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COMMENTARY : Asterisk Demeaned Roger Maris

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

In the first place, there never was an asterisk. It was the creation of the nation’s baseball writers. They were trying, in a word, to explain commissioner Ford Frick’s strung-out ruling in 1961 -- the one that was to doom Roger Maris to second-class home-run status in a year when he hit more homers (61) than any other player who ever swung a bat in the majors.

At a time when Maris had 35 and was three weeks ahead of Babe Ruth’s record pace of 1927, Frick announced: “If the player does not hit more than 60 until after the club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule and the total of more than 60 was compiled while a 162-game schedule was in effect.”

That was the twaddle shot down this past week by the reigning commissioner, Fay Vincent, with the announcement by his eight-man committee that the official, unchallenged home-run record belongs to Maris--no asterisk, no notations, no nothing. Vincent’s committee could have been quoting Gertrude Stein: “A record is a record is a record,” even if Babe Ruth’s millions of fans were somewhat pained by that action.

For 30 years, Maris was condemned to asterisk status. It clung to him like a birthmark to Gorbachev, like a scarlet letter to Hester Prynne. It was as if he were unworthy of the record set by his bat. Baseball would not allow it -- a pox on his 61 homers in 1961.

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Above all, he was resented by the millions of members of the Babe Ruth cult who considered their hero’s 60-homer year sacred and inviolate, especially by a player who never hit .300 in his life. After the Babe, any home-run record would be stigmatized by that 162-game schedule.

Maris had already received punishment enough, even before Frick’s ruling. In almost every ballpark, fans rooted for Mickey Mantle to win the homer race with Maris. From the stands Maris heard words like “You’ll choke.” He could also read that Rogers Hornsby said: “It will be unfortunate if Ruth’s record is broken by a .270 hitter.”

All of this abuse on a nice, inoffensive family man who didn’t pretend to be in Ruth’s class, a son of Slavic parents whose father was a railroad worker in North Dakota, who had a temper when provoked, as it sometimes was by the swarm of 71 reporters who followed those last dueling home-run days with Mantle, who fell ill with a virus after hitting 54. After his 55th homer, Maris refused to talk to the press that was hounding him.

It should also be noted perhaps that Frick was a Babe Ruth man. Was it a factor in his ruling? How close was he to Ruth? How close are a ball player and the man who was his ghost writer in 1924-32, before he became NL president, then commissioner?

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Hank Greenberg once said of Maris: “Every man who ever played against him knows he’s the complete ball player.” He could run, throw, hit and go after a fly ball with the best. He was, in fact, something of an anomaly. In high school, he starred at football, basketball and track. But the school had no baseball team. He got a trial with the Cubs at 17. They didn’t like what they saw.

But the Cleveland Indians saw something in young Maris, gave him his first contract. It is a truth that the Yankees long lusted for him, but Cleveland wouldn’t trade him to a contender. When they did deal Maris to Kansas City, the Yankees used a cross-business relationship with the Kansas City owner to get Maris in a trade.

Maris had to be angry with the Frick ruling. But after he hit his 59th, he told The New York Times: “If Commissioner Frick says all I’ll be entitled to is an asterisk, it’s all right with me.” He must have been seething but Maris did not explode.

It was getting to be a near thing late in the season. He hit his 60th, record-tying home run on Sept. 26 against Baltimore, and, at last, the Yankee Stadium fans demanded he take a curtain call. Five days later, on the last day of the season, the Yankees’ 163rd game that year, Maris answered the big question: Could he hit 61?

He did, on his third time at bat against Tracy Stallard of the Red Sox. Stallard lost to the Yankees that day, 1-0. When Maris connected it was into his, and Ruth’s, favorite right-field seats. He had two more times at bat. He struck out and popped up. No. 62 escaped him, but who cared?

Now, three decades later, Maris has the recognition that was long his due. Although Ford Frick’s ruling was not a criminal act back then, the long-deferred act of grace toward Maris this past week calls to mind that ancient philosopher’s assurance that “Truth will catch up with evil. Justice is never out of breath.”


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