Maris fell short in 154th here, but gracious act went in books

September 06, 1998|By John Steadman

Pulse beats quickened, collars tightened. Emotion spilled over the landscape. In 50 or so years as a sportswriter, there was never a feeling quite like it. If there's such a thing as electricity in the air, then this was it. Other witnesses to the event were inclined to agree. Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was the scene of this make-or-break quest by Roger Eugene Maris to hit 60 home runs in the targeted 154th game to tie or even eclipse the record of Babe Ruth.

The moment of truth, with rather bizarre irony, was set in the hometown of Ruth, who had left the surroundings of an orphan asylum to sign with the Orioles and become the most incomparable of American sports heroes. Maris was having difficulty, physically and mentally, handling a pressure he had never known. After all, he was chasing the ghost of Ruth.

In his book, written with Jim Ogle, he described what it was like, saying, "It was as if a mysterious pressure was pushing down on the whole park." One Baltimore fan, Vincent "Murph" Lanassa, wore a flip-top cap, the cashmere kind Ruth used to wear, and waited outside the Yankees' clubhouse, saying it was a subtle way to put the whammy on Maris.

It had earlier been decreed by commissioner Ford Frick that for the record to be accepted, the home run mark had to be established within 154 games, the same length of the season as Ruth played and not the enlarged 162-game schedule instituted that year to accommodate expansion.

Maris was uncomfortable over the attention his growing home run total was causing. A new cult of sportswriters had evolved in New York, and they were dubbed the "chipmunks." Arthur Daley, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, Dan Parker and Milton Gross were still selling newspapers, but the young breed pursued Maris with what, at times, became almost unrelenting embarrassment.

The questions Maris had to cope with included invasive personal matters. Was he nursed by his mother or bottle-fed? Did he cheat on his wife when he was away on road trips? And, every game, before and after, he had to explain if he felt he was the equal of Ruth. He was consistent in saying there's only one Babe Ruth, and no one will ever replace him.

A horde of sportswriters from all over were in Baltimore to see if Maris would be equal to the Ruthian task on the night of Sept. 20, 1961. As catcher Gus Triandos warmed up starting pitcher Milt Pappas in front of the Orioles' dugout, he called to a sportswriter who was preparing to head for the press box.

"You know one guy who doesn't give a damn what happens tonight?" Triandos asked the surprised reporter. He was told it was difficult to imagine anyone in the entire free world who was detached from what was about to occur in Baltimore. Triandos kept catching the ball and returning it to Pappas, looking straight ahead, yet carrying on the conversation as he awaited the next delivery. Triandos, who never took himself too seriously, insisted, "I'm telling you, there's one guy who doesn't care what happens here tonight." Then who is it? "Babe Ruth," he answered. That was, indeed, a different perspective. A perfect change of pace.

Maris resembled what a man might look like if he were carrying the whole world on his shoulders. That prior afternoon, unknown to the visiting and Baltimore sportswriters, except one, he had slipped away to Johns Hopkins Hospital to visit a critically ill child, Frank Sliwka Jr., who although not yet 5 years old, was obsessed with baseball because his father had told him all about the game.

Maris was taken to the hospital room by Lou Grasmick, who had heard of the youngster's plight. The boy's parents were praying for a miracle, but doctors said they had already experienced one, considering the child was still living against the longest of odds. Maris realized he was needed, but was obviously uncomfortable with seeing a little boy, with such an engaging smile, telling him that he only needed two more home run to tie Ruth.

He was visibly upset, but within himself there was the realization that what he was doing, spending time with a child in trouble, suffering from neuroblastoma, was far more important than swinging a bat. "What have I got to lose?" he said to Grasmick as they left the hospital. "This kid is so sick. It shakes me up." A little boy struggling to live. That next night, Frankie, wrapped in blankets, was at the game with his parents.

Maris pulled one home run, No. 59, into the right-field stands off Pappas. Earlier, he had hit a line drive to right field, but into the hands of outfielder Earl Robinson. The Yankees had jumped ahead 4-0 when the Orioles decided to relieve Pappas.

The departing pitcher, Pappas, was to later tell us he had grooved pitches to Maris, hoping he would hit the ball out of the park, because for no other reason he wanted to see a contemporary player, a man of his era, replace Ruth in the record book.

So Maris, undeniably, got good pitches to hit. You can doubt Pappas' word if you want to, but there is strong reason to believe him.

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