Once again: Injuries are not character flaws

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols—some idiots call Trout a “puss” and others called Pujols a “thief” . . . for the heinous crimes of being injured on the field.

Sometimes it seems as though when a player is injured in the line of duty, he or she becomes a kind of criminal in Joe and Jane Fan’s eyes. Far as they’re concerned, such players are any one of a number of unflattering things. Especially when an injury keeps them out of action for more than, say, a week or two.

It’s as if injury belongs with defeat among moral shortcomings and aren’t covered by simple, irrefutable laws of sports. In a game, somebody has to lose. On the field, someone’s liable to be injured. They’re plain facts of life. They don’t expose the defeated as degenerates or the injured as gutless.

I’ve been steaming over it ever since I saw one social media snit dismissing Mike Trout, who’s dealt with season-disrupting/ending injuries the past couple of full seasons, as “a puss.” Last year, a torn calf muscle incurred running the bases put paid to his season after 36 games.

You’d think that with everything we’ve long since learned we’d quit condemning the wounded as weenies because they were just so much “tougher” in the Good Old Days. News flash: The good old days weren’t so good when it came to athletes’ health. And the next time you look at the numbers of careers you think should have lasted longer or been better than brief flashes of brilliance, stop to think about those players’ injury histories.

They used to say Roger Maris merely proved himself a lamer because he never again had a career spell such as 1960-62. They said the pressure of that 61-homer 1961 took him down. Those people forget that a series of injuries beginning in ’62 began sapping Maris’s formidable power and reducing him to journeyman level by 1965.

The Yankees falling into a lost decade of 1965-75 needed as much box office power as they could still wring out of ancient (and very often injured) Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Maris. They even forget that that generation of Yankee movers kept the true seriousness of a wrist injury from Maris unconscionably, in order to keep him on the field—at the time the Yankees collapsed due to age on the field and parching in the farm system.

Gene Mauch and Leo Durocher were known to denounce the injured as quitters. Between that and foolish trades, no wonder the post-1964 Phillies wouldn’t be competitive again for almost a decade to come. No wonder the 1969 Cubs were too spent down the stretch to keep up with the surging Mets and take back the National League East that first looked like those Cubs’ for the taking.

They used to call Jim Palmer anything from a prima donna to a hypochondriac when the slightest hint of an injury sent him shuddering over the prospect that his pitching career was over. It came from mishandling an injury he incurred after his rookie splash and out-lasting arthritis-addled, overmedicated Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1966 World Series. Well, now.

Maybe Palmer was onto something after all, no matter how exasperated Earl Weaver and his teammates got with his health concerns—which was plentiful enough, no matter how much they liked him as a person. That’s Palmer reposing in the Hall of Fame as one of the absolute best pitchers of his generation and with three World Series rings to show for it, too.

Forget about the idiot dismissing Trout—who’d be a Hall of Famer and the fifth-best all-around center fielder ever to play the game if his career ended this instant—as a puss. Think of all the idiots who believe to this day that Albert Pujols “stole” that $240 million he earned as an Angel . . . and forget that his lower body, particularly a plantar fasciitis-addled heel and numerous other leg injuries was the real reason he collapsed after a respectable first season in Anaheim.

Ill-fated Jacoby Ellsbury’s reasons for not even thinking about re-signing with the Red Sox when he hit free agency included whispers that he took “too long” to recover from injuries his full-out playing style incurred. He signed big with the Yankees—and the injury parade continued apace, right down to his missing 2018 with a torn labrum and 2019 with foot and shoulder injuries.

It was hell if you do and hell if you don’t for Ellsbury. Return too soon from any injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough for teammates’ or managements’ or fans’ tastes, and you risk exactly what Ellsbury put up with, unfairly and unconsionably, a reputation as a fragile goldbrick.

The late Mark (The Bird) Fidrych tried too many premature returns from injuries and re-injuries after his sensational rookie 1976. Career in the toilet and done swiftly enough. Still think he merely “disappeared?”

Often as not the teams themselves don’t help. Last year, Phillies manager Joe Girardi said it was perfectly acceptable to keep injury information out of the press. He was thinking of keeping the other manager from getting a little advantage, but he forgot that a) opposition managers tend to know when an opponent is hurting; and, b) Joe and Jane Fan are ignorant enough about injured players without being lied to even further while they’re lying to themselves.

Basketball people have spent all this season listening to whispers-to-screams denunciations of Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, missing an entire season because of back trouble. Most of them didn’t want to hear it. He backed out of the fourth game of the Nets’ playoff round against the Boston Celtics with his back still bothering him.

The talking heads went nuclear; some of them called Simmons the same kind of thief that people called Pujols the Angel. Even ex-NBA supermen like Shaquille O’Neal called backing out of the game “a punk move.” That “punk move” turned into back surgery Simmons underwent Thursday.

“The notion that Simmons was faking it, that he was just scared to play in the game because the Nets were down in the series, made no sense,” wrote a furious Deadspin writer named Rob Parker. “And the back is a tricky thing to put a handle on. A back issue could be so bad that a person can’t even tie their shoe, let alone play basketball on the NBA level.”

Reminder: Injuries on the field aren’t the same thing as chasing Jill St. John down a ski slope and turning your knee into bone meal (Jim Lonborg), doing a slam-dunk move and catching your ring in an awning mechanism to shred your hand ligaments apart (Cecil Upshaw), staying too long without the sun screen on a tanning bed (Marty Cordova), or dozing off with an ice bag on your foot to incure frostbite—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.)

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again and again if need be. Big money contracts don’t immunise you from the same injuries to which merely mortal players can be susceptible. Nine figures don’t turn Clark Kent into Superman. They also don’t heal a player in ten minutes or less. Anyone who doesn’t get that should never be taken seriously as a fan, a coach or manager, or a professional analyst.

Unless a player was injured doing something stupid off the field, or you have heretofore undetected deep medical knowledge, you have only one recourse whenever a player—from the most modest bench player to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting—is injured in the actual line of duty.

That recourse is to shut the hell up and stop treating real sports injuries as evidence of fragility or cowardice. Because the only one resembling a fragile coward in my eyes when you dismiss this injured player as a puss or that injured player as a goldbrick is you.

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 reclusive 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.”