Looking back on Maris' record-breaking homer 50 years ago
On Oct. 1, 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's career home run record
Commissioner Ford Frick, who was close to Ruth, put an asterisk next to record
Despite what has been written over the years, fans cheered Maris' achievements
What a strange setting.
The most glamorous record in sports was about to fall, yet the stands at Yankee Stadium were less than half-filled. The record was being chased by a man about whom many baseball fans seemed ambivalent if not downright hostile.
And the commissioner of baseball, then the nation's most popular sport, appeared more interested in preserving the past than in promoting the present.
This was the backdrop 50 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1961, as New York Yankees outfielder Roger Maris took his final crack at breaking Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season.
What was going on?
Let's go back a few months to when Yankees teammates Maris and Mickey Mantle began challenging the Bambino's record, right there in the House That Ruth Built. A nation was captivated.
Maris and Mantle, the M & M Boys, were front-page news, not only in sports sections but also on the front pages around the country. They were on the cover of Life magazine, a huge deal in that era.
At a time when professional football had yet to dominate the sporting landscape and when both the NBA and college basketball were niche sports, baseball truly was the national pastime. Maris and Mantle were playing for the sport's premier team in the nation's premier city chasing their sport's premier record set by the game's premier personality.
Mantle was one of the most famous athletes in the country. He had won the Triple Crown in 1956, two American League MVP awards and had played on five World Series championship teams.
Maris, playing in only his second season as a Yankee after stops in Cleveland and Kansas City, was not nearly as well known. The 27-year-old North Dakotan was a quiet man who didn't care much for the bright lights of the big city. He also didn't care much for interviews and wasn't exactly Jackie Gleason in front of TV cameras.
Maris' season-long pursuit and ultimate conquest of Ruth's record (illness and an infected hip knocked Mantle out of the race with 54 homers in September) was a dynamic story but it proved bittersweet. Maris ended up battling not only American League pitchers but also public opinion and, sadly, baseball itself.
Instead of celebrating Maris for what he was, a soft-spoken well-rounded ballplayer who would do anything to help the Yankees win, he was criticized for what he wasn't, a colorful fun-loving character like Ruth or the skirt-chasing, hard-drinking Mantle.
Some baseball purists, such as Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, ripped his low batting average (.269). Totally ignored in those rudimentary days of baseball statistics was Maris' outstanding OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .997. In the field and on the bases, Maris was superb.
"Roger was such a good all-around player," said Hall of Fame catcher and former Yankees teammate Yogi Berra in an e-mail. "He could run, field, throw, everything."
Bill Skowron, the Yankees' first baseman who hit a career-best 28 home runs in 1961, seconded Berra's opinion.
"Roger was a complete player," Skowron said. "He was one of the best defensive players and he had a great arm. On the bases he could break up the double play. He saved me from hitting into a lot of double plays by sliding so hard into second base.''
In July 1961 Maris' (and Mantle's) home runs began drawing the notice of baseball officials. So did the new 162-game schedule. For the first time since the American League began play in 1901, the league had expanded to 10 teams, from eight, and the schedule had grown to 162 games, from 154.
No one thought much about this extension until midway through the season when sportswriters began to speculate whether the eight extra games might help Maris or Mantle chase down Ruth.
Even though he had played his last game in 1935 and had been dead for 13 years, Ruth's legacy continued to dominate baseball. There were veteran writers who as young men had covered Ruth. To them his record of 60 home runs set in the 1927 was sacrosanct.
One of those men was Commissioner Ford Frick. A former sportswriter, Frick spoke often of his friendship with Ruth. He had ghostwritten Ruth's autobiography and liked to remind fans that he was at the Babe's bedside the day before he died.
The commissioner convened a conference of baseball writers to discuss what would happen if Maris or Mantle broke Ruth's record after 154 games. Would that be fair?
No one mentioned that when Ruth established his first home run record of 29 in 1919 he had broken the ancient mark of 27 that was set by Ned Williamson in a 113-game schedule in 1884. And certainly no one argued that baseball was a whites-only game when Ruth played.
Frick could have dismissed the doubters and simply said, "a season is a season" and that would have been that. But Frick ruled that if Ruth's record was broken after 154 games a special designation, what came to be known as the asterisk, would be placed alongside that player's name.
(The NFL, which expanded to 14 games from 12 that same year, had no such problem with its record keeping. When the Philadelphia Eagles' Sonny Jurgensen threw 32 touchdown passes in 14 games that fall, he was given equal billing in the record book with Johnny Unitas who had thrown 32 touchdown passes in only 12 games).