The impression that Roger Maris makes on baseball fans was graphically, if innocently, revealed the other day by a 10-year-old acquaintance of a New York sportswriter. The 10-year-old said he was a Mets fan, had always been a Mets fan ("always" is a relative term; when you are 10, it means about two seasons) and was against the New York Yankees. "Except Mickey Mantle," he said. "I like Mickey Mantle." Then, in a matter-of-fact, for-motherhood-and-against-the-man-eating-shark tone of voice, he added, "I hate Roger Maris."
What is it about Roger Maris that makes small boys who don't know him say they hate him? Why is he booed every time he comes to bat in every ball park he plays in? Why do sportswriters who cover the Yankees shake their heads when you mention Maris and say, "Forget it. He's nothing"? The famous "gesture" that Maris directed toward a fan in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago—a vulgar signal whose meaning no one could mistake—was a bad thing to do, but it was not in itself enough to arouse the rush of criticism that followed. Other ballplayers have done worse, and protests have been minor. With Maris, it became a national issue. When the Yankees return to Minnesota in July, Maris will be booed and reviled all over again.
But not for the gesture. Maris will be booed because the crowd despises him. It resents him. It dislikes him. Why? Well, Maris is disliked because his behavior on the field—and, as the press reports it, off the field—indicates that he is a petulant, self-pitying, constantly irritated man. He shows contempt for the crowds that hoot at him, for the fans and reporters who ask him obvious and tiresome questions, for the celebrity hunters who badger him and pursue him into the crevices of his privacy. Mostly, though, he is disliked because he has proved to be such an unsatisfactory hero.
When he was just another good ballplayer the crowd did not care—if it knew—that he was a redneck. When he went after Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in one season and broke it, things changed. He was automatically a hero. What the crowd wants first in a hero is a man who can do things, and Maris certainly could do things. What it wants next is a hero with poise and self-assurance, someone it can like as well as admire. Admiration of a hero is essentially admiration of self. When the hero blows his success, when he behaves as stupidly and uncertainly as we might behave ourselves, then self-admiration turns to self-hatred, the harshest form of hate. When Maris, successor to Ruth, showed that he didn't know how to handle the praise and the adulation, he was the personification of the inadequate self, the man who thinks of what he should have said the day after he should have said it. That is how Roger Maris let everyone down—as a hero he was a grievous disappointment—and that is why he is booed.
Maris has often protested, "I'm the same guy I always was. I was this way when I was 10, when I was 15, when I was 20. I haven't changed. I can't change." He and his brother angered people in their home town when they switched high schools because they felt their athletic ability was not sufficiently appreciated in the first school. After he signed with the Cleveland Indians a decade ago he had a succession of bitter disputes with Cleveland officials, disputes that continued to echo after he was traded to Kansas City. When Kansas City traded him to New York—the Promised Land for most players—Maris complained that he didn't want to play in New York and that he would rather stay in Kansas City.
This cantankerous quality went relatively unnoticed until he made his assault on Ruth's record. But then, when dozens of reporters clustered around his locker every day to ask the same questions that he had answered literally hundreds of times already, the natural truculence of his nature began to erupt. Each eruption was magnified in print, and the situation collapsed into a chain reaction of accusation and recrimination. At one point Maris said to Mickey Mantle, "I can't take much more of this." Mantle, who in earlier years had been booed and harassed in much the same way, said, "You have to get used to it."
But Maris did not. That season (1961) of unrelieved strain soured him permanently. The following spring in Florida reporters digging in the dull sameness of training-camp routine for something to write about jumped on Maris for real and imaginary faults. Roger declared a boycott on the press: no more interviews. The boycott didn't last long, but it cooked him. The writers regularly covering the Yankees stood by him for a while, but then they became disenchanted, too. They seldom bother him with questions now, which is fine with Roger but bad for his reputation. "He'll never change," a writer said.
Roger's close friend, Big Julie Isaacson, one of the colorful people you often find in the wings at sports events, disagrees. "He'll change," Big Julie said last week. "You'll see. You don't understand this guy. He's a good kid, a real nice kid. He's got a nice wife, a nice family. Listen, I got four kids, four girls. When they're old enough to get married, if any one of them ever came around with a boy like Rog and said this is the guy they wanted to marry, I'd be the happiest man in the world. He's a great kid. Writers have written things about him that were wrong. They make him out to be a bum who wouldn't talk to anybody. I tell you there's nothing he'd rather do than just sit around and throw the bull, with anybody. He used to like to go to Lindy's for a meal and sit around and talk. But you know how it is with a ballplayer like Maris in public? He can't eat. Every two seconds somebody comes up and sticks a piece of paper in front of his face. 'Here, sign this.' Half the time they don't even have a pen. So they look at Rog and they say, 'What's the matter? You don't have a pen?' "
Julie made a face. "So Rog doesn't go out much. You know what we do? We play pinochle. Roger and Dale Long and me and a friend of mine. When the club is in New York, Rog and Dale live in a place I got for them in Queens. I pick up groceries for them. Look, here's a list. Look: eggs, bacon, pork and beans, juices, soda, one pound ham, bean soup, vegetable soup, a TV Guide. They eat breakfast in, sometimes dinner in, they come over to my house, we play pinochle. Them against me and my friend. They look at each other and do baseball signals—you know, like they hitch the belt and pass one hand over the chest. That's hearts. I try to get even by talking Yiddish to my friend—he's a New York City detective—but he married an Italian girl and he's forgotten how to talk Yiddish. Ah, we have a lot of fun. We bet. A dime, 15¢. I say if I lose tonight I'll walk to the stadium tomorrow. I owe seven walks."
Idyllic. The man who broke Babe Ruth's record playing pinochle for laughs with his friends, eating pork and beans and watching TV. A better life for a small-town boy with a bad temper than being cast in the role of reluctant hero. Big Julie says he'll change, that he'll be easier to get along with in public. Maybe he will.