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

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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.

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.

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``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.

``Part of the reason I was able to get 61 homers was because Mickey Mantle was hitting in front of me and Yogi Berra in back of me,'' he continued. ``There was no way any pitcher could afford to work around us. He had to throw strikes or risk having too many people on base with more power hitters coming up.

``You know Mickey hit 54 home runs himself the year I got 61, and then there were five other Yankees with 20 or more. We had a lot of big innings; scored a ton of runs; and sometimes even our No. 5 and 6 hitters would get up six times a game.''

Once asked to describe Mantle and Maris, Casey Stengel replied: ``The fella in right does the job if the other fella doesn't!''

Maris claimed his problems with the media stemmed mostly from two things -- the fact that everybody was trying to get something exclusive from him, plus the fact that he kept getting the same questions thrown at him day after day.

``I'd make some little statement about Ruth's record or the umpires, and then later when I'd read the papers it wasn't anything like what I'd said,'' Roger explained. ``Too many guys tried to put words in my mouth, and when I wouldn't go along with it, they'd write them anyway. Other times I'd be asked questions about my personal life that had nothing to do with the record.

``I never wanted to replace Ruth; I just wanted to break his record,'' Maris continued. ``I never had the big swing, nor did I hit the tape-measure home runs that he did. What I had was a lot of bat control and a lot of wrist action that let me get under a ball and pull it. In fact, the year I got 61, I don't think I hit more than one home run to left field in Yankee Stadium.''

Looking at old films of Maris will show you that, unlike most of today's players, Roger didn't make a theatrical production of coming to home plate. He'd step into the batter's box quickly, take a couple of swings to get loose, and then let the umpire know that he was ready.

The former Yankee star, who passed on recently, had none of the physical idiosyncrasies that have characterized most of the game's other big hitters. And although it has sometimes been overlooked, the powerfully built 6-foot, 197-pound slugger was a fine all-round ballplayer who ran the bases well and was an excellent outfielder with an outstanding arm.

Maris's '61 feat also has overshadowed the fact that he had an outstanding career, including stints with the Cleveland Indians, the old Kansas City A's, and the St. Louis Cardinals as well as the Yankees. He had five other seasons in which he hit 20 or more homers, led the American League in runs batted in twice, was a two-time Most Valuable Player, and played on seven pennant-winning teams.

Roger's first year as a Yankee, 1960, was a big one in its own right as he helped the team to a pennant and captured his first MVP award with 39 homers, 112 RBIs, and a .581 slugging percentage. Then came the fantastic encore, when in addition to the home run record he scored 132 runs, drove in 142, lifted his slugging average to .620, and of course was voted the league's MVP once again.

After five more years with the Yankees, he finished out his career in St. Louis in 1967 and '68, where he played on his final two pennant-winners.

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