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Roger Maris's home run record put him in unwelcome spotlight

By Phil Elderkin / December 23, 1985

Roger Maris, the man who broke Babe Ruth's all-time record of 60 home runs in a season, was complicated only in the sense that people never could understand his aversion to the spotlight. They thought he should have reveled in it, when all he ever really wanted was to be left alone. When Maris didn't respond in 1961 to what reporters felt were their exclusive needs as he relentlessly pursued the record Ruth had held since 1927, a lot of them got down on him and wrote what they wanted. Roger was hounded, pressured, and misquoted so many times that eventually all anyone outside the privacy of the New York Yankee clubhouse ever saw was a man constantly on the defensive. After a while his hair even began to fall out.

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Late that season, when both Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle were ahead of Ruth's record pace, I went over to Boston's Fenway Park hours before a night game to try to interview Roger alone. I spoke first to Yankee Manager Ralph Houk, who supplied me with some very sound advice.

``I don't know whether Roger will feel like talking or not,'' Houk said. ``Nobody leaves him alone any more, and they all repeat themselves. So don't ask him about the record first; ask him how he learned to play that tough right field at Fenway Park better than anyone else in the American League.

``The air currents out there are tricky because you never know when Boston's east wind is going to kick up,'' Ralph continued. ``Then you've got the sun right smack in your eyes in day games. And if a ground ball gets by you and hugs the stands to your left, it's like a bowling alley.

When I finally caught up to Maris, he was sitting in front of his locker. Having just graduated from the Ralph Houk School of Journalism, I took the Yankee manager's advice and asked Roger about the problems of protecting right field at Fenway Park.

I wish I could now quote Maris word for word, but the only thing I specifically remember him saying was something about the importance of picking up the ball visually the instant it was hit. He meant being especially alert on days when the sky was high and the sun bright, and not losing the ball's trajectory.

Later we talked briefly about his chances of breaking the record Ruth had held for 33 years, Roger simply saying that my guess was as good as his. He also emphasized that he wasn't trying to take the Babe's place, only to break his record.

Now let's jump ahead to maybe 1980 when I ran into Maris in Anaheim at a California Angels game, where he was the guest of owner Gene Autry. The hair was longer and the body thicker, but Roger still looked like a man ready to tramp through the woods, his favorite bird dog at his side. He still had North Dakota written all over him.

Asked if he thought anyone would ever exceed his 61-homer mark, which hasn't really been threatened in the 24 years since he set it, Maris replied with the same candor that people often seemed to mistake for arrogance during his playing days.

``Well, I hope not because it's a record I'd like to keep,'' he said. ``But I'm sure somebody will come along eventually who will break it. They always do. But there are some great hitters who won't even get the chance because too many things have to be just right for something like this to happen.