Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fifty years ago today, Roger Maris homered to cap the most special baseball season of my life

Baseball didn’t appeal to him until the summer of ’61. Then, one day that June, the peach-fuzzed, 6-year-old from Rome, N.Y. saw these two guys named Mantle and Maris hitting balls into the stands. Looked like fun. So the boy and his friends got a wiffle ball and a bat and headed for a nearby playground. They used their bikes as outfield fences. The 6-year-old would pretend he was in Yankee Stadium. He even provided play-by-play when he stepped up to the plate. He would play ball from morning ’til night, breaking only for lunch and dinner. After he went to bed, he would pull out the transistor radio that he had hidden beneath his pillow and listen to see if the M&M Boys had hit any Ballentine Blasts. He would never make it past the sixth inning. Rizzuto’s voice would drone on, and the 6-year-old would be fast asleep, playing baseball in his dreams.


The wiffle ball and bat and the innocence are long gone. And so, too, is Roger Maris, a victim of cancer 26 years ago at age 51. The memories of that glorious summer, though, remain vivid despite the ravages of time – ’61 was quite a year.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Maris’ historic home run – the one that landed in the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium before taking up permanent residence in Cooperstown. Only 23,154 people showed up that crisp, autumn day to see Maris hit his 61st and surpass Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927. The radio call from Phil Rizzuto was filled with enough “Holy Cows” to stock a barn. The Scooter never talked about the torment Maris had been under. He never mentioned the tale of two seasons, how ’61 had been the best of times and worst of times for Roger Maris.

“People don’t understand the pressure Roger was under,” late Yankees third baseman and Maris teammate Clete Boyer told me in a 1991 interview. “Every day the press hounded him, and some of it was just plain vicious. I don’t think many athletes have ever faced the kind of pressure he did.”

Maris never wanted to be a Yankee in the first place. It didn’t matter to him that they were perennial World Series participants or that the stadium in the Bronx included a short right-field porch tailor-made for his home-run swing. Fargo, N.D. has been the home base of his youth, and the introverted slugger with the Midwestern values was quite content to remain in Kansas City, playing for the A’s.

But the Yankees needed a left-handed power-hitter to add the finishing touches to what would become one of the greatest teams of all-time. So, at the end of the 1959 season they traded a busload of players including World Series perfecto pitcher Don Larsen to the Athletics in exchange for Maris. These were the days before free agency, leaving Maris with only two options: play in New York or don’t play at all.

Reluctantly, he signed with the Yankees and wound up winning the MVP award after batting .283 with 39 homers and 112 RBI in 1960.

On his way to St. Petersburg, Fla., the following spring, his car broke down and there was some concern that his wife, Pat, had suffered a miscarriage. Those fears were allayed, but the strain of the ordeal may have contributed to Maris’ slow start in ’61. In mid-May Yankees General Manager Dan Topping called him into his office. Maris was batting only .210 at the time with just four home runs and the Yankees were only two games above .500, already trailing Detroit by five games. Maris figured the Yankees were going to trade him, but that wasn’t the case. Topping told him to settle down, to swing for the fences and not worry about his average.

Relieved to learn that he wouldn’t be sent packing for the third time in four years, Maris went on a tear, clubbing seven more homers in May and 15 more in June to raise his total to 27. That put him slightly ahead of Ruth’s pace and two in front of teammate Mickey Mantle.

“Watching those two was like watching two thoroughbreds go neck-and-neck,’’ Boyer said. “Roger would hit one, then Mickey would hit two. Then Roger would hit two and Mickey would hit one. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to watch those guys play their own game of home run derby.”

In the book, Roger Maris at Bat, Maris alluded to the friendly rivalry between the M&M Boys. “It was becoming pretty obvious that Mickey and I were helping each other to hit home runs . . . It was like having someone pace you as you tried to break a record.”

There was no question that Mantle’s presence in the order helped Maris. Incredibly, with Mickey batting behind him, Roger didn’t receive an intentional walk all season.

Maris and Mantle shared an apartment in Queens, and became good friends. But the rapacious New York tabloids (more than a dozen papers covered the Yankees in those days) kept writing that the two didn’t like each other.

“Nothing could have been farther from the truth,” Boyer said. “Why would they share an apartment if they didn’t like each other? I mean, come on.”

By the All-Star break in July, Maris had increased his homer total to 33, four ahead of Mantle. The questions about whether the Babe’s record was in danger increased and it became obvious who the majority of the fans were backing.

“A lot of people didn’t want to see the record broken, period, but if it was going to be broken they wanted if done by Mickey because he was Mr. Yankee and Roger was considered somewhat of an outsider,’’ Boyer said. “The guys on the team were pulling for Mickey, too. But it wasn’t that we didn’t like Roger. Heck, the guy was like a brother to me. We had just seen all the injuries that Mick had endured through the years. He had carried our team so many times. We thought he deserved it more.”

Many of the writers covering the team agreed. They thought it sacrilegious that Maris, a lifetime .270 hitter, was challenging Ruth. Their bias was reflected in their coverage.

“The deeper we got into the summer, the tougher it got for Roger,” Boyer recalled. “More and more writers were jumping on the story, and Roger grew irritated answering the same questions over and over and over. And some of these writers acted like they didn’t have a brain. I remember one guy asking Roger if he fooled around on the road. Roger looked at him in disbelief and said, ‘No.’ The guy said, ‘Well, I do.’ And Roger said, “That’s your business. I’m happily married.’ “

The heat grew more intense in late July when Commissioner Ford Frick, a close friend of the Babe’s, decreed that Maris or Mantle would have to break Ruth’s mark in 154 games, otherwise an asterisk would be placed next to his name in the record books. Most columnists thought the ruling was fair because the schedule had been expanded that season from 154 to 162 games.

Many of Ruth’s contemporaries jumped on the anti-Maris bandwagon, the most hurtful comments coming from Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby, who said: “Maris couldn’t carry the Babe’s jockstrap.”

It got to the point where Maris couldn’t please anybody. If he went homerless, they would boo him, and one drunken fan in Detroit went so far as to fling a beer bottle at Roger from the third deck of Tiger Stadium, striking the Yankee rightfielder on the arm.

“Who wouldn’t start to get surly after all that stuff,” Boyer said. “You could see Roger becoming more and more tense. He was smoking three, four packs of cigarettes a day. And down the stretch, patches of hair the size of half dollars started falling out of the back of his head. It was the damndest thing.”

Which makes what he accomplished all the more remarkable.

“I feel sorry for Roger because he never really was given an opportunity to fully enjoy it,’’ Boyer said. “He wasn’t a guy who liked the limelight. I think he sometimes wished he’d never done it.”

Although his record was surpassed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, many of us believe that Maris remains the true single-season record-holder because those three sluggers benefitted from the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Regardless what the record books say, Maris’ feat remains remarkable and ’61 will always be one of the most special seasons in baseball history. That was the year the M&M Boys launched baseballs into the seats at an unprecedented pace and got a 6-year-old from Rome, N.Y. hooked on baseball.


The photo above is from my book Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt Award and shows Roger Maris with 12-year-old Ray Hickok Jr., who presented the Yankee slugger with the award, which recognized the top professional athlete of the year.


Friends of Terry, Marika, Brandon, and Ashley said...

Hi, Scott. I have posted this previously but without response, so am trying again.

I have some copies of "Memories of Yankee Stadium" that I would love to get autographed, maybe inscribed, to some young baseball fans I know. Is there a place where I could mail them to you? If you don't want to post here, I can be reached at asktravis at gmail dot com. Thank you!

Country Mile said...

Love this story, Scribe. Will miss you tomorrow, but will try to win one for Mr. Stewart!

Joe T said...

I was just gonna hit the "like" button on this one but it didn't seem strong enough. You need to add a "love" button. Really nice piece Scott!