Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Making of a Hero

From Time Magazine Archive
Sep. 29, 1961

Bottle-green eyes smolder malevolently, and thin lips curl in a perpetual pout. "I was born surly," says Roger Eugene Maris, "and I'm going to stay that way. Everything in life is tough." But last week, as he has all season, Yankee Outfielder Maris knew just where to direct his sullen anger: at a baseball. Leaning into a low fastball thrown by Baltimore's Milt Pappas, Maris sent a whistling drive soaring high into the rightfield seats. It was his 59th homer in 154 games; he had come within one heart-stopping wallop of tying baseball's most dramatic and cherished record: the 60 home runs hit by George Herman Ruth in 1927 (seven years before Maris was born).

Nothing in recent baseball history has aroused such sustained excitement—or provoked such profound and varied emotion—as Maris' determined, season-long assault on Ruth's enduring achievement. Most fans cheered him on; ballparks were jammed wherever the Yankees went, and encouraging messages flowed into Yankee Stadium at the rate of 3,000 a week. But a few sentimentalists saw every Maris homer as a personal attack on Ruth. They argued that today's ball is livelier, today's fences shorter, today's pitching easier to hit. Groused Oldtimer Rogers Hornsby: "Maris has no right to break Ruth's record."

As season's end approached and pressure mounted, Maris was having trouble enough: bad weather jammed up the schedule, and pitchers cautiously gave him nothing to hit. Umpires, he complained, were calling the close ones strikes. And Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick (Ruth's onetime ghostwriter) announced that a new home run record would have to be set in 154 games—the number Ruth needed to hit 60—even though the current American League schedule runs to 162 games. To a whole generation of baseball fans who never saw Ruth play, it will matter little how many games Maris needs to hit 61. To them, Roger Maris already is an authentic American hero.

Biggest Moments. But as a ballplayer, Maris still is no match for Babe Ruth. A rollicking, muffin-headed giant (6 ft. 2 in., 230 Ibs.) with the slender legs of a showgirl, Ruth was the finest baseball player who ever lived. As a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, he won 46 games in two seasons, pitched 29 consecutive scoreless World Series innings—a record that still stands. As an outfielder, he joined a Yankee club that had no ballpark and had never won a pennant; his presence (backed up by the formidable figure of Lou Gehrig) turned the New Yorkers into the most fearsome team in baseball. To a sport that had been damaged by the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, Babe Ruth's booming bat brought new virility and respectability. Even when he struck out, Ruth was impressive—and he struck out often. But when he connected, he gave baseball its biggest moments. Nobody ever hit a ball so hard: he once drove a liner through a pitcher's legs with such force that it sailed over the centerfielder's head. In 21 years of big league ball, he hit 714 home runs, a total that has never been approached. In all, Ruth set or tied 54 major league records. In the golden '20s, the era of big names—Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden—Babe Ruth was the biggest draw of them all.

Ruth was even more than that: he was the chief strategist of modern baseball. He gave it the home run, and the game went on to ever greater glories. In the hands of such free-swinging strongmen as Maris and Teammate Mickey (54 homers) Mantle, the home run has become baseball's basic weapon. It scores runs in clusters, breaks up tight games with devastating swiftness, reduces fielders to the status of paid spectators. And baseball's steadily growing fascination with the home run was never more apparent than during the 1961 season—the Year of the Home Run.

In Kansas City and Chicago, massive scoreboards lit up like Christmas trees when the home team homered; cannons roared and rockets seared the summer sky. In Boston. American League Batting Champion Pete Runnels, a singles hitter, rode the bench while Manager Mike Higgins struggled to get more power into the Red Sox lineup. With one week still to go, an unprecedented 2,596 homers had already been hit. The Yankees set a team record. San Francisco's Willie Mays hit four in one game. New York's John Blanchard managed four in four trips to the plate. Baltimore's Jim Gentile hit two grand-slam homers in two innings. "The old days of the squeeze play, the stolen base, the hit and run are gone," said Oriole Manager Paul Richards. "They'll never come back. Everybody knows that the singles hitter drives a Chevy—the home run hitter, a Cadillac."

No Waste. Nobody swings for the fence with more abandon than husky (6 ft., 200 Ibs.) Roger Maris: more than one-third of his hits are homers. Slow rounding into shape last spring, Maris did not hit his first home run until the Yankees' tenth game. But then he began hitting them in bunches: nine in 13 games in May, 15 in June. When he reached 50 on Aug. 22—with 38 games still to play—Maris became the biggest news in baseball. New York tabloids offered cash prizes for predictions of which days Maris would hit a homer, how many he would hit. Nightly newscasts in Israel included Maris' personal box score for the day, and papers in baseball-happy Japan begged U.S. wire services for interviews with the Yankee slugger. Even when the Yankees made their 26th pennant mathematically certain last week, the news ran second to Maris' 59th homer.

At 27, Roger Maris is a cocky pro with the classic attributes of the power hitter: keen eyesight, quick wrists, magnificent coordination. His controlled, compact swing is one of baseball's prettiest sights. "There's no waste motion at all," marvels Yankee Batting Coach Wally Moses. Raised in North Dakota, the son of a mechanical supervisor for the Great Northern Railway, Maris was a phenomenal high school football player. No student ("Sports took up all my time; I couldn't keep my mind on books"), Maris turned down some half-dozen col lege scholarship offers to try out with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs. Impressed by his fluid swing and his pull-hitting power, the Indians offered Roger a $15,000 bonus. The Cubs, for some unfathomable reason, were totally unimpressed. "Son, my advice to you," said one Cub official, "is to give up the idea of playing ball. You'll never make it. You're too small."

Bleak Outlook. That Maris now wears the pin-striped playsuit of the New York Yankees is due partly to good Yankee organization, partly to good Yankee luck. As early as 1955, General Manager George Weiss alerted his well-disciplined scouting and minor league network. "The big need," says Weiss, "was for a lefthanded pull hitter who could take advantage of the stadium's short rightfield fence" (296 ft. at the foul pole). The Yanks quickly spotted Maris—then playing at Reading, Pa., in the Eastern League—and bided their time.

Everything worked in the Yankees' favor. As a highly touted Cleveland rookie in 1957, Maris broke two ribs in a collision at second base, hit a sorry .235. Traded the next season to the Kansas City Athletics, he doubled his home run output (to 28), batted in 80 runs—but still fell far short of promise. Halfway through the 1959 season, despite an appendectomy, Roger led the American League in batting (.344); then he slumped to a disappointing .273 and was traded during the winter to the Yankees.

Like Ruth, Maris came to a Yankee team that was wallowing in despair. The weary Yankees had lost the 1959 pennant to Chicago, and the outlook for 1960 was equally bleak: Mickey Mantle was disabled, Yogi Berra was tiring, Bob Turley—a 21-game winner in 1958—was nursing a sore arm. Like Ruth, Maris shook the team from its lethargy and fired the imagination of New York fans. In the outfield, Maris made leaping, diving catches, dared base runners to test the accuracy of his flat-trajectory throwing arm. At bat, for the first half of the season, he was a one-man Murderers' Row: he hit over .325, and his line drives rattled so often among the rightfield seats that by late July he was ten games ahead of Ruth's 1927 homer pace. Injury finally slowed Maris down in the summer of 1960, but he still finished the season with 39 home runs and 112 RBIs. When the Yanks won the pennant by eight games, Maris was easily the American League's Most Valuable Player—an award he may well win again this year.

No Monkeyshines. As phlegmatic ("I don't give a damn about being a hero") as Ruth was ebullient, Maris has built an inviolable wall around his private life. Married in 1956 to his childhood sweetheart, Patricia Carvell, he leaves his family (four children) in Kansas City during the baseball season shares a secluded apartment in outlying Queens with Teammates Mantle and Bob Cerv. He cooks his own breakfast, rarely reads anything but the sports page ("I'm interested only in current events—I mean what goes on in the clubhouse"). Something of a rarity among Yankee stars, Maris manages to keep out of the gossip columns, scorns the bright lights of Manhattan: "I can't afford a hangover, and anyhow I don't like that kind of life." On the road, he sticks close to his hotel, never sightsees. "I was to a museum once in Chicago," he recalls, "because my wife and Cerv's were there from Kansas City and we didn't want to hang around the room all day. They had a lot of old pictures there."

Around the league, Maris is known as a "loner" who shuns locker-room monkeyshines, rarely displays emotion on or off the field. After a ball game, still in uniform, Maris sits quietly on a stool in front of his locker for an hour or more, slowly consuming cans of beer and smoking cigarettes. "I just have to get the game out of my system," he says. Maris never answers fan mail personally ("I got enough work to do without writing letters"), makes few charity appearances. "The club shouldn't expect you to go to hospitals. They don't ask, and I don't go." He avoids the autograph hounds who cluster daily outside the players' gate. "Kids have gotten too rough. They show no appreciation. They walk on your shoes and half tear your clothes off. I just walk away—I don't want to get one of their pencils in my eye."

In only his fifth major league season, Maris was already assured of making about $67,000: some $42,000 in salary and World Series bonus, another $25,000 in fees for personal appearances and "testimonials" for such assorted products as Camel cigarettes, Infra-Rub and Aqua Velva after-shave lotion. But his busy agent, Frank Scott (other clients: Mantle, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays), estimates that movie and magazine rights to Roger's life story, royalties from a "Maris" candy bar and TV appearances (at $7,500 each) may boost his income by as much as $250,000.
With all that money, Maris could easily afford to pay the $2,500 "ransom" demanded last week by the Baltimore fan who caught the ball the Yankees' new hero hit for his 59th homer. But like a true big league ballplayer, Maris was not about to shake loose a single nickel. "I'll give him no more than another ball, autographed, in exchange," said Maris firmly. "That ball means nothing to him—only to me and the Hall of Fame."


No comments: