Sixty springs later

Roger Maris, driving Babe Ruth to one side, 1 October 1961.

Met fans since the day they were born, among whom you’ll find me, may forget they had Roger Maris to thank for one-third of the Mets’ original broadcast team. When Maris teed off against future Met pitcher Jack Fisher to hit his 60th home run in 1961, nineteen thousand fans in Yankee Stadium were joined by one grandmotherly society matron listening at home over her radio.

Bob Murphy was behind the Orioles microphone to call the blast. Hearing Murphy call Maris tying ruthsrecord (yes, that’s really how they said it in 1961), Joan Payson invited him to join Lindsey Nelson and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner as the broadcast team for her embryonic Mets. Bless his soul, Maris may or may not have had a clue. It was probably the least important thought on his mind as that season wound to its finish.

Exactly sixty years ago, there was Maris in spring training, his first as the defending American League Most Valuable Player and his second as a Yankee. It may have been the simplest time of the season to come for the plainspoken right fielder who suffered few fools gladly and broke a revered sports record to earn the violent lash of the superstardom he never sought.

It took Maris eleven games and 42 plate appearances before he faced Tigers reliever Paul Foytack in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees holding a three-run lead, and hit one into Tiger Stadium’s right field seats.

If you want to get technical about it, let’s re-set Maris’s 1961 home run clock to begin with that 26 April game, and he broke ruthsrecord in two games less than a commissioner with a conflict of interest—and a New York sportswriter who ignored the conflict while offering as disgraceful an idea as baseball ever broached—proclaimed must be done for the new record to be “legitimate.” (Maris also needed five fewer plate appearances than Ruth did to hit number 60. Yes, you can look that one up, too.)

I grew up hearing the controversies and arguments around Maris even though I wasn’t a Yankee fan. Then and now, the Yankee fan’s sense of entitlement put me off. I respected what the team accomplished. I admired particular Yankees. (Not just Maris and Mickey Mantle but Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and pre-ruthsrecord manager Casey Stengel, whose final baseball act was managing the early, calamitous Mets.)

But we Met fans knew straight from the crib what too many non-Yankee fans knew for otherwise full lives. You’re entitled to nothing, no matter how deep in resources, no matter how broad in reach. Even the Almighty Yankees proved only human (every American League season from 1903-1920; 1923-25; 1929-31; 1940; 1944-46; 1948; 1954; 1959) in at least 31 seasons prior to Maris’s season in the broiling sun.

You’re certainly not “entitled” to break a revered sports record, either, though with different intentions that’s just about what then-commissioner Ford Frick and enough Yankee fans believed in 1961.

Frick would rather have been caught en flagrante indicto with Medusa than see the man for whom he once ghostwrote knocked out of the record book in any way, shape, or form. Dick Young—the longtime New York Daily News sports emperor, who would do his level best to help run Tom Seaver out of New York a decade and a half later—would rather have been caught likewise than fail to suggest the infamous asterisk that Frick had no power to impose* except in the public imagination, when he spoke of it on 17 July.

Yankee fans believed that, if Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record must fall in due course (and they couldn’t bear to utter those final three words), it was nothing less than Mickey Mantle’s birthright.

Because, you see, among other things, Mantle was the face of the Yankees and had been since just about the beginning of the Korean War, even if he wasn’t always beloved. Mantle’s pre-1961 was one of grand achievement and the concurrent sense—inadvertently provoked by Stengel, who always thought and said aloud that Mantle’s raw talent should have made him Superman (Can you imagine what John McGraw would have said if he could have seen this kid? Stengel once mused)—that he wasn’t quite great enough, and the fans let him know it.

But in 1961, Mantle could and did tell reporters at last, “It’s a new feeling and it’s nice. Those fans, they’ve changed.” By mid-summer, abetted by Frick, Young, and others, they’d had a new Yankee to despise. To them, Mantle earned his stripes. He was a “true Yankee,” born and bred.

Who was this interloper from the Kansas City Athletics (from whom Maris was traded near the end of 1959) and where did he get off horning in on Mantle’s entitlement? Maris had the inadvertent effect of making Mantle as beloved at last as he’d always been impossible to miss.

Even Maris’s particular hitting style became part of the outrage. He didn’t hit the Ruthian or Mantlesque parabola. He had in common with Ruth being a powerful lefthanded pull hitter but the similarity ended there. Maris’s specialty was the booming line drive, not the outrageous ICBM, made to order for reaching the Yankee Stadium short right field porch that was built on behalf of Ruth in the first place.

(The porch didn’t quite do Maris so many favours in 1961. Yes, you can look it up: Maris hit one more bomb on the road than at home.)

You almost didn’t want to know what those people would have thought if any one of such concurrent baseball bombardiers not in Yankee pinstripes—Henry Aaron, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews, Jim Gentile, Frank Howard, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson—had smashed ruthsrecord. Which was set in the first place by the “true Yankee” who became a Yankee in the first place following a controversial purchase from the Red Sox.

I don’t know if Maris actually said, commiserating with Mantle in a hotel conversation on the road, “Why can’t they have room for two heroes?” as portrayed in Billy Crystal’s film about the 1961 ruthsrecord chase, 61*. It would have been a very valid question if he had.

But we do know that another long-time myth has long been debunked: Mantle and Maris weren’t exactly mortal enemies, either. “Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate,” wrote Mickey and Willie author Allen Barra in The Atlantic, “and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed.”

After ten seasons of making his bones and coming to terms with New York’s somewhat capricious sports press, Mantle learned how to be glib and let his own wit (mulcted by his odd-couple, Astoria Queens-bred running mate Whitey Ford) join his matinee-idol looks to make him a media star. “Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient,” Thomas Boswell wrote, upon Maris’s death. (First in the Washington Post; it was republished in his 1989 anthology The Heart of the Order.)

With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At twenty-six, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reculsive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he’s painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

The idea of cultivating and managing fame existed long before Maris began taking his swings at ruthsrecord and cringing at the idea that he’d become any kind of star.

Ruth himself mastered the earliest art of public relations, even if it was as much self-preservation as anything else. (The Babe wasn’t exactly a model citizen, something today’s fans fuming over athlete malfeasance forget or ignore.) Mantle learned how to accommodate it. Until his early off-field San Francisco experiences seared him, Willie Mays all but basked in it.

When another Daily News writer, Joe Trimble, broke the ice and asked Maris in June 1961 (when he had 27 home runs already) whether he could break ruthsrecord, Maris answered, “How should I know?” It was a blunt, honest answer. Exactly the answer even those who’d rather have had a castor oil cocktail than see ruthsrecord fall didn’t want to hear.

Maris had at least one fan who didn’t mind him breaking ruthsrecord—in the White House.

Aaron would experience far different, far more grotesque furies when he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list. Maris in all fairness didn’t require the FBI’s attention over the kind of hate mail he received in 1961. The racists came out in force to try driving Aaron off the course. The merely brain-damaged tried with Maris.

The product of a difficult childhood himself (his parents’ marriage was described most politely as “turbulent”; they divorced a year before the ruthsrecord chase), Maris found one way to relieve some of the pressure: he started refusing to answer non-family mail unless it came from children.

With his own children, Maris did his best to be the father his own parents’ incendiary marriage often denied him. His trade to the Yankees from Kansas City meant longer separation from his young family because he didn’t want to uproot them. (The family eventually moved to Florida.)

Saying so honestly didn’t exactly endear him to Yankee fans, either. To his teammates, and numerous sources back it up, Maris was straight, no chaser, more articulate and accommodating with those he considered friends. “He had been burned too often,” Peter Golenbock wrote in Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, “to trust any strangers.”

“I was extremely proud of my father, in every way,” his oldest child, Susan, told a reporter fifty years after the chase heard ’round the world. She remembered the man who was away a little too often for comfort but who did his best to make life special for his children when he was home. “He was a good ballplayer, a great man, a great father . . . The ’61 season meant more to me in later life.”

It was a stricken child who inadvertently provoked one of Maris’s uglier mishaps that season, one that was interpreted vividly but with too much missing in 61*. The film showed New York Post reporter Milt Gross (named Milt Kahn in the film) bawling out Yankee PR leader Bob Fishel over Maris standing him up for a promised interview and, for once, showing Maris little of the empathy he’d been one of the only reporters to show that season.

Mantle’s best biographer, Jane Leavy, uncovered the actuality: Maris spent the morning of Game 154 visiting the son of a former teammate, a boy dying of cancer. Doing so meant standing up Gross. The furious Gross ripped Maris a few new ones in the next day’s editions; the boy died two days after the rip job.

Mantle dropped out of the home run chase after a “vitamin” shot from a doctor named Max Jacobson left him with a hip abscess that ended his regular season days before Maris broke ruthsrecord. (Jacobson would be run out of the medical profession in 1972, after The New York Times exposed his dubious at best drug-making practises.)

After Maris hit the big one at last, he and his wife, Pat, went to a Roman Catholic mass—and walked out within minutes, when the priest told the congregation Maris was there. From there, they visited Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital and then went to dinner with Maris’s friend Julius Isaacson. And, with Gross, burying the hatchet over the Baltimore snub.

“A little girl approached their table [Leavy wrote] to ask Maris for an autograph.”

“Would you put the date on it too, please?” she asked.

“The date?” Maris asked. “What is today’s date?”

“The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did,” Big Julie replied.

From 1960-1962, Maris played like a Hall of Famer, even if the numbers raw and deep even suggest Mantle and not Maris should have been named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. In 1963 began the injuries that would sap Maris’s line drive power and reduce him to a journeyman-level player who’d finally find some baseball peace (plus two more pennants and another World Series ring) when he was traded to the Cardinals for 1967.

After two seasons in St. Louis, where he was long past his prime power seasons but still a study in right field (he’d retire with 39 defensive runs saved above his league average and had only two seasons that showed him a run or two below the average), Maris retired to Florida and a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship until his death of lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

The injuries ruined his chances of making a full Hall of Fame case. The insanity battering him regularly in 1961 kept him from consistent pleasure in breaking baseball’s most revered single-season record. Nobody really stopped to ponder the raw guts it took for Maris to survive long enough—and he had moments enough where he wanted to surrender—to hit Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard’s fastball into the right field seats.

When Golenbock actually got Maris to talk for Dynasty, outside a club where he was enjoying drinks with his old teammate and longtime friend Clete Boyer, a woman asked Boyer to pose for a photo. Boyer assented gladly and invited Maris to join them. “Do you know who Roger is?” Boyer asked the lady. When she said she never heard of Maris, Maris replied with a smile, “That’s just the way I like it.”

“Heaven protect us,” Boswell wrote, “from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve . . . Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn’t that the moral of Roger Maris’s career?”

His career, not his life.

—————————————

* (pun intended) From Allen Barra:

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick’s denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us in his book that “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” Since practically no one read Frick’s book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.

When Billy Crystal made 61*, the final scene shows an overhead shot of Maris (portrayed by Barry Pepper, whose physical resemblance to Maris remains astonishing) hitting the Big One out, then fading with Red Sox catcher Russ Nixon and home plate umpire Bill Kinnamon (actors uncredited) into slow invisibility.

Over it, near-eternal Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard—immortalised by Reggie Jackson as “the voice of God”—referenced Vincent’s statement before finishing: “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged to him.”

Minor subterfuge

2019-09-27 MikeMinor

Mike Minor nailed his 200th strikeout with a little sneaky help from his friends Thursday night.

Let me put it right on the table for you. What the Rangers did Thursday in a bid to fatten Mike Minor’s shot at 200 strikeouts on the season isn’t exactly the first time someone’s resorted to a little subterfuge in order to enable a particular milestone. And if you still believe that boys will be boys, it won’t be the last, either.

So the Red Sox are a little p.o.ed over Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman charging Chris Owings’s one-out popup then pulling his mitt back to let the ball hit the foul grass in the ninth? The Rangers weren’t exactly thrilled at the Red Sox swinging on first pitches in the eighth, either.

“Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout should have a big asterisk. That was bush. Chasing a milestone that way is unprofessional,” fumed Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham in a tweet. “Ask me if I care, Pete,” Minor fumed back.

“I didn’t love the idea that we dropped the popup at the end,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward to reporters after Minor nailed number 200 and, while they were at it, won the game 7-5. “But on the other side of that, they swung at three pitches in a row in the eighth inning down by two. If they have any beef with that — obviously I’m pretty sure [Red Sox manager Alex] Cora did — they chose to not try and win the game as well. They were trying to keep him from striking a guy out.”

The very nerve of the Red Sox. Trying to keep a pitcher from striking them out. What’ll they think of next? Their pitchers trying to keep hitters from hitting?

Good thing Minor wasn’t going for a no-hitter and the Rangers didn’t put the shifts onto the final Red Sox batters. The Red Sox might have been ornery enough to look at all that yummy open expanse gifted them, decided, “You’re stupid enough to give us that much room to hit, we’re not going to look a gift horse’s ass in the mouth,” and whacked a grounder or two into that gifted meadow.

But then Cora had something to say about the Guzman play. “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters himself. “We’re playing hard until the end. It’s been two weeks we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way. That’s all I ask. I don’t manage the Rangers.”

I don’t want to be the wise guy, here, but stuff such as Guzman did to help his mate keep a shot at a milestone alive goes on more often than you think. Actual or alleged.

One of baseball’s oldest legends is the 1910 race to the American League batting title between Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The legend included Cobb sitting out the last two games to protect his average and the St. Louis Browns willing to give Lajoie, then with the Indians, his hits by hook, crook, and anything else they could get away with.

The Browns and the Tribe played a season-ending doubleheader while Cobb sat idle. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on or at the edge of the outfield grass. Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the twin bill to win the title technically. American League president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting title winner after the shenanigans were taken to him.

The Chalmers Automobile Company, which awarded a car to the batting champion in those years, gave Cobb and Lajoie a new car each, pretty much deciding they were tied. Then, they changed the award the following season, giving the car to the league’s most valuable player, not the batting champion.

And O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell were banned from baseball for life over the scandal. (Lajoie’s ninth plate appearance of the day resulted in him reaching on an error; Howell tried to bribe the official scorer into changing the ruling to a base hit, but the scorer declined.)

Decades later, Denny McLain had his 31st win of 1968 in the bag when he decided he’d help Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle secure the last milestone he wanted in his career, retiring past Jimmie Foxx on baseball’s all-time home run list. Mantle was already at 534, tied with Foxx and in third place on the list.

When Tiger catcher Bill Freehan greeted Mantle checking in at the plate, with one out in the top of the eighth, Freehan told Mantle he’d be told what was coming because McLain really wanted him to do it. Sure enough, Mantle got one where he wanted it and sent it into the upper deck, making the score 6-2, Tigers. Thanks, Denny. Mantle sweetened his own retirement pot the next day when he took Red Sox righthander Jim Lonborg deep for number 536.

Almost a decade earlier, Mantle’s far less controversial teammate was offered a season-ending gift. Bobby Richardson was a sharp defensive second baseman who was often made the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. How did a guy with a .299 lifetime on-base percentage become a leadoff hitter? For one reason only: Richardson was almost impossible to strike out. (His lifetime average strikeouts per 162 games: 28.)

Richardson was also a devout Christian then and now. His usual Yankee running mates were fellow clean-livers, shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Bobby Shantz, and the trio was nicknamed the Milk Shake Kids. The only skirts they ever chased were the ones wrapped around their own wives; the strongest drink they probably ever took was fresh lemonade.

In fact, they inadvertently helped expose the Great Yankee Private Detective Agency in the late 1950s. When GM George Weiss hired a firm in hopes of throttling some of the randier Yankees’ off-field pursuits, the joy boys shook the dicks but the dicks still latched onto a group of Yankees anyway, tailing them around town until discovering it was the Milk Shake Kids . . . and the vice to which they were in such hot pursuit was (wait for it!) ping pong.

On the final day of the 1959 season, Richardson stood with an excellent chance of becoming the only Yankee to hit .300 or better on the year. As Richardson remembered to New York Daily News writer Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, he was supposed to get two gifts that day. Manager Casey Stengel would lift him from the game if he got a hit his first time up, and the Orioles were willing to do anything to let him have his hit.

The Orioles’ scheduled starting pitcher Billy O’Dell, a friend of Richardson who shared quail hunting trips with him, told him before the game he’d be “throwing one right in there for you.” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said he’d play deep at third in case Richardson felt like a bunt. Even the day’s plate umpire, Ed Hurley, was in on the little fix: “If you hit it on the ground, just make it look close at first.”

Richardson and Madden would make you believe that, first time up, Richardson smacked a line drive to right—and Orioles right fielder Albie Pearson made a diving catch on it. Richardson laughed to Madden recalling it. “Pearson was one of my closest friends in the game—we’d spoken together at church! He must have been the only person in the ballpark who didn’t know I was supposed to get my hit!”

Richardson is as honest as the day is long; if he ever told a lie in his life his jaw would probably dislodge from his skull. But precise memory fails even the most honest of men. Because the record actually shows that Richardson got his hit leading off the bottom of the first . . . and Pearson was nowhere near the ball: it was a line double to left center field.

And Stengel didn’t lift Richardson from the game. In the third inning Richardson hit the liner on which Pearson dove for the catch, and he also smacked a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Richardson didn’t leave the game until the Yankees were in a 3-1 hole with one out in the bottom of the eighth (the score would hold for a season-ending Orioles win), and Stengel elected to pinch hit for him.

The pinch hitter: the future superstar of Original Mets calamity, Marv Throneberry, who wasn’t yet nicknamed Marvelous. And O’Dell struck him out. Which was less embarrassing than what happened to the next Yankee hitter after Mantle hit McLain’s gift out.

Joe Pepitone watched the Mantle-McLain comedy from the on-deck circle and concluded McLain wouldn’t quit feeling generous when he checked in at the plate. So, just as Mantle did during his at-bat, Pepitone waggled the barrel of the bat over the plate to say where he’d like some service. And McLain knocked Pepitone on his ass with the first pitch.