Roger Maras: Chasing the Ghost of the Babe
By Frank Ceresi & Carol McMains
On October 1, 1961, nearly 40 years ago to the day, Roger Maris did what
no one, including the great Babe Ruth himself, had previously done in the
history of major league baseball . . . he smashed 61 home runs. With Mark
McGwire and Sammy Sosa exceeding that number in 1998, and with Barry Bonds'
recent home run explosion, one tends to forget about Roger's superlative feat.
After all, the Maris record stood longer than Ruth's and certainly McGwire's,
and it was, according to ballplayers of the day, an amazingly difficult record
Before memories fade, it is worthwhile to recall Roger Maris, because unlike the other home run sluggers, Maris was a quiet unassuming man who not only shied away from the camera but who, at times gently but at other times harshly, ignored the glare of the media that surrounded the event. In this day where most athletes who break records seem to swoon at their “own magnificence,” isn't it refreshing to recall Mr. Maris who was a different kind of hero?
This National Treasures column will not rely on an outrageously expensive “mint” baseball card, or the three million dollar McGwire 70th home run ball, but will, instead, tell the tale of a very young Roger Maras - that's right Maras - before he became the New York Yankee known as Roger Maris, who found himself thrust into the annals of baseball history. Not only that, but we will explore whether the characteristics developed by young Roger Maras helped shape his life during the 1961 assault on Babe's record. Lastly, we will unveil two never seen before rare artifacts almost a half-century old that represent a youthful Roger long before his date with destiny.
Fargo, North Dakota, is situated on the west bank of the Red River in the rough and tumble southeastern portion of the state. It is a twin city with Moorhead, Minnesota, located a stone's throw on the other side of the river. It is in this relative spec of an area that a very young boy christened Roger Maras began to dazzle his high school friends with his athletic ability, not only on the baseball diamond but on the football field and basketball court as well. He was a “four letter” sports star as he even was on the track and field team, but what set Maras apart from his peers was not necessarily his skills at sport, it was his character, his humanity. Even at that time, in 1953, Roger was more interested in his conduct off the field than his exploits on the field.
Information derived from Roger's early years contains interesting tidbits of information that we would do well to reflect upon. For example, his high school teacher, Sister Bernice Ewals in describing Maras, stated, “Have you ever had a student that you would want to be your son? During the time that Roger was at our school, he was the all-American boy, he played and starred in the all major sports, he tried hard in all of my classes, but he never wore his popularity on his sleeve. He was humble. He was just a good, quiet, sensitive, solid citizen!”
Two years later, a youthful small town high school hero, still known as Roger Maras, was signed to play ball with the Cleveland Indians farm system. His professional career was launched with Fargo-Moorhead of the Northern League, an affiliate of the Indians. Soon though, Roger decided to change his family name from Maras to Maris. Why? It seems that Roger was already experiencing unpleasantness from the sometimes fickle fans. Roger changed his last name so that he would not have to endure the unflattering chants from some who sat in the stands bent on rhyming his “Maras” name inappropriately. As Sister Ewals noted, he was sensitive . . . but he was still steady and focused.
The National Treasures featured in this column are genuinely one-of-a-kind artifacts. We have seen thousands of sports autographs in the last several years but we have never seen, nor even heard about, a signed item from Roger that predated his name change. Not only are the baseball and photo nearly 50 years old, but it is interesting and significant that they also represent a time in Roger's life when he first began to experience the harsh reality of the sometimes cruel fans. The young man represented on the autographed baseball and photo was the relatively sheltered Roger Maras, still years away from his date with history. Eventually, of course, Roger joined Mickey Mantle and the World Champion New York Yankees and by 1961 he began his famous home run chase . . . a chase that would test Roger's mettle, expose a nasty side of the press, and make an indelible mark on the game of baseball itself! But he never again signed his name “Maras.”
Did Roger's early character traits carry him through the 1961 season . . . a year that should have been the proudest of his career but which was, in fact, very painful to him? Did his humanity, as developed and recognized during his early years in any way aid him during the great home run chase? The answer is a resounding “yes” as Roger's Yankee teammates today recall a steady professional ballplayer fighting the ghosts of Babe and, unfortunately, the press from the very city his team represented.
Billy Crystal's recent movie on HBO highlighted the depth of the animosity leveled at Maris by some of the leading newspapers' sports reporters. Also, we have reviewed some news clippings from the era and it becomes apparent that the animosity spilled over to some fans as well and even the Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick. After all, it was Commissioner Frick, a baseball old timer who was close to Babe himself, who decreed that the Maris record of 61 homers would have an asterisk . . . simply because the major league season, due to a rules change, lasted an additional eight games from Ruth's time. Though the asterisk was eventually removed, it hung over Roger Maris, like a scarlet letter, for many years. Imagine the thrill of chasing one of the game's greatest all-time records! Then, imagine what it must have been like to Roger Maris if many of the sportswriters, fans and even the Commissioner rooted against you! That would be a time that would test Roger's character and own humanity . . . and it did!
Roger himself described many times that several weeks leading up to his historic blast breaking Ruth's record as being the darkest days of his life. He even began to lose his hair. In light of the excitement generated during Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's home run spree in 1998, and this year's fantastic Barry Bonds chase, today it is hard to fathom how the 1961 chase differed in spirit and scope. However, history does not lie and we know that when Roger tied Ruth during the 154th game of the season by reaching that magic number of 60, and even when he broke the record on the last game of the year, Roger played in ballparks that were not filled and before crowds whose response to the record was comparatively tepid. Then, to make matters worse, when the games ended, Maris faced the wrath and often rude questions from the press.
Contemporary reports of the time show that the sportswriters and many fans simply could not accept the fact that the great Babe Ruth's record was falling. Additionally, Roger's quiet but dignified personality seemed to suffer when compared to the grand and boisterous Bambino. Ruth loved to be around the fans and hold court with the scribes after each game. On the other hand, Roger's integrity and his willingness to fight for what he thought was right certainly irritated reporters and commentators. And when he ducked reporters after the game's end, he was consistently battered in print.
Sadly, Roger died of cancer on December 14, 1985, a good 13 years before the recent home run chase renewed media coverage of his life and times, and this time positive attention spotlighted this quiet hero. Roger was only 51 when he died. How should we remember him? Should we think of him as Roger Maras, a boy growing into manhood that was so admired by his friends and teachers alike? Or should we think of him as the New York Yankees' Roger Maris who publicly anguished in the glare of the media spotlight 40 years ago as he was breaking the “unbreakable” record? Perhaps it's the young Roger Maras and the older, wiser Roger Maris that we should collectively celebrate in our memories. Let's let his teammate and admirer Mickey Mantle answer that question by having the last word: “Roger Maris was the best all-around baseball player I ever saw. Roger was a great fielder, he had a great arm, he was a great base runner and he was always mentally in the game. More importantly, though . . . Roger was as good a person as there ever was!”