This was the month my all-time favorite slugger found his groove; by the end of May he had 12 home runs and was on his way to a new record.
That was 50 years ago. His name was Roger Maris, and I’m pissed off that the press box hacks who vote on the Hall of Fame have never handed him the golden ticket in.
Last week, Bob Costas, as close as baseball has to a moral authority (You thought Bud Selig? Brian Wilson?), said that he would vote for Barry Bonds (but not Mark McGwire) because Barry had established on natural merit irrefutable Hall credentials before he started juicing. Right on!
So I asked Costas about Maris. He texted right back: "Want him in. Stature grows with each passing yr..career stats short but historical importance huge..."
Costas nailed it again. Maris has traditionally been smeared as a surly loner with middling skills who had one lucky season. He rarely got his due as one of the best all-around outfielders of his time, a reliable clutch hitter and a well-regarded teammate.
Most importantly, a man whose record of 61 homers stood for 37 years (three years longer than Babe Ruth’s record of 60).
The Maris legacy got a boost in 2001 with Billy Crystal’s HBO movie 61*, in which he was sympathetically portrayed. A really well-rounded portrait came from last year’s biography, Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero, by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary. It’s a terrific addition to a baseball fan’s bookshelf or screen. Just out in paperback.
As Clavin and Peary point out, Maris’ reluctance to be lionized—he was modest and private—was only one side of his character. He was also, they write, “too stubborn, too self-destructive, and too true to himself—and a bit too self-righteous—to compromise when he believed he was wronged.”
It’s hard to be your own man in baseball.
Baseball commissioner Ford Frick, once Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter, convinced the record-keepers to list two home-run marks—one for Babe’s 60 homers in a 154-game season and one for Maris’ 61 over 162 games.
Thirty years later, another commissioner declared Maris’ mark the one true record, but the damage was done. Maris’ record stood until McGwire hit 70 in 1998. In 2001, Bonds hit 73. As of yet there are no separate listings for those steroid poster boys. (No asterisk—how about a little syringe?)
As a utility baseball reporter for The New York Times in the early '60s, I tended to believe my elders that Maris was a hillbilly red-ass and steered clear of him. It wasn’t true, but it gave the rest of the press pack permission for lazy, negative coverage while sucking around Mickey Mantle, the hero who was supposed to break Ruth’s record.
After Maris fractured his hand while sliding hard in 1965, it was easy for writers to side with management’s view that Maris was jaking it. Actually, Maris played hurt, and because the Yankees wanted to keep him in the lineup, the hand never fully healed. His grip was substantially weakened for the rest of his career.
Then, a year later, the Yankees did him wrong again when, breaking promises, they traded him.
Like his cranky role model, Ted Williams, Maris refused to charm the media to tell his side of the story. Clavin and Peary write: “He was such a bad interview because he grew up being secretive about his family and...thinking questions of any type were rude and an invasion of privacy. He believed that most reporters made their living wasting his time.”
Clavin and Peary are real reporters; they explain why Maris was so secretive. He had secrets! Maris was not his original name; Fargo, N.D., was not the hometown he claimed; and his parents’ dysfunctional relationship weighed heavily on his psyche.
He also felt guilty that his older brother, an even better athlete, had lost his chance for pro stardom after a mild case of polio.
There was something old-fashioned about Maris, from his flattop crew cut to his hard-charging, selfless style of play to his dedication to his wife and children. He was not cut out to be a star in the emerging celebrity Jock Culture of the '60s.
This seemed to amuse Mantle, his pal and roommate, who once told me that “after Roger beat me in the home-run race they hated him and liked me.” Mickey shrugged, a cynical gesture. “Hey, what the hell? It’s a lot better than having them boo you.”
I finally came to truly appreciate and like Maris in 1984, a year before his death at 51 from cancer. After ending his career as a valued member of two St. Louis Cardinals World Series teams, Maris was fat and happy with a large family and a thriving beer business with his brother in Gainesville, Fla.
In a long TV interview, he told me that he often wondered what his baseball career would have been like if he hadn’t hit 61 “because after that point it was no fun anymore. It’s not even fun to talk about.”
So why are you talking about it, I asked?
He nodded, considering the question in his thoughtful, earnest way, and said, “You know, there’s going to be other kids that will go into the game like I went into the game, thinking you’re going to get credit for what you do.
"I think a lot of times how much nicer things could have been if I got a fair shake. But this is the real side, and there’s a lot of kids that can learn from this. You got to have a tough skin if you want to survive.”
It was a hardheaded, honest insight from an old-fashioned guy who didn’t roll over for anybody. Maybe that’s why the hacks are keeping him out of the Hall.
Robert Lipsyte’s memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, has just been published.