Maris' feat is more impressive with time

ROGER MARIS 50 Home run seasons: 1961, 61

ROGER MARIS
50 Home run seasons:
1961, 61
(Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

As sports controversies go, the brouhaha over Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961 deserves an asterisk. That is, the controversy seemed like a big deal, but it really doesn't count. So slap on an asterisk, which has been the quick and easy way to discredit something for 50 years.

It goes back to the days when influential people thought Maris' record was flimsy enough to deserve an asterisk. He was criticized and vilified as he outraced Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle to surpass what then was the most celebrated standard in sports: Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in a season.

Hall of Famers said Maris wasn't worthy. Yankees fans held it against him that he wasn't Mantle. Purists, including baseball commissioner Ford Frick, said Maris technically didn't break Ruth's record because the schedule had expanded from 154 games to 162 in 1961 and Maris didn't hit his 61st within the first 154. Hey, get your red-hot asterisk here!

Fact is, there never was an asterisk. The threat of it was just part of tainting with a broad brush, along with detractors' arguments that Maris was batting against diluted expansion-year pitching, playing in bandbox ballparks and hitting supposedly juiced balls.

What no one ever did insist, though, was that Maris himself was juiced. Not even the harshest nit-pickers ever accused him of cheating.

That brings us to today, with the controversy having come full circle. Today, purists are on Maris' side.

Today, what with all kinds of testimony of steroid use involving Mark McGwire (who broke Maris' record by hitting 70 homers in 1998 and later admitted using substances that now are banned) and Barry Bonds (who broke McGwire's record by hitting 73 in 2001 and who was convicted of obstructing justice in his steroids-related trial), Maris is the one without the controversy, or the asterisk.

"I still consider him the one who has the record," said Bobby Richardson, Maris' teammate and friend.

Today, there is new regard for the man who was, Maris' son Richard has said, fueled only by caffeine and Camel cigarettes.

As for whether Maris remains the rightful single-season home run king, Tony Kubek, who batted directly in front of him for most of 1961, said: "That's something I could not care less about. All I know is that Roger was a great ballplayer."

But Jim Coates, who had one of his best pitching seasons in 1961 and has written a book titled "Always a Yankee," was more direct about McGwire, Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others: "Here's my opinion on that. I think they should have every one of their records stripped. Guys like Roger and Mickey, they did it on their own."

A detailed new book, "1961*" by Phil Pepe -- a rookie Yankees beat reporter in 1961 -- devotes an epilogue to putting Maris in context of the performance-enhancing drugs era. "He's the last guy who was a true, clean home run champion," he said in an interview. "It hasn't all been proven, but it seems he is the last guy who did it without artificial aid.

"The steroid problem," Pepe said, "has made Maris bigger than he had been."

Maris certainly was a big name 50 years ago. He was on his way to a second consecutive American League Most Valuable Player award. He (and Mantle) appeared in two movies, "That Touch of Mink" and "Safe at Home." Still, his profile fell way short of Babe Ruth's.

By 1961, Ruth had been gone long enough to seem mythical. On the other hand, 1961 still was close enough in the sweep of history to have Ruth's contemporaries still around, throwing cold water on Maris' chase.

Kubek said a barb from Rogers Hornsby and the backlash from Maris' response rankled the Yankees' rightfielder and affected his strained relationship with the media. "Roger was a quiet North Dakota guy. He wasn't from the big city, with big quotes," Kubek said. "But he was the most accessible guy, maybe ever, in the first part of the 1961 season."

Said Richardson, "It was hard because nothing was coordinated, PR-wise, and Roger was asked the same questions over and over."

Pepe, who covered the 1961 Yankees for the New York World-Telegram and Sun and later became a columnist for the Daily News and then a radio commentator, said some reporters were "exasperated" by Maris' handling of unfolding history. "He didn't get it, he didn't understand," the writer said.

But Pepe added that there was no bias against Maris in the press box -- despite how reporters came across in "61*," a movie produced by Billy Crystal. "Why would you root against him? Why wouldn't you want to be part of that? I never heard anybody say, 'I hope he strikes out,' " Pepe said. "I liked the movie, but Hollywood has to have a villain."

Judging from the booing at Yankee Stadium, Maris was the villain as he went up against two Yankees icons, Ruth and Mantle (who hit 54 in '61). Teammates say it never drove a wedge between Mantle and Maris, who shared an apartment in Queens with fellow outfielder Bob Cerv. What the whole experience did do was separate Maris from patches of his hair, which wound up down the drain because of stress.

Harmon Killebrew, an Idaho native who hit 46 homers for the Twins in 1961, rooted for the North Dakota family man down the stretch. "Roger was a really likable person," Killebrew said recently. "But I don't know that a lot of people in New York were rooting for him. I think they wanted Mickey."

"Honestly, everybody on the team was pulling for Mickey because he had come up in the system. But when Mickey was hurt and couldn't play anymore, our allegiance switched to Roger," said Richardson, who became close with Maris and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1985 (saying Maris is "in God's Hall of Fame").

The baseball establishment seemed to have its own favorite in the race: a burly rightfielder who had put home runs on the map. Frick had been a ghostwriter for Ruth and was seen by some as a loyalist. For the record, the commissioner said at the time that he thought a 162-game season was only a temporary expansion-year experiment (it lasts to this day).

Pepe reports that Frick held a meeting that summer with veteran baseball writers to say there would be a special designation if anyone topped Ruth's record after the 154th game. "Like an asterisk?" columnist Dick Young reportedly asked, and Frick did not disagree.

As Pepe points out at the start of Chapter 10: "There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Not ever." (The asterisk in the title is deliberately ironic, the author said, because "that's what people remember.") Instead, Frick approved a separate listing for Maris as record-holder in a 162-game season. Ruth was allowed to keep his 154-game mark. That was changed in 1991 and Maris posthumously was awarded the record outright.

"With Roger, that record was the best thing and worst thing that ever happened," Kubek said. "The bad part was that people thought it was the only thing he could do."

Teammates saw him as a complete talent and competitor, a good outfielder with an outstanding arm. "He was the toughest player in all of baseball for breaking up the double play," Richardson said of Maris, a standout high school halfback. "He'd slide and knock you into leftfield."

Maris also helped make the 1961 Yankees one of the best teams in history. "The greatest one, as far as I'm concerned," Coates said. Former Yankees credit first-year manager Ralph Houk for using Whitey Ford on three days of rest instead of his customary four, producing a 25-4 Cy Young season. They still compliment Houk for shuffling the lineup to bat Maris third, ahead of Mantle, setting the table for history.

History is growing increasingly kind to the man who had only 23,154 witnesses for his 61st homer Oct. 1, 1961 (including 19-year-old truck driver Sal Durante, who caught it in the rightfield seats). Maris now comes off as the clean one, the fellow who didn't buckle under the specter of an asterisk.

During the height of the controversy, Maris told reporters, "A season is a season."

All things considered, no one else really has had one like it.

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