Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Case Against Roger Maris*

                                                   Associated Press
From left, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961.

Wall Street Journal
May 25, 2011

Fifty years ago this spring, American sports fans were fixated on two Yankee outfielders, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, as they pursued what seemed to be the most unassailable record in baseball, Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927.

No achievement in sports since then has captured the public's imagination like Mantle's and Maris's assaults on Ruth. Only Henry Aaron's surpassing the Babe's career record of 714 home runs in 1974 approached the frenzy that surrounded Mantle and Maris in 1961. But it was not quite the same thing, since it was merely a matter of time before Hammerin' Hank set the new record. In 1961, there were two questions: "Can they both do it?" and, if not, "Which one is more likely to do it?"

Mantle, a three-time American League home-run champion who had hit 52 home runs in 1956, was regarded as the more likely. Maris was a comparative upstart, having come to the Yankees in a trade with the Kansas City Athletics two years earlier. For 10 years, Yankee fans booed Mantle for not being Joe DiMaggio; in 1961, they booed Roger Maris for not being Mickey Mantle.

Mantle, who finished with 54 home runs, spent the end of the season in the hospital with an abscessed hip; Maris broke the record on the last day of the 162-game season, eight games more than Ruth had in 1927.

Since then, a mountain of myth has grown up around Maris, beginning with the notion that it was "watered down pitching" from expansion that helped him break the record. (In fact, the AL batting average for 1961 was .256, exactly the same as the previous year.) Or that it was Yankee Stadium's "friendly"—that is, short—right field porch that gave Maris an unfair advantage. In fact, he only hit 30 of his 61 home runs that year out of Yankee Stadium.

The biggest myth of all regarding Maris is "The Asterisk." As Maris closed in on Ruth, the Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, who had been a close friend of the late Bambino, suggested that some kind of qualifier would be needed if Maris didn't break the record in 154 games. Dick Young, the controversial columnist for the New York Daily News, argued that an asterisk would be appropriate next to Maris's name in the record book should he surpass Ruth in the last eight games, which is exactly what he did. As every baseball fans knows, Maris got an asterisk in the record books.

Except he didn't. In his 1973 autobiography, "Games, Asterisks, and People," Frick confirmed that "No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection with that accomplishment." In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 a committee put together by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted to remove the asterisk, thus solidifying in the minds of many the idea that it had indeed once existed.

Every decade or so since Maris broke the record, his supporters have raised a clamor that he should be voted into the Hall of Fame. The movement gained momentum in 2001 with "61*," Billy Crystal's hugely popular TV movie about the home-run race starring Thomas Jane as Mantle and Barry Pepper as Maris. (The film will be released on Blu-ray in June.)

Maris's name appeared on the ballot for 15 years, but he didn't receive the required votes needed to be inducted. Mr. Crystal's film, though, sparked new interest, and in 2003 Maris's name resurfaced on the Veteran's Committee ballet. Since then, Maris, who died in 1985 of Hodgkin's lymphoma, has failed to be elected by the Veteran's Committee.

According to Phil Pepe, author of the new book "1961*: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase," it's likely "that Maris' chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame have come and gone." And yet, as Maris's achievement hits the half-century mark, the chorus has begun again.

Recently on, veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte expressed anger over "the press box hacks who vote on the Hall of Fame [and] have never handed him the golden ticket in." Bob Costas, a longtime supporter, feels that "while his overall career stats are short of the general standard, he was a two-time MVP, played on seven pennant winners, and is a much more significant part of the game's history than dozens of Hall of Famers."

Mr. Pepe, a past president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, says that, "I've never voted for Roger for the Hall of Fame. What he did in 1961 was spectacular, but his overall career was not great. Still, the only players to surpass his record"—meaning Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—"have well-known connections to steroids, so Maris's achievement looks better every year."

He's right, but the argument against Maris is also persuasive. He hit just 275 career home runs over 12 seasons, only two of which were remarkable—1960, when he hit 39 home runs, and 1961. It's true that Maris was awarded the MVPs for those years, but former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, who hit 398 home runs and also won two MVP awards over the span of an 18-year career, isn't in the Hall of Fame either.

It's also true that baseball analysts believe that Mantle, not Maris, should have been the American League's MVP in both 1960 and 1961.

But give Mr. Costas the last word: "I understand the argument against putting Roger into the Hall of Fame. But I think there are rare special cases, and Roger Maris is at the top of the list."

Mr. Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal.

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