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The Chase for 61

The proverb says, “Records are made to be broken.” And some records resist for a long time all attempts to break them. When they do fall, some people rejoice, marveling at the discipline and hard work of the ones who topple them. But other people seem to think that such records are sacrosanct and seek to vilify the record breaker. And, by doing so, they make the athlete’s life miserable.

Such was the case of Roger Maris as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. He got hate mail. The lives of his family members were threatened. Baseball Almanac says, “Maris was hated, booed, cussed, and generally abused by the press and fans. . . .” The pressures on Maris became so great that he began losing his hair.

Maris described his ordeal of not only the chase but also the aftermath as “mental h— for me. I was drained of all my desire to play baseball.” He especially felt his loss of privacy. “I think the most privacy I had was when the game was going on.”

“I never wanted all this hoopla,” he lamented. “I just wanted to be a good ball player . . . and help my club win pennants. I just wanted to be . . . an average player having a good season.”

When Maris finally tied Ruth’s mark on September 26, 1961, and then broke it on October 1, he was relieved. But that did not end the clamor against him. Fans and sportswriters argued that his record was somehow tainted or less than a stellar achievement. They downplayed it, saying that he could hit homers only because Mickey Mantle hit behind him and pitchers would rather pitch to Maris than Mantle. Even the baseball commissioner, Ford Frick, weighed in against the credibility of Maris’s achievement, pointing out that he had had the advantage of playing in eight more games than Ruth and suggesting that the records should include an asterisk pointing out that fact. (Yet, he conveniently failed to point out that Maris had hit his sixtieth home run, tying Ruth, much earlier than Ruth had hit his sixtieth.) And former baseball great and Hall of Fame member Rogers Hornsby vilified Maris, contemptuously calling him a “bush leaguer” who “couldn’t carry my bat.”

When one gets beyond the controversy and the trauma and begins to analyze the actual accomplishment, the wonder of it all hits. Maris hit his first homer of the 1961 season in the fifth inning of Game 11 off Detroit’s Paul Foytack. He hit No. 61 off Boston’s Tracy Stallard in the fourth inning of the final game of the season.

Maris was an equal opportunity homer hitter, blasting shots off every team and practically every pitcher in the league. He was especially successful against the Chicago White Sox, who surrendered 13 shots to Maris. But the Washington Senators gave up 9, and the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers each suffered from his bat eight times. Only the Baltimore Orioles were stingy with him, reluctantly permitting him only three roundtrippers.

Maris was even more liberal in distributing his fence-clearers to individual pitchers. Forty-six different pitchers watched his blasts sail from the various parks. Three of them gave up three homers each to him: Pete Burnside of Washington, Jim Perry of Cleveland, and Frank Lary of Detroit. Billy Pierce of Chicago surrendered two back to back in one game.

Maris was as fair in clearing fences in enemy ball parks as he was at Yankee Stadium. He hit 30 at home and 31 away.

Only in dividing his homers between right- and left-handed pitchers was he one sided. Forty-nine of his dingers were off right-handed hurlers, whereas only 12 were off southpaws.

The sports media tried to make it seem as though Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle were at odds with each other. But Mantle repeatedly denied that accusation. In fact, the two shared an apartment in New York, and Mantle reportedly said that Maris “was as good a man and good a ballplayer as there ever was.”

In reflecting on the trials that Maris went through during and after his pursuit of Ruth’s record, I got to comparing his situation with Henry Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s other record of total homers and the pursuit of Maris’s record by Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds between 1999 and 2001. Aaron suffered many of the same insults and threats as Maris, but he earned the new record fair and square. But in each of the latter cases, there was evidence of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. That was also the era during which there were serious allegations that a “juiced” ball was being used throughout the major leagues. Players who had never been known for their power suddenly began hitting homers right and left.

The only thing of which Maris was guilty was playing in a few more games than Ruth, and that was not his choice but the scheduling of Major League Baseball. Roger Maris and his Yankees teammates–such men as Yogi Berra, Clete Boyer, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Mantle, Bobby Richardson (shown here), and Ralph Terry–increased fans’ respect and love for the game. (Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek were squeaky clean, so upright that they refused to drink and carouse after games, thereby winning the monicker the “milkshake twins.” Both men were open Christians and the others respected them for it. Richardson later testified that he was able to lead both Maris and Mantle to Jesus Christ shortly before each man’s death.) Maris’s breaking of Ruth’s record did nothing to detract from the Great Bambino’s greatness as a player. Together, their records enhanced the sport.

The same cannot be said of the more modern home run kings who broke Maris’s record. They, too, could have brought honor to the game. Instead, they brought it disdain and disrepute. If there was ever a legitimate need to put an asterisk after anyone’s record, it should be beside those of Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, not Maris. (By the way, in the official records, there is no asterisk by Maris’s achievement; it’s a myth that has been perpetuated since Ford Frick first suggested it.)

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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