Roger Maris's Misunderstood Quest to Break the Home Run Record

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1961 was one of baseball's most exciting seasons—but it also gave rise to a string of persistent myths

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Fifty summers ago, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were chasing Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season, and the country was enthralled. (The overwhelming number of Yankee fans were rooting for Mickey.) It's possible that Americans will never again be as focused on any sporting accomplishment as we were that year. And perhaps because of the intense interest in the season, numerous misconceptions have grown up around the race to 61.

No other season in sports has spawned so many reminiscences, so much commentary, so much myth and legend. Phil Pepe's new book, 1961: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase (Triumph Books, $20) is probably the best thing written about that incredible year. Pepe tries to set the record straight about many of the myths of 1961, one of the most common being that the Maris and Mantle were distant and even hostile towards each other.

Mantle, who had been booed mercilessly for years by Yankees fans even while winning home-run titles and World Series rings, was glad to have the spotlight on Maris. Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate, and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed.

Another urban legend is that the fences at Yankee Stadium were, somehow, shorter for Maris than they were for Ruth. In fact, at the shortest point they were just about the same for both men—296 feet—and, amazingly, neither Ruth nor Maris was particularly helped by the Stadium's short right field porch. The Babe hit 28 of his 60 home runs at home in 1927 with 32 in the other seven American League ballparks; Maris had 30 home runs at Yankee Stadium and 31 on the road.

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Yet another canard is that expansion—the addition of two new teams, the new Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels—somehow "watered down" pitching in 1961. In fact, the AL's batting average in '61 was .256, exactly what it was the year before expansion, and though there were more home runs, the Earned Run Averages were very nearly the same, 3.88 in 1960 and 4.03 in 1961. As a point of comparison, the National League, which did not expand until 1962, actually had a slightly higher batting average, .262, and ERA, 4.04, than the AL in 1961.

But the big one, the mother of all sports myths, is that an asterisk was placed besides Maris's name in the record books because Maris's season was eight games longer. David James Duncan describes it thus in his great novel, The Brothers K:

In a peculiar attempt to stem the tide of numerical unmeaning, then Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick conducted a one-man witch-trial against Maris that culminated in the public tattooing of an asterisk to the new record - a punctuation mark intended, I assume, to serve the same general purpose of Hester Prynne's scarlet A.

But what was the reality? As Pepe writes:

There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

The myth that an asterisk was used to denote that Roger Maris needed expansion and a longer schedule of games to exceed Ruth's single season home run record has been perpetuated in story on and film. But it's not true. It never was. There never was an asterisk. What there was for almost 50 years, however, were two entries in baseball's official record books, as such:

Most Home Runs, Season.

61 Roger E. Maris, AL: NY, 1961 (162 G/S)
60 George H. Ruth, AL. NY, 1927.

So there was no asterisk on the books.

Pepe's account is mostly right, but he missed one very important point: There was no official record book in 1961, either with or without an asterisk.

More on this in a moment.

How was the myth of the asterisk born? As I wrote in my 2002 book, Clearing The Bases, The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century, it's at least as much the fault of the New York Daily News' Dick Young as of Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time. Midway through the season, as Maris and several other players were on track to beat Ruth's record, Frick was apparently disturbed that the new 162-game season would give the batters an unfair advantage. On July 17th, Frick called a press conference and made the following ruling:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club's first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth's record was set under a 154-game schedule.

(Let me interrupt for a moment. Everyone was so obsessed with how many games Ruth and Maris played that no one noticed that Maris actually hit his 60th home run in his 684th plate appearance that season. The Babe didn't hit umber 60 until he had stepped into the batter's box for the 689th time. But let's move on.)

In the late Maury Allen's biography, Roger Maris, a Man for All Seasons, he explains what happened next and how the myth of the asterisk was born. During Frick's press conference, Dick Young called out loud, "Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there's a difference of opinion." Frick said that he agreed, and many took him at his word: There would, they assumed, be an asterisk next to Maris's name in the record book, or books.

What Pepe and other baseball historians didn't understand is that Frick was not making a ruling but merely stating an opinion. In fact, he had no power to place an asterisk or any other qualifier on anything. There were several record books in use back then, but they were all independent of the commissioner's office. In 1998, Total Baseball was given the job of being the "official" record book of major league baseball. Needless to say, there is no asterisk in Total Baseball's record book next to Maris's entry, nor any double entry.

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick's denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. "No asterisk," he wrote, "has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment." Frick, though, couldn't resist reminding us in his book that "[Maris's] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season." Since practically no one read Frick's book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported "The single record thesis," meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris's record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent's "removal" of it.

So far, the combined efforts of two commissioners, Phil Pepe, Maury Allen, and myself have done nothing to obliterate the legend of the asterisk. The irony is that if it had been real, Fay Vincent's pronouncement probably would have done away with it. The fact that is never existed in the first place has made it impossible to erase from our subconscious.

Then, in 2001, Billy Crystal captured the era and the excitement—as well as the misinformation—in his wonderful baseball film, 61*, with Barry Pepper as Roger Maris and Thomas Jayne as Mickey Mantle. And so a new generation of baseball fans has grown up believing in the asterisk that never was.

We'll give the last word to David James Duncan:

The perfect justice of a Hereafter is seldom obtainable in the here, but in the Otherworldy world of baseball lore the Commissioner's asterisk has in fact received an unusually just reward: question a crowd of baseball buffs today and you'll find that Frick, if remembered at all, is remembered solely as the guy who branded Maris's sixty-one homers with the *.

Whereas everybody remembers Roger Maris.
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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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