Maris missed joy McGwire has beheld

September 07, 1998|By John Eisenberg

ST. LOUIS -- The four sons of Roger Maris sat in the front row at Busch Stadium yesterday, listening to the cheers rain down on Mark McGwire.

The cheers their father never heard.

Maris was scorned 37 years ago for having the audacity to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season.

McGwire, who needs one more homer to tie Maris' record, has become a national hero.

Fair? Hardly. But Maris' sons, aged 35-39 and residents of Gainesville, Fla., aren't bitter at the fickle winds of public opinion.

"I think all the attention given to Mark and [Sammy] Sosa has been wonderful for my father's memory," Roger Maris Jr. said yesterday after McGwire went homer-less in the Cardinals' 5-2 defeat of the Reds.

Not that the ovations on the road and the cheers at every swing haven't caused a few pangs.

"Obviously, it would have been wonderful for my dad to go through this," Maris said. "What he went through was tough, very tough. Those were hard, stressful times for him, and it shouldn't be that way. It should be a joyful thing like this."

But Maris' family will take the cheers in exchange for the new perspective on their father's accomplishment that has emerged amid all the attention this season.

It's clear now, all these years later, what a royally bad deal Maris was given.

He didn't deserve the asterisk that went into the record book beside his accomplishment -- an asterisk ordered by then-commissioner Ford Frick, one of Ruth's cronies -- because he set the record on the final day of the season in which the major-league schedule was expanded from 154 to 162 games.

The asterisk, which was later removed, was cruel, unfair and pathetically short-sighted.

There's no doubting that now that 37 years have passed without any serious challenges to the record until McGwire and Sosa this year.

That's 37 years of 162-game schedules, give or take a few strike years, and the record still stands.

In the end, it has stood for three years longer than Ruth's record.

It was one splendid accomplishment, in other words, wholly undeserving of the ignoble treatment it received.

Bud Selig, baseball's current commissioner, said yesterday that he would not have allowed Maris' record to enter the books with an asterisk.

"I don't believe in asterisks," Selig said. "I believe that is wrong."

Alas, Maris died of cancer in 1985, so he isn't around to hear the more long-sighted perspective that has surfaced.

"But knowing what he went through that year, it's nice to have people saying he deserved better," Maris Jr. said. "It's nice to see people seeing it in a different light."

The cold treatment he received that season is stunning in hindsight. The New York mediaand many Yankees fans gave up on him once he failed to set the record in 154 games. Only 23,154 fans saw him hit the homer that broke Ruth's record.

"I've seen the film of that homer," Maris Jr. said. "The first baseman didn't offer to shake his hand in congratulation. Nor did the second baseman, the third baseman or anyone. And you know when McGwire hits that 62nd homer that the whole field will be out there to shake his hand. That's how it should be."

A reticent country boy from North Dakota who was never comfortable in the spotlight, Maris feuded with the New York media after 1961 and fell out of favor with the Yankees over a hand injury that the front office questioned. He left New York on bitter terms, further darkening the memory of his 61-homer season.

"He didn't feel like he got a lot of support from the Yankees," Maris Jr. said.

Not that he was bitter after his career ended.

"He was very, very proud of his career and his record," Maris Jr. said. "What happened in 1961 was a tough memory. But the record itself was great."

The record has become such a familiar part of the family that Maris Jr., for one, still can't believe it's about to get broken.

"After so many years, your mind-set is such that you think it's never going to get broken," he said. "It's funny, but I haven't really accepted that fact that it's going to get broken. Even though I know it is."

It almost was tied yesterday when McGwire slammed a ball down the left-field line and into the seats. It hooked foul at the last minute.

But the day is coming, and the Maris boys know it.

jTC "It's not like I'm sitting here rooting for Mark to hit homers," Maris Jr. said, "but this is a great thing for baseball and Mark is a great guy and it's nice to be part of the celebration. I don't have a problem with it at all. My dad would be happy to see it."

Happy to see his record broken?

"Happy for what the record has done for baseball this year, no doubt," Maris Jr. said. "And yes, he'd be happy for Mark and Sammy to get to go through this like he wished he could have."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.