It is funny how fate or karma can come full circle, like a hitter running around the bases after he raps his 61st home run in a season. Fifty-five years later, Roger Maris is on the sympathetic side of an argument. These days, it is the other guys who deserve asterisks.
“Time is a funny thing,” Roger Maris Jr. said at Yankee Stadium on Saturday after appearing on the field with his three brothers — all four of them wearing Yankee pinstripe No. 9 jerseys — for a ceremony marking the 55th anniversary of their late father’s 61st homer. It is a record that, in many eyes, still stands.
The Maris family knows the story from 1961 by heart, and it gets them right there. They know that many people did not want their dad to break Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, arguably baseball’s sexiest record back then. Foremost among those people was commissioner Ford Frick, who ruled that Maris didn’t actually eclipse the Babe because his 61st occurred at the end of a 162-game season, unlike Ruth’s 154-game schedule.
There was talk at the time that Maris’ total would enter the books with an asterisk. Although that never actually physically happened, the public sort of affixed one mentally. Frick’s pronouncement took the air out of a frenzied chase, limiting the crowd at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, 1961, to 23,154.
“Obviously, from a marketing standpoint, it was a foolish thing,” said Randy Maris, who was moved to tears by the standing ovation the four sons received Saturday.
Well, Major League Baseball had a much better knack for marketing by the late 1990s. So when Mark McGwire broke Maris’ record and Barry Bonds subsequently surpassed McGwire, no one asked questions about how they suddenly became so strong.
It wasn’t until years later, after testimony in court and Congress, that the issue of performance-enhancing drugs became a thorny one. A fair amount of public opinion felt, and still feels, that Bonds’ and McGwire’s achievements are tainted and that Maris still is the rightful single-season home run king.
In a complete reversal from 55 years ago, Maris Jr. said, “Now a lot of people want him to get the record.”
It is hard to argue with them. Let Bonds keep his 73 homers, let McGwire keep the clippings from the night he hit No. 62 (in St. Louis, with the Maris family graciously there and congratulating him) en route to his 70 in 1998. But slap a couple of asterisks on them. Make a special notation: Chemically enhanced.
“Obviously, I think if my dad had a little help, he probably would have hit a few more home runs, too,” said Kevin Maris, who threw the ceremonial first pitch Saturday.
The late slugger’s sons have hope. They know that commissioner Fay Vincent ruled in 1991 that Maris beat Ruth, fair and square, free and clear. Maybe Rob Manfred can boost Maris past Bonds, too. True to their father’s personality and philosophy, though, they are not making a fuss about it.
“What are we going to do?’’ Roger Jr. said. “I think people know what happened. If the record books get changed, they get changed. If they don’t . . . ”
Referring to the man who broke Ruth’s career homer total and also was surpassed by Bonds, his brother Richard added: “Same thing with Hank Aaron. You don’t hear him [griping] and moaning, saying, ‘It’s my record!’ ”
For the Marises, it is enough that the Yankees and their fans still revere their dad. Roger’s sons revel in bringing their own children to the Stadium and giving them a taste for 1961.
The sons know that their father was more than a one-year wonder, that he was American League Most Valuable Player in 1960 as well as 1961. They realize that Maris enjoyed 1961 more than we think, that he felt great pressure in 1962. They know he was a good outfielder with a terrific arm who saved the 1962 World Series by holding a runner at third on Willie Mays’ ninth-inning double. They believe Roger Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame.
They know that their old man loved finishing his career with the Cardinals, but they all still root for the pinstripes. They admire Gary Sanchez and wonder if anyone might hit a record 62 (or 74*) homers in a season.
“If it’s broken,” Roger Jr. said, “we hope it’s by a Yankee.”