Roger Maris, Sixty Springs Later

Exactly 60 years ago, there was Roger Maris in spring training, his first as the defending American League Most Valuable Player and his second as a Yankee. It may have been the simplest time of the season to come for the plainspoken right-fielder who suffered few fools gladly and broke a revered sports record to earn the violent lash of the superstardom he never sought.

It took Maris 11 games and 42 plate appearances before he faced Tigers reliever Paul Foytack in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees holding a 3-run lead, and hit his first home run of the season into Tiger Stadium's right field seats. I bet spectators then were just as excited to bet on a winner as they are today for the Cheltenham Festival.

If you want to get technical about it, let's re-set Maris's 1961 home run clock to begin with that April 26 game, and he broke ruthsrecord (so help me God that's the way people said it then) in two games less than a commissioner with a conflict of interest — and a New York sportswriter who ignored the conflict while offering as disgraceful an idea as baseball ever broached — proclaimed must be done for the new record to be "legitimate." (Maris also needed five fewer plate appearances than Babe Ruth did to hit number 60. Yes, you can look that one up, too.)

I grew up hearing the controversies and arguments around Maris even though I wasn't a Yankee fan. Then and now, the Yankee fan's sense of entitlement put me off. I respected what the team accomplished. I admired particular Yankees. (Not just Maris and Mickey Mantle but Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and pre-ruthsrecord manager Casey Stengel, whose final baseball act was managing the early, calamitous Mets.)

But we Met fans knew straight from the crib what too many non-Yankee fans knew for otherwise full lives. You're entitled to nothing, no matter how deep in resources, no matter how broad in reach. Even the Almighty Yankees proved only human (every American League season from 1903-1920; 1923-25; 1929-31; 1940; 1944-46; 1948; 1954; 1959) in at least 31 seasons prior to Maris's season in the broiling sun.

You're certainly not "entitled" to break a revered sports record, either, though with different intentions that's just about what then-commissioner Ford Frick and enough Yankee fans believed in 1961.

Frick would rather have been caught en flagrante indicto with Medusa than see the man for whom he once ghostwrote knocked out of the record book in any way, shape, or form. Dick Young -- the longtime New York Daily News sports emperor, who would do his level best to help run Tom Seaver out of New York a decade and a half later — would rather have been caught likewise than fail to suggest the infamous asterisk that Frick had no power to impose* except in the public imagination, when he spoke of it on July 17.

Yankee fans believed that, if Babe Ruth's single-season home run record must fall in due course (and they couldn't bear to utter those final three words), it was nothing less than Mickey Mantle's birthright.

Because, you see, among other things, Mantle was the face of the Yankees and had been since just about the beginning of the Korean War, even if he wasn't always beloved. Mantle's pre-1961 was one of grand achievement and the concurrent sense — inadvertently provoked by Stengel, who always thought and said aloud that Mantle's raw talent should have made him Superman (Can you imagine what John McGraw would have said if he could have seen this kid? Stengel once mused) — that he wasn't quite great enough, and the fans let him know it.

But in 1961, Mantle could and did tell reporters at last, "It's a new feeling and it's nice. Those fans, they've changed." By mid-summer, abetted by Frick, Young, and others, they'd had a new Yankee to despise. To them, Mantle earned his stripes. He was a "true Yankee," born and bred.

Who was this interloper from the Kansas City Athletics (from whom Maris was traded near the end of 1959) and where did he get off horning in on Mantle's entitlement? Maris had the inadvertent effect of making Mantle as beloved at last as he'd always been impossible to miss.

Even Maris's particular hitting style became part of the outrage. He didn't hit the Ruthian or Mantlesque parabola. He had in common with Ruth being a powerful left-handed pull hitter but the similarity ended there. Maris's specialty was the booming line drive, not the outrageous ICBM, made to order for reaching the Yankee Stadium short right field porch that was built on behalf of Ruth in the first place.

(The porch didn't quite do Maris so many favors in 1961. Yes, you can look it up: Maris hit one more bomb on the road than at home.)

You almost didn't want to know what those people would have thought if any one of such concurrent baseball bombardiers not in Yankee pinstripes — Henry Aaron, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews, Jim Gentile, Frank Howard, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson — had smashed ruthsrecord. Which was set in the first place by the "true Yankee" who became a Yankee in the first place following a controversial purchase from the Red Sox.

I don't know if Maris actually said, commiserating with Mantle in a hotel conversation on the road, "Why can't they have room for two heroes?" as portrayed in Billy Crystal's film about the 1961 ruthsrecord chase, 61*. It would have been a very valid question if he had.

But we do know that another long-time myth has long been debunked: Mantle and Maris weren't exactly mortal enemies, either. "Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate," wrote Mickey and Willie author Allen Barra in The Atlantic, "and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed."

After 10 seasons of making his bones and coming to terms with New York's somewhat capricious sports press, Mantle learned how to be glib and let his own wit (mulcted by his odd-couple, Astoria Queens-bred running mate Whitey Ford) join his matinee-idol looks to make him a media star. "Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient," Thomas Boswell wrote, upon Maris's death. (First in the Washington Post; it was republished in his 1989 anthology The Heart of the Order.)

With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At 26, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reculsive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years, he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he's painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

The idea of cultivating and managing fame existed long before Maris began taking his swings at ruthsrecord and cringing at the idea that he'd become any kind of star.

Ruth himself mastered the earliest art of public relations, even if it was as much self-preservation as anything else. (The Babe wasn't exactly a model citizen, something today's fans fuming over athlete malfeasance forget or ignore.) Mantle learned how to accommodate it. Until his early off-field San Francisco experiences seared him, Willie Mays all but basked in it.

When another Daily News writer, Joe Trimble, broke the ice and asked Maris in June 1961 (when he had 27 home runs already) whether he could break ruthsrecord, Maris answered, "How should I know?" It was a blunt, honest answer. Exactly the answer even those who'd rather have had a castor oil cocktail than see ruthsrecord fall didn't want to hear.

Aaron would experience far different, far more grotesque furies when he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list. Maris in all fairness didn't require the FBI's attention over the kind of hate mail he received in 1961. The racists came out in force to try driving Aaron off the course. The merely brain-damaged tried with Maris.

The product of a difficult childhood himself (his parents' marriage was described most politely as "turbulent"; they divorced a year before the ruthsrecord chase), Maris found one way to relieve some of the pressure: he started refusing to answer non-family mail unless it came from children.

With his own children, Maris did his best to be the father his own parents' incendiary marriage often denied him. His trade to the Yankees from Kansas City meant longer separation from his young family because he didn't want to uproot them. (The family eventually moved to Florida.)

Saying so honestly didn't exactly endear him to Yankee fans, either. To his teammates, and numerous sources back it up, Maris was straight, no chaser, more articulate and accommodating with those he considered friends. "He had been burned too often," Peter Golenbock wrote in Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, "to trust any strangers."

"I was extremely proud of my father, in every way," his oldest child, Susan, told a reporter 50 years after the chase heard 'round the world. She remembered the man who was away a little too often for comfort, but who did his best to make life special for his children when he was home. "He was a good ballplayer, a great man, a great father ... The '61 season meant more to me in later life."

It was a stricken child who inadvertently provoked one of Maris's uglier mishaps that season, one that was interpreted vividly, but with too much missing in 61*. The film showed New York Post reporter Milt Gross (named Milt Kahn in the film) bawling out Yankee PR leader Bob Fishel over Maris standing him up for a promised interview and, for once, showing Maris little of the empathy he'd been one of the only reporters to show that season.

Mantle's best biographer, Jane Leavy, uncovered the actuality: Maris spent the morning of Game 154 visiting the son of a former teammate, a boy dying of cancer. Doing so meant standing up Gross. The furious Gross ripped Maris a few new ones in the next day's editions; the boy died two days after the rip job.

Mantle dropped out of the home run chase after a "vitamin" shot from a doctor named Max Jacobson left him with a hip abscess that ended his regular season days before Maris broke ruthsrecord. (Jacobson would be run out of the medical profession in 1972, after The New York Times exposed his dubious at best drug-making practices.)

After Maris hit the big one at last, he and his wife, Pat, went to a Roman Catholic mass -- and walked out within minutes, when the priest told the congregation Maris was there. From there, they visited Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital and then went to dinner with Maris's friend Julius Isaacson. And, with Gross, burying the hatchet over the Baltimore snub. "A little girl approached their table," Leavy wrote, "to ask Maris for an autograph."

"Would you put the date on it too, please?" she asked.

"The date?" Maris asked. "What is today's date?"

"The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did," Big Julie replied.

From 1960-1962, Maris played like a Hall of Famer, even if the numbers raw and deep even suggest Mantle and not Maris should have been named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1961. In 1963, began the injuries that would sap Maris's line drive power and reduce him to a journeyman-level player who'd finally find some baseball peace (plus two more pennants and another World Series ring) when he was traded to the Cardinals for 1967.

After two seasons in St. Louis, where he was long past his prime power seasons but still a study in right field (he'd retire with 39 defensive runs saved above his league average and had only two seasons that showed him a run or two below the average), Maris retired to Florida and a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship until his death of lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

The injuries ruined his chances of making a full Hall of Fame case. The insanity battering him regularly in 1961 kept him from consistent pleasure in breaking baseball's most revered single-season record. Nobody really stopped to ponder the raw guts it took for Maris to survive long enough — and he had moments enough where he wanted to surrender — to hit Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard's fastball into the right field seats.

When Golenbock actually got Maris to talk for Dynasty, outside a club where he was enjoying drinks with his old teammate and longtime friend Clete Boyer, a woman asked Boyer to pose for a photo. Boyer assented gladly and invited Maris to join them. "Do you know who Roger is?" Boyer asked the lady. When she said she never heard of Maris, Maris replied with a smile, "That's just the way I like it."

"Heaven protect us," Boswell wrote, "from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve ... Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn't that the moral of Roger Maris's career?"

His career, not his life.

* * * * *

* (pun intended) From Allen Barra:

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick's denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. "No asterisk," he wrote, "has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment." Frick, though, couldn't resist reminding us in his book that "[Maris's] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season." Since practically no one read Frick's book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported "The single record thesis," meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris's record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent's "removal" of it.

When Billy Crystal made 61*, the final scene shows an overhead shot of Maris (portrayed by Barry Pepper, whose physical resemblance to Maris remains astonishing) hitting the Big One out, then fading with Red Sox catcher Russ Nixon and home plate umpire Bill Kinnamon (actors uncredited) into slow invisibility.

Over it, near-eternal Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard — immortalized by Reggie Jackson as "the voice of God" — referenced Vincent's statement before finishing: "Roger Maris died six years earlier ... never knowing ... that the record ... belonged to him."

Comments and Conversation

July 6, 2021

Anthony Brancato:

MLB should revert to the 154-game season, and this debate has nothing to do with why they should do so. If they cut back to 154 games, they can extend the wild card round from the current, absurd one-game “play-in” to a best-of-three series. Every team that makes the playoffs is entitled to at least one postseason game at home.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site