After 55 years, The Asterisk That Never Existed continues to haunt the legend and family of Roger Maris, the first player to hit more home runs than Babe Ruth in a single season.
“That asterisk has traveled around like crazy,’’ Roger Maris Jr. said in early September from Gainesville, Florida. “It was never in the books but just because it was always talked about, people presumed it was. Even today, all the time, some people will say there’s an asterisk.’’ Perception somehow became fact.
Quick history refresher: In 1961, the American League expanded its schedule from 154 games to the current 162. As Roger Maris closed in on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60, commisioner Ford Frick declared that Ruth’s record would stand if not broken by the Yankees’ 154th game and should Maris break the mark or tie Ruth after that, the records would be treated separately.
That differentiation commonly became known as The Asterisk.
The Yankees will commemorate Maris’ feats on Saturday Oct. 1 on the 55th anniversary of his 61st home run. Maris died in 1985.
Maris hit his 60th home run in Game 159 and broke the mark on Oct. 1, 1961, the final game of the regular season. From then, until 1991, Ruth and Maris were acknowledged separately in the record books, although not with an asterisk.
“They might not have it physically put there, but in public opinion I think people have made that decision,’’ Roger Jr. said.
Maris’s 61 in ’61 remains a landmark moment in Yankees lore and the team will mark the anniversary with a pregame ceremony that will be attended by several members of the Maris family. There also will be a video tribute and the first 18,000 fans will receive a Roger Maris bobblehead.
Record taken away
Maris, who was named the American League’s most valuable player in 1960 and ’61, essentially lost his record twice, during and after his lifetime. In July 1961, Frick ruled that records set during the 154-game schedule would be separated from the slate of 162 that started with the expansion of Major League Baseball in 1961. Frick’s ruling was interpreted as an asterisk and it became something of a scarlet letter for Maris.
Frick’s proclamation seemed to deflate the public interest in Maris’s pursuit of Ruth and only 23,154 fans showed up at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, when the lefthanded batting Maris hit No. 61 into the rightfield stands in the fourth inning on a 2-and-0 pitch off Red Sox righthander Tracy Stallard. It was the only run of the game. A year earlier to the day Stallard had struck out Maris.
Stallard, a 20-game loser for the Mets in 1964, gave up 92 homers in a seven-year career that ended at age 28. “My neck still hurts me from turning around and looking, I gave up so many,’’ Stallard, 79, said from Coeburn, Virginia. “His was just another one.’’
Stallard said he later became good friends with Maris and believed he should have been awarded the single-season record. “It hurt his family,’’ Stallard said. “He just had so much on his shoulders.’’ Said Stallard of Frick’s ruling: “He was so full of it. [Frick] had to do something he thinks stands out.’’
Maris, who endured an anxiety-producing season in ’61 with clumps of hair falling out and a bout with temporary paralysis of facial muscles called Bell’s palsy, never publicly expressed bitterness that he was not awarded the record.
“Naturally, I’m glad to go past 60, even if I didn’t do it in 154 [games],’’ he told the media after hitting No. 61. “I’d have liked to do it, but my season was longer.’’
Maris played in 161 games that season and did hit 61 homers in 698 plate appearances., according to baseball-reference.com. He lost one homer because of a rainout against the Orioles. Ruth played in 154 games and hit his 60 in 691 plate appearances.
Maris hit only three home runs in his first 96 at-bats (28 games) in the ’61 season, a rate of one homer per 32 at-bats. For the rest of the season he averaged one homer per 8.5 at-bats.
Ex-teammates stand behind him
Tony Kubek, Maris’ teammate with the Yankees, who lives in Phelps, Wisconsin, said, “I think the people know what that [61 homers] meant. I think they realized that what Roger did that year was against a lot of odds.’’
Maris and Mickey Mantle were both chasing Ruth in ’61 until Mantle was slowed by a painful abscess on his hip and missed several games down the stretch. He finished with 54 homers.
Former Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry said, “In my mind it was really an injustice,’’ that Maris wasn’t given the record. “He actually did it once you arrive at the truth.’’
Based on Frick’s ruling, the Elias Sports Bureau, official record keeper for MLB, separated Ruth’s 60 homers from Maris’s 61. Frick later wrote in his autobiography “No asterisks, no apologies,’’ in his only reference to the controversy, which was heightened by Frick’s reported friendship with Ruth.
Frick died in 1978. His grandson, also named Ford, said from Denver, “Clearly, there’s a difference between doing something in 162 games and 154. I don’t care which one you call champion but there’s clearly a difference you can’t refute, so when people attribute my grandfather’s friendship with Babe Ruth to be the reason, that just seems silly and insane. I don’t think he ever intended to put an asterisk on anything. I think he just meant ‘hey this is noteworthy, this is different. You don’t get to break the record with a longer season.’”
When Maris died of Hodgkin lymphoma in 1985 at the age of 51, the record still was separated by eight games. “I know he wasn’t happy that there [was] an asterisk,’’ Roger Jr. said. “A season is a season. All of a sudden he’s the first guy that gets tagged with a so-called asterisk. He thought what he did was a special thing and he never really received proper due for accomplishing such a great feat,’’
Vincent steps in
With very little public awareness or fanfare, a big change was about to occur in 1991, when then-commissioner Fay Vincent, during an interview with Newsday nearing the 30th anniversary of Maris hitting 61 homers, said that Maris deserved to be the single-season home run champion irrespective of the number of games in a season.
“That was an important issue for me,’’ Vincent said last month from Cape Cod. “I think that Maris has been treated pretty badly. He is the real single-season home run champion.’’
After convening a committee to study the issue, Vincent ruled in September of ’91 that Maris alone held the record and it was reflected by Elias the following season.
“The sad thing is that dad wasn’t around,’’ Roger Jr. said. “He had to go to his grave thinking that he was never going to get his due for what he did.’’
The public’s perception of an asterisk seemed largely unchanged by Vincent’s action and Maris’ record would come under siege in the steroid era.
Performance-enhancing drugs were still in the whispering stage in the late 1990s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went after the record. Sosa hit 66 and Mark McGwire hit 70 in ’98 and that was surpassed in 2001, when Barry Bonds hit 73.
“Because we all get caught up in numbers, nobody was really looking at what was going on,’’ said Vincent, who was replaced by Bud Selig in 1992. “People were cheating.’’
Mark Trumbo of the Orioles, who leads the major leagues with 45 home runs, viewed Maris’ total as impossible, much less Bonds’. But he would not get involved in the controversy over allegedly tainted numbers.
“I think everybody did exceptional things to get where they did,’’ Trumbo said during his team’s recent visit to Yankee Stadium. “I generally don’t delve into people’s records. I don’t comment on things like that.’’
McGwire became a friend to the Maris family. “He’s a first- class guy,’’ Roger Jr. said. ``He did what he did and he owned up to it. There’s definitely no hard feelings there.’’
McGwire, now the bench coach for the Padres, admitted in 2010 that he was using steroids in 1998. “When I got back in the game there were some things I had to confront,’’ he said from San Diego. “I did. I’m a very upfront honest person. I can’t speak for anybody else.’’
Asked if he believes that Maris is the legitimate single-season record holder, McGwire said, “I’ve never really sat down to really put a well-trained thought into that . . . Maybe someday when we [he and Maris] meet upstairs we can sit down and have a nice chat about it.’’
Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated that he would not alter baseball’s records. The Maris family has not given up hope. “Baseball will do the right thing,’’ Roger Jr. said. “Sometimes it takes a while to make things happen.’’
Pat Maris, the player’s widow added, “A lot of people feel that Roger’s record will go down in history.’’
A progressive look at the single-season home run record since 1901:
16 Sam Crawford, 1901 Reds
21 Frank Schulte, 1911 Cubs
24 Gavvy Cravath, 1915 Phillies
29 Babe Ruth, 1919 Red Sox
54 Babe Ruth, 1920 Yankees
59 Babe Ruth, 1921 Yankees
60 Babe Ruth, 1927 Yankees
61 Roger Maris, 1961 Yankees
70 Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals
73 Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants