Frick Asterick: Righting a Wrong Too Late for Maris
Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record when he hit his 61st home run of the season 50 years ago yesterday.
For daring to surpass the Babe, Maris was immediately penalized with the ultimate put-down when Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick slapped the most infamous asterisk in history on that big record 61.
Maris had suffered unjustly for weeks from insults and abuse as many baseball fans booed him and expressed their hatred by cursing him during the last half of the season while he crept closer and closer to Ruth’s MLB record of 60 home runs in a season.
So when Maris set the new record on the final day of the season, Commissioner Frick’s asterisk was simply the final cruelty against a humble man who was the personification of a team player never seeking the spotlight.
The American League had expanded from eight to 10 teams in 1961, as the Los Angeles Angels joined the Junior Circuit and a new Washington Senators team was added to replace the Washington team that moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. As a result, the league increased its schedule from the traditional 154 games per team to 162.
The National League went to 162 games in 1962 when it also increased to 10 teams by adding the New York Mets and the Houston Colt 45s, who became the Astros in 1965.
The MLB commissioner said the asterisk was placed alongside Maris’ 1961 home run mark because he played in 161 games that season, whereas Ruth had played in only 151 games for the Yankees in 1927 when he hit 60 homers, and that Ruth could have played in a maximum of only 154 games.
Frick also felt, as did some fans and writers, that Maris was trampling on a sacred record set by the man they thought was the greatest player of all time. It was almost as if Frick said, “How dare you!”
Frick was a sports journalist during the Roaring ’20s when he became a ghost writer for Ruth and therefore a close friend of the Bambino.
And it is Frick, the National League president, 1934-1951, and MLB commissioner, 1951-1965, who, with his asterisk, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, while Roger Maris is not enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y.
From 1901 through 1903, the first three seasons when the American League joined the National League to form our current major league setup, each of those eight-team leagues scheduled only 140 games per team. Yet not a single record established during those three “short” seasons has been slapped with an asterisk because the seasons were different.
There was another aspect to the Maris story that drew the ire of fans and writers. Many of them felt that Mickey Mantle deserved to be the one to break Ruth’s record, if anyone did.
Mantle and Maris, who were friends and teammates, captivated the baseball world in 1961 by running neck and neck toward Babe Ruth’s record until the switch-hitting Mantle fell victim to more of his numerous back and leg injuries in late September. The Mick was out of the Yankee lineup on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1961, as he had been for the previous five games.
Mantle had 54 home runs for the season but could only watch as Maris hit his 61st homer off Tracy Stollard of the Boston Red Sox in the fourth inning to give the Yanks a 1-0 victory that final afternoon.
Mantle was the Yankee fans’ favorite in those days, succeeding Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in that role. Maris was just Mantle’s caddie, according to some fans.
They felt Maris would not have hit that many home runs if he did not bat third in front of the cleanup hitting Mantle.
Actually, Maris did not get his first home run of the 1961 season until the Yanks’ 11th game of the season, when he was batting seventh in manager Ralph Houk’s lineup for a game at Detroit.
Maris, the Yankees’ right fielder, was soon batting third with Mantle, the center fielder, batting fourth, as they did for most games that year and the next, when the Yanks won the AL pennant and World Series.
The disparaging attitude toward Maris was disgraceful considering the makeup of this gentle athlete and his true skills as a baseball player. He was deprived of the enjoyment and pride he deserved to experience at the time.
Maris was actually an extremely fine player who suffered hand injuries that shortened his career in the late 1960s. There wasn’t a better outfielder in MLB during his three best seasons, 1960-1962.
Maris was voted the AL Most Valuable Player in 1960 and again in 1961, when he played his first two seasons with the Yankees. They won the AL pennant each of those years, losing the 1960 World Series to Pittsburgh and beating the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series.
So Maris was not some Johnny Come Lately, as many fans thought he was.
When the Yanks made it to the Series for a third straight year in 1962, Maris displayed his excellence on defense in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the WS against the Giants at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. He turned in the first of two consecutive superb defensive plays that assured the Yanks of their 20th World Series title.
The Yankees led, 1-0, with Matty Alou on first and two out. Maris ran to cut off a double to right by Willie Mays and quickly threw in to Bobby Richardson, second baseman and cutoff man on that play. The fast action by Maris in getting the ball back to the infield forced Matty Alou to stop at third instead of scoring the tying run from first.
On the next play, Bobby Richardson leaped high and to his left for a line drive by Willie McCovey to end the game.
I had the good fortune to be sitting in the lower, right field grandstands at Yankee Stadium for the final three games of the 1961 season against the Red Sox, waiting with other reporters for Maris to hit his 61st home run. We were all assigned to get the story on who caught the home run ball (Sal Durante) and how fans out in those seats reacted when No. 61 fell into that land where left-handed hitters like Maris deposit baseballs at Yankee Stadium.
Maris had blasted No. 60 against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium Tuesday, Sept. 26.
I knew then and I feel to this day that Maris, not anyone else, deserves the credit for the MLB single-season home run record at 61, just as I feel Hank Aaron, and not Barry Bonds, is the career home run record holder.
Ruth’s single-season home run record was 34 years old when Maris established the new mark. It took another 37 years before Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998. Sammy Sosa also hit 65 homers in 1998. McGwire hit another 65 homers in 1999, when Sosa hit 63.
Bonds hit 73 homers and Sosa hit 64 in 2001 so that Bonds is credited with the single-season record. No one has put an asterisk on those numbers even though they are all tainted as products of MLB’s steroid era.
Speaking in 1980 about his No. 61, Maris said, “They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.”
Maris died of cancer in 1985, so he did not live to see the cursed Frick asterisk removed in 1991 by then MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story