When he hit his 59th home ran of the season in Baltimore last week, Roger Maris stood one swing away from baseball's household god, George Herman Ruth. During the previous month, as he pursued the magic mark of 60, Maris lived under suffocating, unrelenting pressure—pressure such as no ballplayer has ever had to endure, not even Babe Ruth himself. Throughout most of that month Roger Kahn, on assignment from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, was an unobtrusive but constant observer of Maris's triumphs and trials.
Someone has described Roger Maris as "the most typical ballplayer in the world." Like all capsulizations, the description is incomplete, but it is a starter. Beyond anything else, Maris is a professional baseball player. His speech, his mannerisms, his attitudes derive from the curious society that is a ball club. But into this society he has brought an integrity that is entirely his own, a fierce, combative kind of integrity that is unusual in baseball as it would be unusual anywhere. It is the integrity, and his desperate effort to retain it, that has made the ordeal of Roger Maris a compelling and disturbing thing to behold.
Maris is handsome in an unconventional way. Perhaps the most arresting feature of his face is the mouth. The points of his upper lip curl toward his nose, creating the effect of a Cupid's bow. He smiles easily, on cue. When one of the blur of photographers covering him orders, "Come on, a nice smile." the response is quick. Then as soon as the picture is taken, the smile vanishes. This knack—the forced unforced smile—is common enough among chorus girls but not among ballplayers, who, after all, are not in the smiling business. It is the only public relations device that Maris has mastered completely.
When Maris is angry or annoyed or upset, the mouth changes into a grim slash in a hard face. His nose is somewhat pointed, his cheekbones rather high, and the face under the crew-cut brown hair can become menacing. Since Maris's speech is splattered with expletives common among ballplayers, some observers form an unfortunate first impression. They see a hard-looking, tough-talking man and assume that is all there is to see.
September 25, 1994
Maris's build bespeaks sports. He was an outstanding right halfback at Shanley High School in Fargo, N.Dak., and he might have played football at Oklahoma "except during the entrance exams I decided not to." He is a strong six-footer of 197 pounds, with muscles that flow rather than bulge. He would be hard to stop on the two-yard line.
At bat he is unobtrusive, until he hits the ball. He walks to the plate briskly, pumps his 33-ounce bat once or twice and is ready. He has none of the idiosyncrasies—Musial's hip wiggle, Colavito's shoulder shake—by which fans like to identify famous sluggers. Nor does he, like Ruth and Mantle, hit home runs of 500 feet. By his own estimate, "If I hit it just right, it goes about 450 feet, but they don't give you two homers for hitting one 800 feet, do they?" His swing is controlled and compact. He uppercuts the ball slightly, and his special talent is pulling the ball. Maris can pull any pitch in the strike zone. Only one of his homers has gone to the left of centerfield.
His personality is unfinished; it is easy to forget that he has just tinned 27 and only recently become a star. He may change now, as his life changes, as his world grows larger than a diamond, but at the moment he is impetuous, inclined to gripe harmlessly and truthful to a fault.
Recently a reporter, preparing an article for high school students, asked, "Who's your favorite male singer?"
"Frank Sinatra," Maris said.
I don't have a favorite female singer."
"Well," the reporter said, "would it be all right if I wrote Doris Day?"
"How could you write Doris Day when I tell you I don't have a favorite?" Maris said, mystified by the ways of some journalists.
In Detroit after Maris hit his 57th home run off the facade of the roof in right centerfield, Al Kaline picked up the ball and threw it toward the Yankee dugout.
"Wasn't that nice of Kaline?" a reporter asked.
"Anybody would have done it," Maris said. "It was nice of Kaline, but any ballplayer would have done it."
In Chicago someone asked if he really wanted to break Ruth's record. "Damn right," Maris said, neglecting to pay the customary fealty to the Babe.
"What I mean is." the reporter said, "Ruth was a great man."
"Maybe I'm not a great man," Maris said, "but I damn well want to break the record."
Later Rogers Hornsby suggested a pitching pattern to stop Maris. "Throw the first two inside and make him foul them," Hornsby said, "then conic outside so he can't pull. It would be a shame if Ruth's record got broken by a .270 hitter."
"——Hornsby," Maris said. "They been trying that on mc all year, and you see how it works."
This is an era of image makers and small lies, and such candor is rare and apparently confusing. Newspapers have been crowded with headlines beginning MARIS BLASTS—which is a bad phrase. He doesn't blast, he answers questions. Fans, some rooting for Ruth's memory but others responding to the headlines, have booed Maris repeatedly. "Hey, Maris," someone shouted in Chicago, "the only thing you got in common with Ruth is a belly." It has been a difficult time for Maris and a bad time for truth.
Every day Maris has been surrounded before and after games by 10 or 15 newspapermen. Necessarily, many questions are repeated endlessly. Inevitably some of Maris's answers are misinterpreted. Occasionally taste vanishes.
"Do you play around on the road?" a magazine writer asked.
"I'm a married man," Maris said.
"I'm married myself," the writer said, "but I play around on the road."
"That's your business," Maris said.
A reporter from Texas asked if Maris would rather bat .300 or hit 60 home runs, and a reporter in Detroit wanted to know if a righthander's curve broke in on him. ("I would suppose so," Maris said with controlled sarcasm, "seeing that I bat left.") But aside from such extremes, most of the questions have not been either very good or very bad. They have been multitudinous.
Under this pressure, which is both a part of and distinct from the actual pursuit of Ruth, Maris has made four mistakes. A wire service carried a story in late August quoting Maris as saying that he didn't care about the record, that all he wanted was the money 61 homers meant. "I don't think I said that," Maris says, "and I know I didn't say it like it came out." Then, in the space of 10 September days, he criticized the fans at Yankee Stadium and the calls of umpire Hank Soar and, finally, hurt and angry, refused to meet the press after a doubleheader in Detroit.
"An unfortunate image," comments Hank Greenberg, who as Cleveland's general manager signed Maris for a $15,000 bonus in 1952. "I know him, and he's just a boy. They get him talking, and he says things maybe you don't say to reporters. The year I hit 58 , the fans got pretty rough. Drunks called me Jew bastard and kike, and I'd come in and sound off about the fans. Then the next day I'd meet a kid, all pop-eyed to be shaking my hand, and I'd know I'd been wrong. But the writers protected me then. Why aren't the writers protecting Maris now?"
Even if they chose to, reporters could not "protect" Maris because Maris is being covered more intensely than any other figure in sports history. Not Ruth, or Dempsey, or Tilden, or Jones was ever subjected to such interviewing and shadowing for so sustained a period. No one can protect Maris; he must protect himself. But to do this, he would have to duck questions and tell hall-truths, and both are contrary to his nature. Such is his dilemma. Obscurity is the only cure.
Maris talks softly and clearly, but he is not a phrasemaker. He is not profound. He is a physical man, trying to adjust to a complex psychological situation. This day he is wearing a tomato-colored polo shirt, and he is smoking one of the cigarettes he is paid to endorse.
He is asked what word he would use to describe all the attention he has received.
He thinks for a moment and says, "Irritating. I enjoy bull sessions with the guys [reporters]. But this is different, the questions day after day, the big story. I say a guy [Hank Soar] missed a few. I've always said it. Now it's in the papers, and it comes out like I'm asking for favors. I'm saying"—a touch of anger colors his voice—"call a strike a strike and call a ball a ball, but in the papers it appears like I'm looking for favors."
About the people he meets?
"Mostly they're inconsiderate. The fans, they really get on me. Rip me, my family, everything. I like to eat in the Stage [a New York deli], and it's got so bad I can't eat there. I can't get a mouthful of food down without someone bothering me. They even ask for autographs at Mass."
Now he is talking more easily, going from topic to topic at the drop of a word. Like this:
Babe Ruth: "Why can't they understand? I don't want to be Babe Ruth. He was a great ballplayer. I'm not trying to replace him. The record is there, and damn right I want to break it, but that isn't replacing Babe Ruth."
Old-timers, generally: "It gets me sore, they keep comparing me to Ruth, running me down, and I'm not trying to be Ruth. It gets me damn sore."
Money: "I want enough for me and my family, but I don't really care that much for money. I want security, but if I really cared about money, I'd move to New York this winter, wouldn't I? That's where the real money is, isn't it? But I'm not moving to New York."
Fame: "It's good and it's bad. It's good being famous, but I can't do the things I like anymore. Like bulling with the writers. I like to go out in public and be recognized a little. Hell, I'm proud to be a ballplayer. But I don't like being busted in on all the time, and now when I go out, I'm busted in on all the time."
Cheers: "I don't tip my cap. I'd be kind of embarrassed to. I figure the fans who cheer me know I appreciate it."
His current plight: "I'm on my own all the way, and I'm the same me I was, and Mickey is, too. Once in a while, maybe, it makes me go into a shell, but most of the time"—pride stirs in his voice—"I'm exactly the same as I was."
Pressure: "I don't feel a damn thing once the game starts. I honestly don't. But before the game, and afterward, the writers and the photographers and the questions. That's pressure. That's hard. In the game it's the same as always. I've been taking my swings. I've had some good swings, but I've fouled some good pitches back. I'm not losing any sleep or anything like that, but I'm damn tired, and when the season ends, I'm going right home and rest."
Ralph Houk, the manager of the Yankees, won a silver star and a purple heart in Europe during World War II and so is familiar with pressure. Of Maris he said, "I'd say it really got bad for him in Minneapolis [in late August]. I'd say it began, you know, real bad when we were out there," Houk paused. "Some funny things happen," he said. "Remember at the Stadium when the Indians knocked out Whitey Ford in the second inning? I was worried. Whitey's leg was bothering him, and Ford is a hell of a Series pitcher. So when the game was over I started figuring what I'd tell the writers when they asked me what was wrong with Ford. You know something? Nobody asked."
Ford himself, a worldly young man, added, "It's the damnedest thing. All my life I've been trying to win 20. This year I win 24, and all anybody asks me about is home runs." Ford's tone was pleasant, a trifle puzzled but not angry.
When the Yankees arrived in Minneapolis on that August trip, Maris had 51 homers and Mantle 46. Both were comfortably ahead of Ruth's record pace, and both had to share uncomfortable amounts of attention.
A chartered bus appeared in front of the Hotel Radisson well in advance of each game to carry the Yankees to Metropolitan Stadium. The downtown area of Minneapolis is compact, and the bus served as a signal to hundreds of Minneapolitans. As soon as it appeared, they herded into the hotel lobby. "Seen Rog?" they asked. "Where's Mick?" Enterprising children posted a watch on the eighth floor, where many of the Yankees were quartered. When Maris or Mantle approached the elevator, a child scout would sprint down eight flights and shout to the lobby, "Here they come." (Fortunately for the child scout, the elevators were unhurried relics of a more leisurely time.)
What followed in the lobby was the sort of surge one associates with lynchings. Maris and Mantle survived that first day because they are powerful men, but the next, tipped off by a friendly bellman, they began leaving the elevator on the second floor and taking a back stairway to the street.
Nothing much happened the first night in Minneapolis, except that Camilo Pascual of the Minnesota Twins became the father of a son and pitched a four-hit shutout. But a day later Mantle hit his 47th, lifting a slow curve over the leftfield fence.
Reporters gathered around him afterward, and Mantle handled them easily. "I tell you that was the most surprised I've been all season," he said. "If I'da missed it, I woulda been on first anyway. The catcher couldn'ta caught it." Later Mantle cut his cheek shaving, and Gus Mauch, the Yankee trainer, had to be summoned to stop the bleeding.
"Gillette?" someone asked.
On the third day the mayor of Fargo appeared at the ballpark to present Maris with a "certificate of appreciation for your loyalty and devotion to your hometown of Fargo." (Maris was born in Hibbing, Minn., and lives in Raytown, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., but he did spend his boyhood in Fargo and play American Legion baseball there.) Mantle hit number 48 in the fourth inning. Maris did nothing.
The Yankees Hew to New York, where they settled the pennant race by sweeping a three-game series from Detroit. They beat Don Mossi 1-0 in the first game on Bill Skowron's single in the ninth inning. Maris and Mantle were hitless, but still they attracted the largest crowds in the clubhouse.
"Mossi had good stuff," Mantle said of his own effort.
"When you're going lousy, you're lousy," Maris said of his.
The next day Maris hit two home runs, his 52nd and 53rd, but Mantle pulled a muscle checking a swing. "I'll take you out," Houk told Mantle on the bench. "I'll help," Mantle said. "I'll bunt. I'll field. I'll get on." Mantle stayed in the lineup, and a day later he hit two, his 49th and his 50th. The Tigers never recovered, and now, with the Yankees all but certain to win the pennant, fans, reporters and photographers turned all their attention to Maris and Mantle. Newspapers started guessing games, with cash prizes for those who forecast how many homers the two would hit. A stripper, playing a minor burlesque circuit, adopted the name of Mickey Maris. A Japanese sports editor sent a list of 18 questions to the Associated Press in New York, requesting that Maris and Mantle answer all of them.
After hearing five or six, Maris said to the AP reporter, "This is driving me nuts."
"That's my next question," the reporter shouted. "They want to know how you're reacting to all this."
During the next week at Yankee Stadium, Maris hit number 54, a fierce liner to right center off Tom Cheney of Washington; number 55, a high drive into the bleachers off Dick Stigman of Cleveland; and number 56, another drive into the bleachers, off Mudcat Grant, another Indian. Mantle also hit three, and this week, which ended on Sept. 10, was the last in which Mantle fully shared the pre-and postgame pressures.
As a young ballplayer, Mantle had been almost mute in the presence of interviewers. "Yup" was a long answer: "maybe" was an oration. But over the years he has developed a noncommittal glibness and a fair touch with a light line. "When I hit 48." he told a group one day. "I said to Rog, 'I got my man. The pressure's off me.' " (The year Ruth hit 60, Lou Gehrig hit 47.) Such comments kept Mantle's press relations reasonably relaxed, but Maris, three years younger than Mantle, 10 years younger a star, had to labor. Maris insists that such laborings had no effect on his play, but others close to him are not so sure. "Those daily press conferences didn't do him any good," remarked one friend.
Two days before the Yankee home stand ended, a reporter asked Maris about the fans behind him in rightfield. "Terrible." Maris said. "Maybe the worst in the league." He recounted a few unprintable remarks that had been shouted at him and, under consistent prodding, ran down the customers for 10 or 15 minutes. The next day, after reading the papers, he said to an acquaintance, "That's it. I've been trying to be a good guy to the writers, but I quit. You heard me talking. Did I sound like the papers made it look?"
"Well, from now on I'll tell the writers what pitch I hit, but no more big spiels."
"Because one or two reporters roughed you, are you going to take it out on everybody now?"
Maris looked uncomfortable. "Listen," he said, "I like a lot of the writers. But even so, they are Number 2; Number 1 is myself. I got to look out for myself. If it hurts someone else, damn it, I'm sorry, but I got to look out for myself more than I have."
Maris hit no homers in the doubleheader that concluded the home stand and afterward committed the only truly graceless act of his ordeal. "Well?" a reporter said to Maris, whose locker adjoins Elston Howard's.
"He hit a homer, not me," Maris said, gesturing toward Howard. "Mr. Howard, tell these gentlemen how you did it."
"If I had 55 homers, I'd be glad to tell the gentlemen," Howard said pleasantly.
"Fifty-six," Maris corrected. "What are you trying to do? Shortchange me?" Then he marched into the players' lounge to watch television.
A fringe of Hurricane Carla arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 12, shortly after the Yankees. The game had to be called in the bottom of the sixth, when a downpour hit Comiskey Park. Maris had come to bat four times and gone homerless. Reporters asked him if he'd had good pitches to hit.
"I didn't get too many strikes," Maris said. "But they were called strikes. Soar had me swinging in self-defense."
The next day's newspapers headlined that casual, typical ballplayer's gripe. Maris was shocked and horrified. Until that moment he had not fully realized the impact his words now carried. Until that moment he had not fully realized the price one must pay for being a hero. He was upset, withdrawn. Tortured would be too strong a word, but only slightly. He showed his hurt by saying little; his mouth appeared permanently set in its hard line. He hit no home runs in Chicago, and when the Yankees moved on to Detroit, he hit none in a twi-night doubleheader.
That was the night he declined to meet the press. His brother, Rudy, a mechanical engineer, had driven from his home in Cincinnati to see the games, and later Roger and Rudy sat in the trainer's room, from which reporters are barred. "Get him out," a reporter told Bob Fishel, the Yankee publicity director.
Fishel talked briefly to Maris. "He says he's not coming out," Fishel announced. "He says he's been ripped in every city he's been in, and he's not coming out."
"Rog won't come out," a reporter told Houk.
"That's his business," Houk said.
"Why can't we go in and talk to him, and his brother can?"
"Are you trying to tell me how to run my clubhouse?" Houk said, flaring. "Is that what you're trying to do?"
"But his brother...."
"That's right, he's talking to his brother, and if he had 150 brothers, they couldn't all come in, but he's only got one. If that isn't the funniest thing all year, you telling me a man has no right to talk to his brother."
When things calmed, someone said quietly to Houk, "The important thing is for him to make an appearance."
"I know that," Houk said, "and I know Maris, and now is not the time to talk to him. We'll all be more relaxed later on."
Eventually Maris reconsidered, relaxed and emerged.
"Any complaints about the umpiring tonight?" a Detroit newspaperman asked.
"Nope," Maris said, "and you got me wrong. I don't complain about umpiring."
When the reporters left, Mantle walked over to Maris. "Mick, it's driving me nuts, I'm telling you," Maris said.
"And I'm telling you, you got to get used to it," Mantle said. Houk then joined Mantle, and the manager talked to Maris for a long time.
The next night Maris hit number 57, the one Kaline retrieved, and a day later, after missing a home run by a foot when he tripled off the fence in right, he won the game for the Yankees in the 12th inning with number 58, a drive into the upper deck in right centerfield.
As the ball carried high and far, the Yankee dugout erupted in excitement. "Attaboy, Rog!" the most sophisticated players in the major leagues shouted, and "Yea" and "Attababy."
"It was one of the warmest things I've seen all year," said Bob Cerv, the Yankee outfielder. "We all know how tough it's been for Rog, and I guess we all decided right then, all at once, that we wanted him to know how much we were for him."
The team went to Baltimore by train. Maris had hit and lost a homer there on July 17, when rain stopped a game in the fifth inning before it was official. He had hit no other homers in the Orioles' large park. If he were going to catch Ruth in 154 games, he would have to hit two there in two days.
He hit none the first night, dragging through a double-header. Now, in addition to hoots from the stands, he was getting hoots by mail (two dozen letters) and wire (six telegrams). "A lot of people in this country must think it's a crime to have anyone break Ruth's record," he said.
The second night, in the Yankees' 154th game, Mantle, who had long since left center stage, vanished into the wings with a cold. Before the game his eyes were glazed and he was coughing and spitting phlegm. He wasn't well enough to play, and game 154 was left to Maris alone.
No one who saw game 154, who beheld Maris's response to the challenge, is likely soon to forget it. His play was as brave and as moving and as thrilling as a baseball player's can be. There were more reporters and photographers around him now than ever before. Newsmen swelled the Yankee party, which normally numbers 45, to 71. And this was the town where Babe Ruth was born, and the crowd had not come to cheer Maris.
The first time up, Maris shot a line drive to Earl Robinson in rightfield. He had overpowered Milt Pappas's pitch, but he had not gotten under the ball quite enough. Perhaps an eighth of an inch on the bat was all that kept the drive from sailing higher and farther.
In the third inning Maris took a ball, a breaking pitch inside, swung and missed, took another ball and then hit number 59, a 390-foot line drive that all but broke a seat in the bleachers. Three more at bats, and one home run to tie.
When he came up again, Dick Hall was pitching. Maris took two strikes and cracked a liner, deep but foul, to right. Then he struck out. When Maris came to bat again in the seventh inning the players in the Yankee bullpen, behind the fence in right center, rose and walked to the fence. "Come on, Roger, baby, hit it to me," shouted Jim Coates. "If I have to go 15 rows into the stands, I'll catch that number 60 for you."
"You know," said Whitey Ford, "I'm really nervous."
Maris took a strike, then whaled a tremendous drive to right-field. Again he had overpowered the ball, and again he had hit a foul. Then he lifted a long fly to right center, and there was that eighth of an inch again. An eighth of an inch lower on the bat and the long fly might have been a home run—the home run.
Hoyt Wilhelm was pitching in the ninth. He threw Maris a low knuckleball, and Maris, checking his swing, fouled it back. Wilhelm threw another knuckler, and Maris moved his body but not his bat. The knuckler, veering abruptly, hit the bat, and the ball rolled back to Wilhelm, who tagged Maris near first base.
"I'm just sorry I didn't go out with a real good swing," Maris said. "But that Wilhelm." He shook his head. He had overpowered pitches in four of his five times at bat and had gotten only one home run. "Like they say," he said, "you got to be lucky."
Robert Reitz, an unemployed Baltimorean, retrieved number 59 and announced that the ball was worth $2,500.
"I'd like to have it," said Maris, blunt to the end, "but I'm not looking to get rid of that kind of money for it."
The Yankees won the 154th game, 4-2, and with it clinched the American League pennant. Maris wore a gray sweater at the victory party, and someone remarked that in gray and with his crew cut, he looked like a West Point football player. One remembered then how young he is, and how he believes in honesty, as youth does.
"The big thing with you," a friend said to him, "is you tell the truth and don't go phony."
"That's all I know," Roger Maris said. "That's the only way I know how to be. That's the way I'm gonna stay."
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.