Maris circled bases, then the wagons

July 22, 1998|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PHILADELPHIA -- Mark McGwire? Of course we want him to break it. He is a Saint Bernard and as irresistible as one. Power and strength always have infatuated us. And there is an appealing aura of gentleness about him.

Ken Griffey? Of course we want him to break it. He is the best all-around player in the game. His style is crushed velvet, so elegant he really ought to be wearing a tux and patent leather spikes. And that megawatt smile.

Sammy Sosa? Of course we want him to break it. He is a Cub, after all, which is a burden more crushing than anyone else in sport has to bear. Well, except maybe if you are a Red Sox fan.

Roger Maris? Almost no one wanted him to break it.

Just as three pursue him now, in the summer of '61 he pursued the ghost of Babe Ruth, but he did so in an atmosphere of undisguised hostility and seething resentment.

I witnessed two of his 61: No. 13 in Chicago, a night game on June 2, and No. 35, also in Chicago, a day game, on July 15.

In 42 years in this business, I have never seen another athlete achieve so much and enjoy it so little.

What cheers there were, he heard them, but he couldn't seem to enjoy them.

And the boos, well, those he could neither forget nor forgive.

By the end, he just wanted it to be over.

Roger Eugene Maris was as implacable and as hardy as the North Dakota winters that nurtured him. He was a superb athlete in every sport he tried, though some think football might have been his best -- he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in one high school game.

He had a face of flint and he wore his uniform top with the sleeves cut almost off, which accentuated his sizable biceps -- all the better to intimidate the pitcher -- and which also gave him what was known as a farmer's tan.

He had a sweeping, uppercut swing that was lethal but also controlled, graceful and rhythmic. He would be dogged his whole career by assorted injury and ailment, and often was the victim of his own impassioned play -- he broke three ribs during one lusty slide. He might have amassed far more aggrandizing numbers if he had been healthy.

And if he hadn't had to pay such a fearsome emotional price in the summer of '61.

He broke into the bigs in 1957 with Cleveland, was traded to Kansas City, and then, in 1960, to the Yankees. He found himself hitting just ahead of Mickey Mantle.

He was surrounded. Ruth in front of him, Mantle behind him.

Ruth had been as boisterous and outgoing as Maris was reserved and introverted. Ruth's popularity only grew, never faded. What had Maris ever done?

And in the fans' minds, if anyone was going to catch Ruth, it had to be Mantle. He was a Yankee by birth, the lineal descendant of Ruth. Maris was the interloper, the outsider.

Mantle was as boyishly charming as Ruth had been. Maris had the misfortune of being shy by nature. He was private to the point of virtually being a loner.

His first season in New York, Maris was smashing -- he hit 39 homers and drove in 112 runs, won a Gold Glove in right field and was MVP -- and yet none of that seemed to sway people. When 61 came in '61, he was still regarded by many as a pariah.

His roommate that summer was Bob Cerv, who claimed that when he and Maris had finished touring an art museum, Cerv asked him what he thought of the experience, and Maris replied: "They had a lot of old pictures in there."

Not only was the remark unflattering, it helped cement the image of Maris in the eyes of those who booed his every homer.

While Ruth reveled in the spotlight, Maris shriveled in it.

He struck you as a man swallowed up by the enormity of the moment.

He was a good man at heart, according to most of the evidence, quiet and unassuming, but he turned sullen and snarling as he closed in on Ruth. Given the circumstances and the climate, you'd have to conclude that he was more than entitled.

The media became not just intrusive but downright rude.

This was a sample question: Do you play around on the road?

"I'm married," Maris snapped in reply.

"So am I," the writer said, "but I still play around."

"That's your business," Maris said, and turned on his heel.

A list of questions had been submitted by newspapers in Japan, and after the first half dozen, Maris lost all patience.

"This is driving me nuts!" he moaned.

"Hey, that's the next question," the reporter told him. "They want to know how you're reacting to all this."

Well, first, a thatch of white appeared in his hair. And then his hair began to fall out in clumps.

Given the batteries of minicams and tape recorders that now trail after the story of the moment, Maris might have become suicidal if he were playing today.

As it was, he persevered admirably. He was torn -- he wanted it to be over but he also wanted that 61. To persist as he did, is that not the essence of grace under pressure?

There are people who think that the hunt cost him valuable years off his life. He would be dead from cancer before he was 50.

One vital footnote: He never cashed in. Not really. He didn't auction off snippets of the hair that fell out, never did the usual cheap and shabby huckstering.

He broke the most glamorous record in his sport and didn't sell his soul to do it.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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