61 In 61

We’ve had our differences over the years with Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, but today he wrote an excellent column on a timely topic: Roger Maris. I had lost sight of the fact that Maris still holds the American League home run record, with 61. He achieved that mark in 1961, an epic season in which both Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle chased the seemingly unattainable record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. I remember that season well; every boy in America knew that Ruth had hit 60 in 1927, and the idea of someone breaking that record seemed about as far-fetched as the possibility that the result of World War II, then fresh in people’s minds, could be reversed.

Maris was not, to put it mildly, one of destiny’s darlings. The 1961 season itself turned into something of a nightmare. Nostalgic fans with no desire to see Ruth’s record broken sent him hate mail. I’ve always thought, actually, that this had as much to do with Maris’ teammate, Mickey Mantle, as with Ruth. If Mantle had been the one who, at the end of the season, had been chasing Ruth’s record, I think the fan reaction would have been quite different. The hostility to Maris had as much to do with the fact that he eclipsed his more glamorous teammate as with the fact that he surpassed Ruth.
Maris’ record was never properly recognized. The commissioner decreed that, since Maris played 162 games rather than 154, his record would be marked with an asterisk. Maris was gone from the Yankees after the 1966 season and died, sadly, at the age of 51.
Maris broke the record, but it didn’t do him much good. Coleman writes:

Baseball’s report about player use of steroids and growth hormones was issued last Thursday, the 22nd anniversary of the death of one of the greatest players not in the Hall of Fame.
Maybe he’ll get there now. Baseball needs him.
Roger Eugene Maris died of lymphoma on Dec. 14, 1985, at 51, and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, N.D. There are two 61s carved into his granite gravestone: One for the number of home runs he hit in one unforgettable season; the other representing the year in which he accomplished that record feat as a member of the New York Yankees.
***
Maris still holds the American League record for homers in a single season. But he has been passed up by three National Leaguers whose accomplishments now look as unnatural as their oversized heads.
Barry Bonds, who hit 73 homers in 2001, is under indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice charges in a steroids investigation.
Sammy Sosa, who beat Maris’ mark three times, was not named in the Mitchell Report but is believed by everyone but the Tooth Fairy to have used steroids.
And Mark McGwire, the first to shatter Maris’ record (in 1998), refused to answer questions in front of a congressional committee investigating the scandal. “I’m not here to talk about the past,” he said.
But a player’s past is exactly the issue when anyone is honored in the national pastime’s Hall of Fame.
Baseball needs heroes, and the best it might be able to do right now is to find a gem from 1961. Compared with the juicers, Maris was the Last Boy Scout. *** Born in Hibbing, Minn., Maris was a straight arrow who shunned the womanizing, the boozing and the bright lights that his Yankee teammates chased.
As he closed in on the home run record established in 1927 by Babe Ruth, his life became a living hell full of threats, Bronx cheers and nasty innuendoes. The stress was so bad that his hair fell out in clumps. Baseball, he said later, “was never fun again.”
Maris was AL MVP twice (one of only two double winners not in the Hall of Fame). He also won a Gold Glove for his stout work in the outfield, played in seven World Series and four All-Star games, and had his No. 9 retired during a 1984 ceremony — a year before his death — in which the Yankees finally acknowledged his status: Maris, they said, was “A great player and author of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of major league baseball.”
He earned $42,000 the year he broke Babe Ruth’s record.

On the subject of steroids, my friend Clark Griffith, who knows as much about major league baseball as anyone, had this column in the Star Tribune on Saturday. Clark thinks that baseball needs to go farther to ensure that the sport is clean.
PAUL adds: Few know or remember that Mantle was not universally loved by Yankee fans during the late 1950s. When I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium in 1959, I was shocked by how many fans booed Mantle.
It was never clear to me what their beef with Mantle was. One theory was that he didn’t always run out ground ball outs. If true, this may have had something to do with the serious knee problems Mantle suffered from. More likely, though, the beef centered around the fact that Mantle wasn’t Joe DiMaggio (actually, he was probably better).
In any event, the arrival of Maris in 1960 marked a turning point for Mantle in terms of fan acceptance because it gave the boo-bird Yankee fans a new target.
And by the way, Maris, with only two outstanding seasons, is a poor candidate for the Hall of Fame.

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