The Record He Almost Regretted Breaking

In Billy Crystal’s engaging if inaccuracy-flecked 61*, which he made to re-tell the tale of the original hunt for ruthsrecord (so help me God, that’s how they decribed the single-season home run record in those years), Barry Pepper as the tortured Roger Maris finally lamented, “Couldn’t they have room for two heroes?” Meaning that he had no intention, then or ever, of trying to usurp Mickey Mantle’s place in a Yankee fan’s heart, even though he might (might) end up busting ruthsrecord when too much was said and too much undone.

Deep to right---this could be it!!!! bellowed Phil Rizzuto over the radio as Maris connected . . .

Fifty years ago this afternoon, of course, Maris squared up a Tracy Stallard fastball and drove it on a line into the right field seats for Number 61. He ran the bases carefully but strongly and, after crossing the plate and pouring into a cheering Yankee dugout, the Yankee Stadium crowd was so overwhelming in its cheering that Maris, never entirely comfortable in the public eye, poked awkwardly out of the dugout to take a curtain call.

The game itself was pretty much of the yawning season-ending variety. Stallard’s Red Sox would finish 33 games out of the running. The Yankees had nailed the pennant in Baltimore a short while earlier. At least two National League pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds (including Joey Jay, tied as the National League’s winningest pitcher at 21) were in the stands on a little pre-World Series scouting assignment. (Fat lot of good that did: Jay won his Series start but it would be the only Series win for the overmatched Reds.)

Three Yankee pitchers (starter Bill Stafford; relievers Hal Reniff and Luis Arroyo, the latter securing his 29th save) combined on a four-hit shutout. Stallard and Chet Nichols combined on a five hitter. Maris’s fourth-inning launch, with one out and none aboard (Tony Kubek struck out to open the inning), was the game’s only score. Stallard had retired Maris earlier (with Kubek aboard on a one-out single up the pipe), getting him to fly to deep left in the Yankee first; he would strike Maris out in the sixth, and Nichols (relieving Stallard for the eighth) would get him on an inning-ending pop to second base.

Drained in almost every sense of the word, Maris in the World Series would pick up only two hits while scoring four runs. One of those hits, however, proved to be the Game Three winner at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Maris opened the Yankee ninth by hitting one out against Bob Purkey. The none-too-glib Maris, rounding the bases after tagging Purkey, must have felt for the first time in months that it was safe to go yard without what seemed like half a city, if not a country, preparing his lynch rope.

“It would have been a helluva lot more fun to play the game under one mark and then leave the park wearing another mark,” Maris once told a reporter, after his retirement. “Some guys loved the life of a celebrity. Some of them would have walked down Fifth Avenue in their Yankee uniforms if they could have. But all it brought me was headaches. You can’t eat glamour.”

Last weekend, the Yankees paid tribute to Maris’s accomplishment. They thought they had to do it then, on the season’s final homestand, because they didn’t think they’d be playing today. That thought crossed nobody’s mind until the rain put the brakes on the 1-1 American League division series battle between CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. You’d like to think the history-conscious Yankees would have held off commemorating Maris for today if they’d been on the schedule to play.

At the very least, the Yankees since the advent of the Steinbrenner era have taken pains when appropriate to atone for many of the sins against which Maris played. No player actively chasing a hallowed sports record, not even the controversial Barry Bonds, experienced even half the calumny and pressure imposed upon Maris. He suffered no fool gladly, and too many writers, provoking too many fans, proved fools enough for the plainspoken, unpretentious outfielder who was a generous and amiable teammate. “Roger Maris,” wrote talented but self-destructive first baseman Joe Pepitone, after his career collapsed, in his self-lacerating memoir Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, “was one of the better people I met in baseball.”

After a solid 1962 season, Maris’s power stroke would be sapped gradually by injuries until a 1965 hand break drained it once and for all. A press corps that never warmed up to him in the first place accused him falsely of malingering; the full extent of the 1965 injury was kept from Maris for awhile enough, though, the Yankees having begun their decade-long descent and being desperate to keep any remaining marquee names on the field to buck up dwindling fan interest.

Early in the 1966 season Maris had become so disenchanted with his faltering play that he decided to make it his final season. Ralph Houk, not yet restored to the dugout after two and a half controversial years as the Yankees’ general manager, asked Maris not to announce it until the following spring training, as a favour. Maris agreed. After the season ended (with the Yankees in tenth place, of all places), Maris fielded a call from Yankee president Lee MacPhail asking if he’d changed his mind. Maris said no, adding that if MacPhail was thinking about a trade, say so and Maris would announce his retirement at once.

MacPhail denied any such intentions, and Maris intended to keep his promise to Houk. Three days after his talk with MacPhail, however, Maris was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a no-name former New York Met infielder named Charlie Smith. Fearful that he might be roasted in the press for refusing to play anywhere but with the Yankees, Maris accepted the deal.

Maris the Cardinal poses amiably with Boston Red Sox manager Dick Williams before a 1967 World Series game . . .

It proved to be profitable for him in more ways than one. He was made the Cardinals’ regular right fielder and continued to shine as a defender even if he wasn’t even half the hitter he once was. He went to back-to-back World Series with the Cardinals, winning one ring in two tries. Better still, he got to play within easy reach of his Kansas City home. Finally, Cardinal owner Gussie Busch awarded Maris a major Budweiser distributorship in Florida, when he finally retired after 1968.

Maris shied away from Yankee Old-Timer’s Days and other public events for several years, until he returned for one in 1984, when the Yankees retired his uniform number 9. Stricken by then with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Maris accepted the thunderous ovation he received as overdue, though he made little noise about it, as usual. When he died in 1985, a New York memorial in St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Maris was a practising Roman Catholic) saw John Cardinal O’Connor address his young grandson directly, inviting the gathering to applaud his grandfather so the boy could hear some cheers for him.

“Steven,” O’Connor said, “you were not around to hear your grandfather applauded in the Stadium, but you’ll remember this, OK?”

In the year of his death and afterward, though, Maris’s Hall of Fame support within the Baseball Writers Association of America skyrocketed. It had dipped as low as 16.6 percent two years earlier; in 1985, he received 32.4 percent of the vote, but in 1986 he would get 41.6. He’d get 42.6 in 1987 and 43.1 percent in 1988, his final year of BBWAA eligibility. Maris’s illness had become well enough known, the Yankees had reached out to re-embrace him institutionally during that time, and when you marry that plus his slowly-swelling image rehabilitation (Maury Allen’s Roger Maris: A Man for All Seasons sure didn’t hurt, either), you have your answers as to how Maris’s BBWAA Hall support could have been given such a jolt.

To this day there is a profound subset of supporters who believe Maris deserves the honour. Most of his support hooks around his decent character, too much battered by the controversy around his record pursuit and the unconscionable Ford Frick pronouncement. Get it straight, folks: The infamous asterisk never existed and couldn’t exist; it wasn’t in Frick’s power to decide. In fact, he never had such power. All he could and did do was pronounce separate records if Maris broke it after 154 games. (Baseball actually didn’t have an official record book until Total Baseball was handed the job, believe it or not.) On the other hand, Maris did do it with five fewer plate appearances than Ruth.

Much of Maris’s Hall of Fame support, in turn, is married to the controversy as to whether or not Mark McGwire, who broke Maris’s single-season record, or Barry Bonds (who broke McGwire’s) are tainted due to their ties to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. Though Maris’s family embraced McGwire’s very public embrace of Maris in 1998, an embrace which gave people a renewed appreciation for Maris’s achievement, they have since campaigned, even if only psychologically, to have Maris restored as the rightful owner of the single-season home run record.

Here’s my take: Roger Maris may have been robbed of a Hall of Fame career by injuries; he may have robbed himself in tandem because, being human enough, he had stared into the face of greatness and discovered the hard way that greatness sometimes had a way of battering a man rather than bolstering him. (Can you name many other people who say on the record that it almost might be better if they hadn’t broken a record?) I can think of few more specious arguments than the one made by too many people who insisted that only a “true Yankee” (Maris had been acquired in a deal with the Kansas City Athletics before 1960) was entitled (entitled, mind you) to even think about breaking ruthsrecord. (Like the “true Yankee” who’d hit 60 in a season seven years after his acquisition from the Red Sox, I suppose?) Both Maris and Mickey Mantle (the apparent “popular” choice to break the record, until he broke down with a hip abcess late in the season) were discomfited by the idea that one or the other was or wasn’t “supposed” to think about the record.

Maris had been voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player for the season before he challenged and conquered ruthsrecord; he won the award again for 1961; and in both seasons a case could be made that Mantle should have won the award. From 1960-62 Maris hit 133 home runs, drove in 352 runs, scored 322 runs, compiled a .366 on-base percentage and a .928 OPS (on-base plus slugging) and was 6.3 wins above a replacement-level player. For the rest of his career (he played twelve seasons, and only two more full seasons after 1961), he wasn’t even close.

Everything I have ever read about Maris informs me he was a good, decent family man, a loyal friend, who may have found it difficult to warm up to adult fans especially when the ruthsrecord controversy shifted to overdrive but who took pains to answer any fan mail he knew to have come from children. If that was all you needed to get a plaque in Cooperstown, Maris might have gotten in before his death. He was a good ballplayer who touched greatness for three seasons, even if one of them above all is the real underwriting for those who want to see him in the Hall of Fame.

The only problem is that all the fan letters, all the occasional columns, all the periodic Congressional Record pronouncements calling for it, can’t, shouldn’t, and probably won’t change one fact and one solid enough supposition. The unchangeable fact is that, for reasons not entirely his own, Roger Maris does not have a record that would put him into the Hall of Fame with or without having broken ruthsrecord. The solid enough supposition is that, were he alive today, Maris would be the first to tell you he doesn’t quite deserve the honour, even if he appreciates in his quiet way that nobody calls him any kind of pariah any longer.

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