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.
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 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.
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 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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