Roger Maris once said about his historic home run achievement: “Do you know what I have for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.” It describes the irony of recognition that he never enjoyed as one of baseball’s best players.
CINCINNATI — He was a man who crossed swords with history and forever carried the scars, both hero and victim—a character straight from the pages of some modern day Shakespearean tragedy.
This week marked the passing of a singular sports legend. Thirty-one years ago, on December 12, 1985, Roger Maris passed away. He was 51 years old, a man who was as diminished by his achievement as he was celebrated for its accomplishment.
In the span of two years, Maris rose from relative obscurity to chase and ultimately surpass Babe Ruth’s vaunted record of 60 home runs in a single season.
On the last day of the ’61 season, Sunday, October 1st, Maris drove a Tracy Stallard pitch into the right field seats at Yankee Stadium eclipsing the Bambino’s 34-year-old record of 60 homers in one season.
To that point, Ruth’s record was not only revered, it was regarded as beyond the reach of mere mortals. Others had come close—Hack Wilson with 56 in 1930 and Hank Greenberg with 58 in 1938—but no one had caught the Babe, and no one ever would. So said the keepers of the game, who protected Ruth’s legend with an obsessive, near fanatical fervor.
When Maris’ 61st home run landed in the seats at Yankee Stadium—his home field—those who booed and sneered were as plentiful as those who stood and cheered.
Maris toured the bases with his head down. His home run trot seemed more an act of necessity than an expression of triumph. In that moment—televised across the country—Maris was a survivor, not a victor. Ruth’s mighty record had fallen. Maris had stormed the gates.
It was an odd culmination to a chase that rivaled the “Space Race” for national attention, at least to a bunch of 10-year-old boys who lived and breathed baseball.
That summer, the number nine took on new significance. It was no longer the sole property of Ted Williams. Roger Maris was number nine, too.
Lafe Johnson, the best barber in our little town, had a picture of Maris taped to the mirror behind his chair right above the shelf where he kept the talcum powder and the aftershave. He put it up because all us boys asked for a Maris haircut, a short flattop with just enough length left in front for a dandy cowlick.
For a buck, seventy-five, Lafe would fix you right up and for another fifty cents he’d sell you this special butch wax—red stuff in a blue tube—that would keep you just right.
Lafe was a good, old sport, though he happened to be a Cardinal fan. He’d clinch his pipe in his teeth, hand you a piece of Double-Bubble when your haircut was all done and say, “Ya know, son, this Maris boy couldn’t carry Stan Musial’s jock.”
By the end of June, Maris had 26 homers and Mantle was right there with him. We rifled the sports pages every day and on weekends someone or another came up with a Sporting News that carried all the box scores from the previous week.
No pick-up game was played without an argument over who was the better player: Mantle or Maris. On the baseball card front, a new Maris could land you a bundle in return. Allegedly, Sammy Campbell gave up Koufax, Clemente and a ’57 Ted Kluszewski for a brand new Maris. Sammy never fessed-up to such extravagance, but he was the biggest Yankee fan in town and not much good at dickering. Besides, Dave Crane swore he witnessed the extortion.
On Saturday afternoons, everything stopped and we’d gather around somebody’s TV to watch “The Game of The Week”. No matter who was playing—and it was generally the Yankees—Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean always had the lowdown and latest on the home run race.
By the end of August, Maris was sitting on 39 homers while “The Mick” was nursing sore legs and a hip infection that landed him in the hospital. More and more it appeared that if Ruth’s record were to fall, it would be at the hands of Maris.
In small towns across the country, Maris was a hero, a rising legend. In New York, the story was altogether different.
Maris was a farm boy, born in Minnesota and raised in North Dakota. Signed by Cleveland in 1957, Maris came to the Yankees in 1959 from Kansas City, the centerpiece in a seven-player deal, and from the onset it appeared New York had struck gold. In his first game in pinstripes, Maris responded with four hits: a single, double and two home runs.
That season, Maris and Mantle paired to lift the Yanks back to the World Series. Maris hit .283 with 39 homers and 112 RBI. Mantle batted .275 with 40 homers and 94 RBI. They finished first and second in the MVP voting, Maris taking the honor by the margin of three points. Mantle actually received more first place votes, but Maris won the award on the strength of total votes. That’s all some needed to sow the seeds of controversy, implying that an adversarial relationship existed between the two sluggers, when—in fact—they were good friends with much in common.
Consequently, when the charge on Ruth’s record began it was portrayed as a struggle between Mantle and Maris, as well as an assault on the sacred high ground of baseball history.
The die was cast; the plot defined. It was Mantle, who came through the Yankee system, heir to the Yankee throne following DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth or, it was Maris, the newcomer, the outlier, the quiet young man uncomfortable with the jocular jousts that took place everyday between the players and the press.
Where Mantle had learned to play the newspaper game, Maris was quiet and withdrawn. While Mantle held court with Whitey Ford at Toots Shor’s and watering holes about Manhattan, Maris was a homebody who married his high school sweetheart.
When Mantle was asked what it would be like to be the next Babe Ruth, he offered an Oklahoma smile and deflected the question.
When Maris was asked the same question, he said, “I’m not trying to be Babe Ruth. I’m trying to be Roger Maris and hit 61 home runs.”
While Mantle was asked about his health, would his legs hold up and give him an equal chance in the chase, Maris was reminded—at every opportunity—that he was getting good pitches to hit because Mantle was behind him in the lineup.
As Maris grew closer to Ruth’s record, his life was threatened. His family received death threats. His hair fell out in handfuls. He lost weight and couldn’t sleep. The remarkable thing was that he continued to hit. He had 11 home runs in August to reach 50 and 10 more in September to tie Ruth.
The record reached and broken, Maris was never quite the same. He seemed sad. He seemed to be carrying a burden. In fact, he was and remained a bitter man.
Of his career, he once said: “It would have been a helluva lot more fun if I had not hit those sixty-one home runs.”
He was the MVP once again in 1961 and made the All-Star game for the fifth straight and final time. He finished his career with two years in St. Louis, helping the Cardinals to the World Series in 1967 and 1968.
“Roger was a really good outfielder and he came up with some big hits for us those years,” said Cardinal Hall of Famer Lou Brock. “But none of us ever tried to talk to him about the home runs. It was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it, almost like he wished it never happened.”
At the 1980 All-Star Game, Maris uttered his last words on his achievement and the source of his bitterness.
“They acted as though I was doing something wrong,” he said, “poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.”
In 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed Maris’ mark, Baseball did its best to right a wrong. The Maris family was often present and duly recognized. They smiled and said all the right things, but for all the attempted amends, it seemed far too little, and far too late.
Certain types of pain are contagious.