If ever a swing and a ballpark were meant for each other, it was Roger Maris’ sweet left-handed stroke and Yankee Stadium’s cozy right-field fence.
Bold, black numbers on the short concrete wall in the old stadium told the story: 296 feet down the right-field line. Then, as the wall worked its way toward right-center field, it became 344 feet. Then 407 feet.
They were inviting targets for a man with the strength and swing of Maris. That combination produced 61 home runs in 1961, breaking one of baseball’s most cherished records and establishing another that would withstand all challenges.
Now a new generation is playing long ball, targeting that magical No. 61. Mark McGwire is halfway there, reaching 30 homers before the All-Star break, just ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. and Tino Martinez. They are running at Maris just the way Maris once chased down Babe Ruth.
Ruth, another powerful left-handed slugger, had used the same Yankee Stadium targets to hit 60 home runs in 1927, setting a record that was rarely threatened.
Then, along came Maris, a misplaced Midwesterner in a city that did not welcome him. It didn’t help that he was battling Mickey Mantle, one of the town’s homegrown heroes, with the game’s most significant slugging record at stake.
Maris was a tough, intense slugger, who came up with Cleveland in 1957 and was traded to Kansas City a year later. He showed some power and the Yankees, concerned about center fielder Mantle’s gimpy knees, traded for him in 1960.
Maris, a right fielder, blossomed that year, hitting 39 home runs, leading the league with 112 runs batted in and winning the MVP award. He could run, throw, hit and, if necessary, play center field.
If the Yankees viewed Maris as insurance for Mantle, the fans viewed him as an interloper, especially when he began his run at Ruth’s revered record.
Mantle preceded Maris on the hot seat in New York. He had the bad luck of following Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio in center field and was booed, largely because he wasn’t DiMaggio.
“Mickey got booed because Casey Stengel built him up to be something he wasn’t,” said Clete Boyer, the Yankees third baseman at the time. “Mickey was supposed to hit 1,000 home runs. When he didn’t, the fans got on him.”
When Maris started hitting home runs, it was the best thing that ever happened to Mantle. The fans had found a new scapegoat and began booing the crew-cut slugger, who happened to play the same position as Ruth.
“Roger took the pressure off Mickey,” Boyer said. “They never booed Mickey again. It became good guy-bad guy. The press, everybody, wanted Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth’s record.”
By 1961, Mantle had already been around for a while. He won the Triple Crown in 1956 and MVP awards in 1957 and 1958. There were all those world championships, all those home runs. Maris did not have those kind of credentials.
Mantle was an “Aw, shucks,” country boy. Maris was a taciturn, all-business ballplayer.
They became the M&M; Boys, locked in a battle of home run one-upmanship. Day-by-day, they staged an all-out assault on pitchers, Maris batting third and Mantle fourth in a lineup that would produce 240 home runs. Not once all season did Maris get an intentional walk, not with Mantle waiting in the on-deck circle.
Maris had a long-ball formula measured in eighths-of-an-inch. He believed if he hit the ball an eighth-of-an-inch lower than he wanted to, it would be a high fly. An eighth-of-an-inch higher and it would be a line drive. That year, he kept connecting right in between, on the sweet spot, over and over again.
By the end of May, Mantle had 14 homers and Maris had 12. In June, Maris hit 15 and Mantle 11. They were neck and neck in a race to Ruth, two different personalities rooming with spare outfielder Bob Cerv in a three-bedroom apartment in Queens during that magical summer.
“The three of us lived together and I was the only one who didn’t make a run at Ruth,” Cerv said.
The apartment was like a college dorm, with beer and pizza the main items on the menu. The name on the lease was Julie Isaacson, a fight manager and union organizer, who became Maris’ closest friend in New York. They were brought together by Cerv, who had played with Maris in Kansas City.
“Harry Craft was the manager there,” Cerv said. “I had played for him in the minors and in winter ball. Craft asked me to room with Roger and find out what made him tick.
“We got to talking one day and I told him, ‘Roger, I’ll tell you the truth. The manager wants to know what makes you tick.’ He liked that. He liked people who were honest with him. All he wanted to do was play ball and be left alone.”
New York was not the ideal setting for that. When Maris was traded to the Yankees, Cerv called Isaacson, a pal from the outfielder’s previous stint with the Yankees, and asked him to look after the new kid in town. Big Julie, a classic New Yorker, went out to the airport to meet Maris.
“I pictured a guy dressed like a ballplayer,” Isaacson said. “Mickey always had a wardrobe in the clubhouse. Mickey and Billy (Martin) were Broadway guys. Roger showed up wearing jeans and a sport shirt and these Pat Boone white shoes.”
Isaacson sized up the newcomer.
“You Maris?” he said.
“You Julie?” the ballplayer replied.
“You can’t dress like that,” Isaacson said.
“If they don’t like how I dress, I’ll go back where I came from,” Maris snapped.
He had done that before. Recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma, Maris took a bus from his home in Fargo, N.D. When he got to Oklahoma City, he found no one from the university there to meet him. He simply made a U-turn and went back to Fargo.
The airport meeting was not the very best way for the Maris-Isaacson relationship to begin. It would, however, warm up in time, when Isaacson found out, as Cerv had, what made Maris tick.
“He was frank all his life,” his friend said. “He was his own man. He did what he wanted. If he didn’t like you, if he thought you were a donkey, he called you a donkey. He didn’t care what you thought of him.”
Maris could be a warm, funny guy with teammates and friends while keeping a tough exterior with outsiders. Until 1952, his family name was Maras. Asked about the name change in a baseball questionnaire, he answered with one word - “Immaterial.” This issue was private and Maris guarded his privacy with a passion.
It was Maris who proposed moving Mantle out of the mayhem of Manhattan to the serenity of Queens and dispatched Isaacson to secure the apartment. When the Yankees traded for Cerv in May, he also moved in, and got a ringside seat for one of baseball’s greatest achievements.
By July, when it was clear that Ruth’s record was under siege, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that for the record to be broken, it had to be done in 154 games, the length of Ruth’s season. Otherwise, it would be listed as a 162-game record. The word asterisk was never mentioned, but that’s what it amounted to.
“That was a debate I wanted no part of,” Maris wrote in his autobiography. “Many people thought it increased the pressure, but I can’t say it did. I just wanted to see what I could do.”
Frick’s decision was not popular, especially with teammates of the two Yankees sluggers.
“The whole world hated that,” Boyer said. “A homer is a homer. I don’t care if you hit it in a phone booth. A season is a season. Frick did it because he was Ruth’s ghostwriter.”
Maris and Mantle ignored the ruling and just went about their business - hitting homers.
There were rumors that the relationship between the two was strained. Cerv, who lived with them, said he saw none of that. “It was competitive,” he said. “Mick would say, ‘Look who’s pitching today. I’ll get one off that guy.’ And Rog would say, ‘Yeah, and I’ll get two.”’
By the end of July, Maris had 40 and Mantle 39. Mantle hit three against Minnesota on Aug. 6. On Aug. 11, they both homered against left-hander Pete Burnside of the Washington Senators. Maris homered again the next day and then hit two more on Aug. 13. Mantle also connected on the 13th and when the day ended, each had 45 home runs, the last time they were tied that season.
Maris surged to the end of the month, reaching September with 51 homers. Mantle finished August with 48. He would hit six in September, his chase slowed and finally ended when he developed an abscess in his hip after getting an injection from broadcaster Mel Allen’s doctor for a cold.
Now it was a one-man race. Cerv remembers the pressure on Maris, especially from reporters.
“We’d play a day game and by 4:30, you were ready to go home,” he said. “With Roger, we were still waiting around at 6:30 or 7. They’d ask him, ‘Will you hit one tomorrow?’ or ‘How did it feel today?’ They were asking the same questions thousands of times. That stuff started to get to him. Thank God nobody knew where we lived.”
Boyer, who roomed with Maris on the road, was amazed at what went on.
“I remember one time when he didn’t hit a homer,” he said. “They asked him if he was choking. Can you imagine that? He wouldn’t talk after that.”
Longtime Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek remembered how Maris would sit for hours at a huge oak table in the middle of the Yankees clubhouse, smoking cigarettes and passing time playing a labyrinth game. “It was probably the same oak table Ruth sat at,” Kubek said.
Patches of Maris’ hair began falling out.
“I really never felt he thought about the pressure until then,” Boyer said.
The Yankees went into September locked in a pennant race, just one-half game ahead of Detroit. As compelling as the run for the record was, there was still a championship to be won. Maris did his part.
“Once in September, I was on third base and Roger bunted against Dick Stigman to get me in with the run,” Kubek said. “He wanted to play the game right. He may have been curmudgeonly, but he had an abiding respect for the game and its integrity.”
Still, there was the pressure of the chase, something no one could ignore, certainly not Maris.
“Roger was up against a lot,” Kubek said. “He was doing it in the publicity center of the world, with the tradition of the Yankees and the Ruth factor. That’s a lot to battle.”
Maris passed the Frickimposed 154-game mark with 58 home runs. He hit No. 59 in the Yankees’ 155th game at Baltimore. Now, every time up, he was swinging for No. 60 and a spot in the record book, Frick’s ruling notwithstanding. That night, Cerv began wondering if this chase had not taken on metaphysical dimensions.
“He hit No. 59 his second time up,” Cerv said. “Then the wind changed. It was like a hurricane blowing in. The next time up, he hit one even better, but it just hung up there and got caught. When he got back to the bench, the guys were all saying ol’ Babe was up there, blowing it back at him.”
The Yankees returned to New York and Maris hit No. 60 against Jack Fisher of the Orioles in the 159th game. Then, on the last day of the season, he hit No. 61 against Boston’s Tracy Stallard, the only run in a 1-0 Yankees victory.
Maris circled the bases, head down, the way he always did, and went straight into the dugout. There was no showboating. That just wasn’t his style.
Teammates Hector Lopez, Joe DeMaestri and John Blanchard finally pushed him back on the field for what turned out to be a perfunctory wave of his hat. He seemed almost embarrassed at finishing the chase that had begun so modestly with a single home run in the entire month of April.
There had to be enormous relief even though Maris would never admit it. His teammates, however, understood what he had gone through.
One time in mid-September, Kubek remembered being on second base in the 12th inning of a game in Detroit with Maris at bat. Suddenly, the slugger stepped out of the batter’s box and watched a flock of geese fly over Tigers Stadium.
Maris stood there for what seemed an eternity, just watching those geese.
“It was so unlike Roger to do that, to step out for so long,” Kubek said. “It was so unusual for him to take that kind of respite.”
This, though, was the Roger Maris who was born in Hibbing, Minn., and lived in Fargo. This was an outdoorsman, taking his time, gathering his thoughts, admiring one of nature’s wonders.
“I was standing there, my foot on second base, wondering what Roger was doing,” Kubek said. “Roger didn’t do things like that. Then the umpire took off his outside chest protector and he looked up, too.
“They were just some geese, flying south, I guess.
“It was his only chance to relax.”
When Maris stepped back in, he hit a pitch into the right field seats, No. 58 in the season of 61.
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