The aging record player was laboring away in the spacious clubhouse of the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Memorial Stadium late last Saturday afternoon, and Lou Brock, the 5'11" left fielder who had begun the 1967 baseball season with three tremendous home runs (he was to hit two more on Sunday), was listening intently. Roger Maris, a 32-year-old father of six from Independence, Mo., came over and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Three, Lou," Maris said. "That's gonna start to put the pressure on you. You're already three games ahead of my home-run pace of 1961." The two laughed and then Brock said, "Roger, listen to this song. I'm gonna play it again. We're gonna play it all year long. It's called A Fistful of Dollars."
There was a strangeness to baseball last week as a new season began. Mickey Mantle broke his own injury record by surviving only three innings, and Willie Mays, normally a fast starter, was hurt in Atlanta. It was news when the power failed in Anaheim, causing a postponement of a game between the Angels and the Indians, and no news at all when the power continued to fail in Chicago, where the White Sox got two lonely hits against the Washington Senators but still stretched a game into 11 innings. They lost. Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants and Jim Kaat of the Minnesota Twins, who between them won 50 games in 1966, had a combined record of 0-4. And just when it looked as though the Baltimore Orioles were going to win 162 games and score a zillion runs the Kansas City Athletics put on their little white kangaroo slippers and scored 11 runs themselves to stop the Orioles. But even in a week when Ernie Banks, going on 103, rediscovered the Fountain of Youth, the strangest and loudest noises in all of baseball were coming from Cardinal fans as they watched Roger Maris' entrance into the National League. By last Sunday evening the Cards were the sole undefeated team in the majors, and the only things Maris had not done were to hit a homer and run backward up the inside perimeter of the 630-foot Gateway Arch.
All winter long the city of St. Louis had wondered about Maris, and Maris had wondered about the city. The trade that brought him from the Yankees to the Cardinals for Charlie Smith, a journeyman third baseman, had raised some doubts. The things they had read about Maris in the past went against the nature of Cardinal fans. Things like: swings for the fences, jakes it, doesn't run out ground balls, tries to pull everything, red neck, plays for himself, gets himself out of the lineup and doesn't try to get back in....
All this was forgotten last week as Maris played the way players do in the baseball novels of John R. Tunis. He helped make the Cardinals, a dark horse for this year's pennant, look better than any team can possibly be. His presence more than doubled the attendance of the first four Cardinal games of last season, and it brought from Cincinnati's Warren Giles, the president of the National League, one of the funniest stories that he will ever tell on himself. "I put on an old hat," said Giles, "and a pair of sunglasses as a disguise, and I went out into the bleachers to see how things were going. When I was out there I tapped a man on the shoulder and said, 'What about Maris? He isn't going to help this club, is he?' The man looked at me and said, 'Mister, haven't you heard what happened to Frank Robinson when he got out of Cincinnati?' "
Should Maris continue to perform well he will also put Lee MacPhail, the general manager of the New York Yankees, in a spot rife with irony. It was MacPhail who set up the trade with the Reds' Bill DeWitt that brought Robinson to Baltimore. Now MacPhail could become the man to make people forget about DeWitt for at least a little while.
Maris' fast start as a Cardinal was not something that just happened. Early on the morning of Feb. 28 he stepped from his hotel room at the Sheraton Inn in St. Petersburg, Fla., a city he remembered well. He had last trained there as a Yankee in 1961, the year he broke Babe Ruth's record and noticed that his hair was falling out. The decision to join St. Louis this season and remain in baseball was a hard one for Maris to make, because at the end of 1966 he had made up his mind that his career was over, and over on the lowest of notes—a batting average of .233, with 43 runs batted in and 13 homers for a last-place team. After the trade was announced few defended him, but the late Johnny Keane, the deposed manager of the Yankees, was one. "I liked Roger Maris," Keane said the day after the trade. "He is a high-class man who has gone through a lot of injuries. If the Cardinals can get him interested in playing baseball again and he can stay healthy, they will have a heck of a good player—one who can make them a strong team."
Maris walked around the outside of the hotel and one of the bellhops came up and shook his hand. "I hope you have a heck of a year, Roger," he said. Maris thanked him. Then he smiled and said, "That would be a surprise, wouldn't it?"
As Maris stood there, Red Schoendienst, the Cardinal manager, saw him and asked, "Roger, can I give you a lift down to the park?" Maris got into the car, and on the way to Al Lang Field Schoendienst told him, "We know that you are a pro and we know what you can do, because you've already proved it. Just get yourself in shape and don't worry about the hits in the spring. Get in shape. We've got a heck of a bunch of guys on this team, and they'll make it easier for you. Don't throw hard in the outfield. We'll leave it up to you, but we want you in the best shape you can get yourself in." When Maris stepped from the car he felt his decision not to quit had been the right one.
Maris produced only one homer in spring training and batted .225 on a club that had a team average of .275. But every time anyone looked up, there was Maris running alone in the outfield with his hat off, moving as hard as he could. "Every day when he was taken out of a game you'd see him in the outfield running for at least a half hour," says Dick Sisler, the St. Louis batting coach. "He was doing it all by himself. Nobody told him to." Still, when spring training came to an end, Maris had only two hits in his last 17 at bats, and Cardinal fans knew it; in St. Louis you grow up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a box score in the other.