Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Unlikely Home Run King

It was 50 years ago today that Roger Maris broke what may have been the most cherished record in baseball at that time — Babe Ruth's single–season home run record.

I found myself thinking about that a lot this summer — not because I remember the achievement (it happened before my time) but mostly, I guess, because the brutal heat brought back memories of the sweltering summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa waged an epic duel to see who would surpass Maris.

It was the first such duel since that summer of '61, when Maris and his much more popular teammate, Mickey Mantle, tried to be the one who would surpass the Babe. Injury sidelined Mantle for a time, giving Maris the opportunity to challenge the Sultan of Swat by himself.

Of the two, I guess, Mantle was the one who was always the most likely to challenge the Babe's status in the single–season record book. He was always more popular with Yankee fans than Maris, and his numbers always suggested that it was possible that he could challenge that record.

His numbers have held up, too. Even now, more than 40 years after he retired and more than 15 after he died, Mantle is 16th on the all–time home run list.

So perhaps that injury could be seen as something of a fluke, an intervention of some kind — except for the fact that Mantle was plagued with injuries most of his career. That's often the topic of speculation among baseball experts. How great could Mantle have been, they have wondered, if he hadn't been injured so often?

Maris' career numbers, on the other hand, have to be regarded as somewhat ordinary. If you exclude the 1961 season, Maris averaged about 20 home runs a year. I guess the 1960 season — when Maris hit a then–career best 39 home runs — that even greater things might be in store the next year ...

Except that Mantle hit 40 home runs to lead the American League in 1960. I guess the only thing one could conclude from that would be that Maris and Mantle might have been poised for some kind of spirited battle between the two of them in 1961 — but threats to the Babe? Come on.

Until this summer, the summer of 1998 was the second—hottest on record in many places — second only to the legendary summer of 1980 — but a lot of baseball fans may not have noticed unless they went to the games.

And there is no doubt that many did go to games that summer — certainly, they came out to watch the games in St. Louis and Chicago.

In the end, both McGwire and Sosa shattered Maris' mark that had stood for nearly 40 years. And, a few years later, Barry Bonds broke that record as well.

All available evidence suggests, however, that steroids played a key role in those achievements. If not for those performance–enhancing substances, what Maris did 50 years ago today might still be the record — but it wouldn't be carrying that asterisk with it.

Ah, yes, the asterisk.

When folks refer to it on a telephone's keypad, they often call it a "star" — because it kinda looks like one.

I don't usually correct people when they call it a "star" just as I don't correct people when they say "oh" when they really mean "zero" or if they call a hyphen a dash (although I do think it because, well, I spent many years working on newspaper copy desks, and I have been teaching developmental writing at the local community college for more than a year now so I suppose I am conditioned to think of these things even if I don't verbalize them).

But it isn't really a star — and the way it was planned to be used in 1961, it couldn't have made Maris feel like one, either.

The asterisk concept was intended to permit the Babe's record to remain in the record books even though it had been broken.

I say "concept" because, apparently, it is something of an urban legend that an asterisk was used. What happened was this:

The sports establishment of the time was still very protective of Babe Ruth in 1961, and the commissioner announced midway through the season that, unless someone hit 61 home runs within 154 games, as Ruth had, his mark would remain in the record books for a 154–game season, and the new record would be designated as having been achieved since the 162–game seasons began.

Maris failed to match Ruth's record — let alone surpass it — in 154 games, but, on the last day of the season — 50 years ago today — he hit his 61st home run, igniting a debate that continues in some circles. No asterisk was used, but Ruth's mark remained in the record books as the record for a 154–game season.

Several years after Maris hit 61 homers, baseball's commissioner concluded that a season is a season, however many games are played, and Maris' mark was the only true record. That should have been the end of it.

When Ruth hit 60 home runs back in the Roaring '20s, as I say, major league baseball seasons were 154 games. When Maris played in the 1960s, a season was 162 games. The story was dramatized in a made–for–TV movie on HBO 10 years ago. Billy Crystal, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, directed it and was, by nearly all accounts, faithful to the facts.

But the asterisk was in the title — helping to perpetuate the myth.

I'm sure that wasn't Crystal's intention. But it was effective at reminding people of the mild controversy that was sparked by that pursuit of the record.

I guess it wasn't so mild from Maris' point of view. He received hate mail and death threats. I've heard that he was under so much stress in 1961 that his hair literally began to fall out of his head — and I've also heard that the stress hastened his death at the age of 51 (although I have considerable doubts about that).

He was an unlikely home run king who claimed his crown on this day.

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