Sunday, August 21, 2011

50 Years Later, Maris’s 61-Homer Season Looks Even Better

The New York Times
August 20, 2011

Ever since people began to wonder what was happening during the Large Ball Cap Generation, Roger Maris has been having a terrific decade.

This season is the 50th anniversary of Maris’s 61 home runs, an accomplishment that gets better with time. Maris did not eclipse Babe Ruth. Nobody could. But he did break the Babe’s record for a single season, and he was a terrific player for a few brief years.

Maris also played in an era that had not discovered the healing and enhancement properties of anabolic steroids that were banned by federal law and baseball edict by the late 1990s. As a result, people look at Maris and Ruth and Henry Aaron in a different way from more recent sluggers.

“It’s very ironic that the three guys who broke his record were all, you know, linked to steroids,” said Randy Maris, one of Roger’s sons, a high-school baseball coach in Gainesville, Fla., and keeper of the flame.

A powerful man in any era, Roger Maris did not suddenly grow bigger in athletic middle age the way Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did, essentially right in front of our eyes. The top six totals of home runs in one season (Bonds 73, McGwire 70, Sosa 66, McGwire 65, Sosa 64, Sosa 63) were all accomplished by players who are now under a major cloud of suspicion as they become eligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roger Maris is not in the Hall of Fame, either.

“Dad’s Hall of Fame is having his number retired in Yankee Stadium up there with Babe Ruth and Gehrig and Mickey and DiMaggio,” Randy Maris said the other day in a telephone interview.

Some Maris supporters say that anybody who beat Ruth’s record and won two Most Valuable Player awards and the most pennants of any player in the 1960s (seven) deserves to be in the Hall. Writers at The New York Times are not allowed to vote for awards, but (and this always angers friends of mine from Maris’s home town of Fargo, N.D.) I do not think Maris had enough good seasons or career statistics to warrant a place in the Hall. Yet for those two seasons, he was Hall of Fame caliber.

“You look at the Hall of Fame, and the criteria, and it says integrity and what you did for the game,” Randy Maris said. “It really should be called the Hall of Fame of Longevity. Dad only played 12 years, so he didn’t accumulate the numbers that all these other guys did.”

For what it is worth, the baseball writers are not likely to vote for McGwire, Sosa or Bonds (or Roger Clemens, a pitcher with his own sullied image) any time soon. Randy Maris, who played professional golf but knows his baseball, has great regard for McGwire, Sosa and Bonds (“probably one of the greatest players of all time, if not the best,” Randy said.)

The family of Roger Maris, who died of cancer in 1985 at age 51, is not at all vengeful, yet a wave of sadness remains from 1961, when Maris realized the baseball establishment was rooting for Ruth to hold on to his record or for his friend Mickey Mantle to be the one to break it.

There are complications to everything about Maris. In 1998, when the newly enlarged McGwire and Sosa were chasing Maris and the Babe, McGwire was extremely gracious to the Maris family, some of whom were present in St. Louis that hot September evening when the record was broken. Later we understood that McGwire was using androstenedione, a steroid alternative, and after that we watched him make a fool of himself in front of Congress in 2005.

Randy Maris says he still tears up when he watches McGwire break his father’s record and then praise him in absentia. Randy knows his dad is looking better all the time as current home run totals and body contours appear to shrink at the same rate.

This is the perfect season to pay tribute to Roger Maris, a son of the Upper Midwest who was never comfortable in New York. One way to understand him is through a very nice biography, “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero,” by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary. The authors have found testimony from members of the 1960 and ’61 Yankees who praise Maris as a fine teammate and exquisite player.

The authors also describe the turbulence in the Maris family, as it moved from Hibbing, Minn., to Fargo, which may explain some of Maris’s reticence.

The book also recalls how the Yankees’ front office had been tracking Maris from his days in the Cleveland farm system, feeling that he had the perfect uppercut swing for the short porch known as Ruthville in Yankee Stadium. They got their man in 1960, and Casey Stengel raved how Maris never made a mistake in right field or on the bases.

In midsummer of 1961, Maris’s stroke was locked in. The legend is that he was truculent and only became worse as the news media swarmed around him during his chase of the Babe. I was a young reporter for Newsday and enjoyed Maris for his sardonic honesty.

I recently uncovered a clipping of mine from a doubleheader on July 25, when he hit two homers in the first game and two more in the second game. Somebody (not me) prodded him about old-time players who criticized him for his relatively low batting average — an eventual .269 that season.

“Two things a ballplayer cares about: home runs and R.B.I.’s. Batting average — phtttt,” Maris told us, making a spitting sound. He said old-time ballplayers held their bats high and tried to make contact for high batting averages. “That’s fine with me. But they shouldn’t go knocking guys who go for the home run.”

Vintage Roger, I told his son. Later that season, some older reporters began whacking away at Maris, who ultimately felt underappreciated by Yankees management. He was ready to quit when he was traded to the Cardinals after 1966, but he fit in with one of the best teams ever assembled, on the field or in the clubhouse. He responded by helping win two pennants and then retired to run a beer distributorship the Busch family had assigned him in Gainesville. After a long estrangement, he was welcomed back by the Yankees.

Randy Maris, who turns 50 Sunday, learned about his father’s career, the home runs, the absences, the injuries. Every year before the season at St. Francis High School in Gainesville, Randy lectures his players about avoiding alcohol and drugs, but he knows the temptations for young players to bulk up.
“I saw how it was when my dad had a shoulder injury in 1967 and ’68,” the son said. “Do I think my dad would have done that if he had the option? Probably not.”

Still, Randy acknowledged the temptations for major leaguers to make money by using illegal steroids. “Once you’re there, I think it’s probably hard to stop. It’s sad, and I’m glad that baseball is taking care of it,” he added, referring to upgraded testing and penalties in recent years.

Randy continues to like McGwire, but he said, “One thing I would have told Mark is, just come out in speaking engagements about the dangers of steroids.” Randy said McGwire did not help himself when he went back to coach for the Cardinals and admitted he had used steroids, but he insisted it was only to heal his aching muscles, never for an advantage of strength and size.

“I don’t think anybody in the United States bought that,” Randy said. “Sure, it doesn’t help you hit the ball, that’s God-given talent, but it helps you get out on the field. With all Mark’s injuries, he could have retired in 1995 or ’96, so who knows. Back in those days, heck, if my dad had that option, he could have played another 5, 10 years and gotten the Hall of Fame stats that he needed. I mean, who knows.”

Randy Maris knows his father may never get the support from the oversight committee for the Hall of Fame.

But he knows how much aging Yankees and Cardinals and writers think of his dad. Half a century later, Roger Maris is having a terrific season.

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