When he hit his 59th home run of the season in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium one night last week, Roger Maris stood one swing away from baseball's household god, George Herman Ruth. For the entire previous month, as he pursued the magic mark of 60, Maris lived under suffocating, unrelenting pressure—pressure such as no ballplayer has ever had to endure, not even Babe Ruth himself. Throughout most of that month Roger Kahn, on assignment from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, was an unobtrusive but constant observer of Maris' triumph and trials. Here is his story.
Someone has described Roger Maris as "the most typical ballplayer in the world." Like all capsulizations, the description is incomplete, but it is a starter. Beyond anything else, Maris is a professional baseball player. His speech, his mannerisms, his attitudes, derive from the curious society that is a ball club. But into this society he has brought an integrity that is entirely his own, a fierce, combative kind of integrity that is unusual in baseball as it would be unusual anywhere. It is the integrity, and his desperate effort to retain it, that has made the ordeal of Roger Maris a compelling and disturbing thing to behold.
Maris is handsome in an unconventional way. Perhaps the most arresting feature of his face is the mouth. The points of his upper lip curl toward his nose, creating the effect of a cupid's bow. He smiles easily, on cue. When one of the blur of photographers covering him orders, "Come on, a nice smile," the response is quick. Then as soon as the picture is taken, the smile vanishes. This knack—the forced unforced smile—is common enough among chorus girls, but not among ballplayers who, after all, are not in the smiling business. It is the only public relations device that Maris has mastered completely.
When Maris is angry or annoyed or upset, the mouth changes into a grim slash in a hard face. His nose is somewhat pointed, his cheekbones rather high, and the face under the crew-cut brown hair can become menacing. Since Maris' speech is splattered with expletives common among ballplayers, some observers form an unfortunate first impression. They see a hard-looking, tough-talking man and assume that is all there is to see.
Maris' build bespeaks sports. He was an outstanding right halfback at Shanley High School in Fargo, N. Dak. and he might have played football at Oklahoma "except during the entrance exams I decided not to." He is a strong 6 footer of 197 pounds, with muscles that flow, rather than bulge. He would be hard to stop on the two-yard line.
At bat he is unobtrusive, until he hits the ball. He walks to the plate briskly, pumps his 33-ounce bat once or twice and is ready. He has none of the idiosyncrasies—Musial's hip wiggle, Colavito's shoulder shake—by which fans like to identify famous sluggers. Nor does he, like Ruth and Mantle, hit home runs of 500 feet. By his own estimate, "If I hit it just right, it goes about 450 feet, but they don't give you two homers for hitting one 800 feet, do they?" His swing is controlled and compact. He uppercuts the ball slightly and his special talent is pulling the ball. Maris can pull any pitch in the strike zone. Only one of his homers has gone to the left of center field.
His personality is unfinished; it is easy to forget that he has just turned 27 and only recently become a star. He may change now, as his life changes, as his world grows larger than a diamond, but at the moment he is impetuous, inclined to gripe harmlessly and truthful to a fault.
Recently a reporter, preparing an article for high school students, asked, "Who's your favorite male singer?"
" Frank Sinatra," Maris said.