuckleballer who usually only comes in relief to preserve a lead, solely so Roger won't be able to tie Babe's record. The Yankees are not happy about this.
  • Freudian Excuse: The reason Mickey parties so hard is because all the men in his family (including his father, grandfather, and uncles) died before the age of 45. He figures the same thing will happen to him so he might as well live it up while he can.note 
  • A Friend in Need: Drunken Mickey, whose teammates have to wake up and stop his carousing at 2am; Whitey Ford has to continuously bribe people and owners caught in his debauchery to keep it on the down low.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Roger & Mickey are this, but the press tries to claim a real rivalry between them, despite the fact that they get along well enough to room together.
    (Mickey and Roger watch a TV report suggesting that there's a feud between the two)
    Mickey: Roger, are we feudin'?
    Roger: They said so on TV, so it must be true.
    Mickey: Well, fuck you, then.
    Roger: Up yours.
  • Game-Breaking Injury: Late in the season, Mickey suffers an arm injury in tandem with a shot that leaves him with an infected hip that shelves him for the rest of the regular season, leaving Roger all alone to chase the Babe.
  • Heroic BSoD: Maris has one when the pressure gets to be too tough for him, asking Houk to give him a day off.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Roger Maris puts up one of the greatest two-year stretches in history and helps the team win, and what he gets in return? A press who vilifies him and fans who not just refuse to support him, but send him death threats, even to his wife at home. It's enough to make him start chain-smoking and lose his hair in clumps.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Babe Ruth's widow Claire, who was not as anti-Maris as the film suggests. She even visited Maris when he hit his 60th to congratulate him, to which Maris told her, "Don't feel badly, no one will replace the Babe."
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    Whitey Ford: Hey, Mick, you read Sam Simon's column today?
    Mickey: No, you know I don't read that shit. Son of a bitch has been after me since day one.....What's it say?
    • When Roger is getting booed in his own stadium, Artie Greene mentions that it was very strange. Milt Kahn simply says "I wonder why..." and trails off, since Artie Greene had been writing scathing half-truths about Maris all season.
  • Immoral Journalist: Most of the press covering Roger Maris' journey in the league consist of slimy tabloid/yellow types who regularly engage in unethical sensationalism over factual coverage. Artie Green in particular is a pretentious asshat who salivates at any chance to tarnish Roger's public reputation — always by deliberately misconstruing Roger's words during interviews, twisting them, and churning out bottom feeder articles that paint the humble, unassuming man in a terrible light.
  • Irony: Baseball fans, the press, and even the Yankees top brass all start fawning and looking up to Mickey Mantle as baseball's next superstar idol just because he's got on-screen charisma to go with his talent, even though he's actually a mess and an unflattering example of a human being outside of the game, his only saving grace being that he cares for his teammates and fans. Meanwhile, everyone develops an irrational, borderline obsessive hatred towards Roger Maris and are dead set on making a public villain out of him just because he lacks on-screen charisma, even though there isn't anything substantial to hate or dislike about him at all, since he's just a humble, family oriented man who's got his priorities straight.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Despite being an alcoholic and a womanizer, everyone loves Mickey because he cares about his teammates and the fans. Elston Howard recalls an incident during Spring Training when a restaurant wouldn't let him inside to eat with the other players. Mickey proceeded to take his food from the restaurant, sit with Elston outside and share it with him.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: From announcer Mel Allen during game 154: "You know, I imagine someday someone will write about the month-long, day-in, day-out pressure on Roger Maris."
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Milt Kahn is the only reporter who defends Roger throughout the season. However, when Roger has enough with the media and stands Milt up on an exclusive interview he promised him, Milt, feeling hurt and needing to get something to his editor to keep his job, writes a scathing column about him.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Maris and Mantle pose with a couple of female fans while on the road, but the press crops the photo so it looks like it's Maris with two women on his arms. Naturally, his wife is not pleased.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Mickey repeatedly plays through injuries that should require rest. He explains to Roger that the reason he does it is that he knows there's a lot of working class families who can only afford to attend one game a year in the stands and he doesn't want to disappoint them by not playing.
  • Only Sane Man: Bob Cerv, Roger and Mickey's roommate and fellow teammate. As Mantle and Maris alternate trying to handle with the pressure, poor Bob has to keep both men sane at times.
  • The Quiet One: Roger Maris, to the chagrin of the press and fans.
    "MVP: Most Vacant Personality."
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Manager Ralph Houk, who defends Maris to the press and his bosses, and helps Maris out of his mental funk when the pressure borders on too much.
  • Shown Their Work: And how!
    • Barry Pepper and Tom Jane were shown film and broadcast footage of Maris and Mantle to make sure that everything from their warm up routines to swing style to individual mannerisms were accurate.
    • Every aspect of the set design was meant to be both period-accurate and individually accurate even down to the arrangement of items in individual players' lockers. Rusty Smith, the set designer, even went so far as to find the period-accurate shade of mint-green paint that decorated the seats and dressings of 1961 Yankee Stadium off of a scrap of paint from a seat that Billy Crystal owned.
  • Skewed Priorities: Ralph Houk is none too pleased that the Yankees top brass cares more about the home run race (and the unpopular Maris winning it) than the team's pennant race.
  • Slippery Slope Fallacy: One sportswriter notes this as the commissioner and other writers mull possibilities of separate records if something (read: Ruth's record) is broken past the 154-game mark, noting that it would make a mess out of baseball's fabled records and questions where it would end. He also notes that it's hypocritical, since Ruth broke the record with an expanded schedule over the previous holders, but there's no separate record for him.
  • Smug Snake: Frick gives a satisfied smile when Maris fails to hit his 60th in his 154th game. Of course, all his petty efforts do in the end is temporarily delay Maris from achieving the greatness he deserves.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Downplayed. Whitey doesn't approve of Mickey's drunken antics at all, but his insistence of just bribing people to keep quiet instead of confronting Mickey about how he's acting enables the behavior.
  • The Un Favourite: The crux of the film. Roger is treated as this, despite winning the MVP the year before and having an even better year in 1961 (he again won the MVP that year). As someone who didn't start his career with the Yankees, he faces far more scrutiny than his teammates, and fans recoil that Babe Ruth's record could be broken by a quiet, soft-spoken player with an unremarkable career up to that point as opposed to another legendary Yankee with Hall of Fame credentials like Mantle, who was deemed worthy of carrying the record's torch. In addition, Maris's lack of charm and reluctance to talk to the press exasperates sportswriters, who paint him in the papers as sullen and aloof, which the fans eat up.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Roger calls out Mickey when the latter starts falling back into drinking and womanizing, noting that as great as he is, he could be even better if he just took care of himself.
    Roger: You're Mickey Mantle, for Christ's sake!
    Mickey: What's that supposed to mean, huh, what the FUCK is that supposed to mean?!