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  •   Passing Maris Logo

    For Marises, Memories Both Bitter and Sweet

     "Dad would enjoy it," says Kevin Maris, above, of the efforts by contemporary players to break the record of 61 home runs. (Gene Bednerek - For the Post)
    By William Gildea
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, August 17, 1998; Page A1

    GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Two weeks ago, two of Roger Maris's sons met the man who for most of the summer has led the chase after their father's cherished record of 61 home runs in a season. Maris's mark has stood for 37 years, even longer than Babe Ruth's sacred 60 that had been the most hallowed record in a sport of records. But Maris's 61 never has been threatened as it has been this season by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. The Marises' meeting with McGwire stirred memories both bitter and sweet.

    As McGwire took batting practice in Atlanta before his St. Louis Cardinals played the Braves, Kevin and Richard Maris observed the horde of media surrounding McGwire and understood what the huge slugger meant recently when he revealed that he felt like "a caged animal" during his pregame cuts. It was no different than the stress their father experienced in 1961 when even his hair fell out, leaving bald patches in his crew cut. "No one in any sport endured more pressure over a more prolonged period than Roger," Tony Kubek, one of Maris's teammates on the 1961 New York Yankees, said the other day.

    Maris, who died of cancer in 1985 at the age of 51, was a plain-spoken man from North Dakota who was only 26 when he broke the record of baseball's most mythical figure. Maris was introverted and unprepared for the tumult that he unleashed. Now his sons could see the pressure building on McGwire. They liked him and empathized with him. "A really nice guy, a class guy," Kevin Maris said. But just the same, the Maris family hopes Roger's record will remain intact.

    "Wouldn't you?" said Kevin Maris, 37. "I don't think anybody on earth would want their record broken. I think anybody who has a record would want to keep it. But whether it's broken this year or next year or in five years or 10 years, we've enjoyed what Dad accomplished in baseball."

    The family, Kevin said, is not rooting against McGwire or the others; it wouldn't wish ill on anyone. "We're not obsessed," said Kevin, who played one season of Class A baseball and later pro golf on the smaller circuits. But he usually knows before he goes to bed at night how each of the home run leaders did. He thought if his father were alive, he, too, would watch TV at night for the results. "Dad would enjoy it," he said. "He would know what each of them is going through."

    But while McGwire, Sosa and Griffey enjoy almost universal support in their quest, many people rooted openly against Maris in 1961. Should his record fall – Sosa hit his 47th homer of the season yesterday, tying McGwire for the major league lead, five ahead of Griffey – baseball officials await the opportunity to call attention to the sport with a celebration rivaling that given the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken when he surpassed Lou Gehrig's number of consecutive games played in 1995.

    But as he pursued Ruth, Maris lugged a burden born of a popular notion that he threatened baseball's biggest icon. Who was Maris to come along and defile the sacrosanct?

    The Milwaukee Journal's Oliver Keuchle wrote after Maris hit No. 59: "If the record is to be broken, it should be done by someone of greater baseball stature and greater color and public appeal. . . . Maris is colorless. . . . There just isn't anything deeply heroic about the man."

    Within the Maris family, the words still hurt.

    A Father's Legacy
    Roger Maris Field is a manicured diamond set amid trees on the grounds of a small private high school named Oak Hall. More than 20 years ago, Maris persuaded Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to contribute $25,000 toward its construction. Maris put down the sod himself. Today, Kevin Maris coaches baseball there, "passing on to the younger guys" everything about the sport that he learned from his father.

    Roger Maris was buried in his hometown of Fargo, N.D., in the snow and numbing cold of a December day. But few players not in baseball's Hall of Fame are remembered as often as Maris, especially during seasons when someone makes a run at his record.

    His image, of course, remains ever vivid to his family, which has lived in Florida since the late August Busch, then owner of the Cardinals, gave Maris a beer distributorship on his retirement from baseball in 1968 after two seasons with the team.

    "I look back and it's hard to believe that Dad did something no one else in the game did," said Kevin Maris, who looks remarkably like the father with his flattop and pale blue eyes.

    "I remember like it was yesterday – Dad laying the sod out here, breaking a good sweat," said the son, sitting in an Oak Hall dugout on a hot, humid afternoon. Looking out on the field, he remembered his father as an all-around player, an excellent outfielder and base runner.

    "Dad took pride in every aspect of the game," the younger Maris said. "All the small things. Throwing to the right base. Not missing the cut-off man. Never making a base-running mistake. Never being satisfied, but always looking to take the extra base.

    "Running the bases is an art in itself. He sacrificed personal statistics," coming back too soon from injuries when he wasn't fully ready, ignoring his batting average in favor of power numbers – in both instances because that's what the Yankees wanted.

    Maris – 6 feet, 205 pounds, sturdily built and gifted with a compact, slightly uppercut left-handed swing – preferred to go about his work and be left alone. He was not particularly articulate. Reporters pinned him against his locker before and after games, seeking some response, preferably something new, even as he wished futilely that what he did on the field spoke for him. He hated questions not having to do with baseball – some of the people he brushed off wrote scathingly of him. Some fans, picking up on his mixed press clippings, booed him.

    Then, too, many preferred that Maris's glamorous teammate, the switch-hitting Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio's successor and a certain Hall of Famer, break Ruth's record if it had to be broken.

    Even other Yankees favored Mantle, who batted fourth, behind Maris. "All the teammates were for Mickey to break the record," said former second baseman Bobby Richardson, who lives in Sumter, S.C. A lay minister, Richardson delivered the eulogy at Maris's funeral and spoke at Mantle's. "Mickey was thought of as the 'true' Yankee. Roger had been traded in from Kansas City. I think Roger understood. He was an unusual ballplayer. He didn't care about individual honors."

    Maris hadn't even wanted to go to New York when he was traded there for the 1960 season. Yet it was almost as if he had been fated. After finishing with 16 home runs and 72 RBI in 1959, he had 39 homers and an AL-best 112 RBI in his first season with the Yankees (Mantle led the league in homers with 40).

    Maris started slowly in 1961, hitting only three home runs through May 16. But over the next 38 games he hit 24. He sought no record but once it became apparent that a record was possible, he wanted it.

    He connected off good pitchers and, in an expansion season like this one, some who were marginal. The more he did, it seemed to him, the more was wanted from him. He grew increasingly anxious. He smoked Camels in the clubhouse.

    Maris withstood heartache, and more: Ford Frick, then the commissioner, struck at his soul. Frick, who had been a friend of Ruth's and once was Ruth's ghostwriter, ruled in July 1961 that Maris would have to break 60 in 154 games to set a record; if he did it later in the new 162-game schedule, an asterisk would be added. Maris felt the weight of opinion against him; it's still felt by his wife, Pat, their six children, his mother and his older brother.

    "I look back and it's hard to believe that Dad did something no one else in the game did,"

    Kevin Maris
    But there's solace for them in this season. Kevin Maris said that because McGwire and the others have raised awareness about the difficulties involved in breaking the record, "I think there is understanding now about what it took to do what Dad accomplished in 1961."

    On July 25, Maris hit two home runs in each game of a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium. That gave him 40.

    "The more people said he couldn't do it, he tried harder – he became more determined," Kubek said over the phone from northern Wisconsin, where he was about to go fishing with another former teammate, third baseman Clete Boyer.

    That determination revealed itself 37 years ago this past week. Maris had been in a slump. He had managed only one home run in more than two weeks. While the Yankees were on a train to Washington, he sought advice from Wally Moses, once a top-flight player who was then the Yankees' hitting coach. That series, Maris hit four home runs in four games against the first-year expansion Senators, playing their last season at Griffith Stadium.

    Facing left-hander Pete Burnside in the first game, Maris hit a ball over the big right field wall and struck a light tower. The next day, he hit another mammoth blast over the wall against an otherwise sharp Dick Donovan.

    Then in a doubleheader to close the series, Maris hit a home run in each game, against Bennie Daniels and Marty Kutyna. Maris and Mantle each left Washington with 45 home runs after 117 games.

    In September, the Yankees, one of the best teams ever, finally opened some distance from the persistent Detroit Tigers to all but end the pennant race. Then, Mantle was knocked out of the home run chase. Suffering flu symptoms, he received a shot from a doctor that resulted in an abscessed hip. Mantle could barely twist and swing a bat after that.

    Maris was on his way to the record. And a world watched.

    "We had a plane full of writers following us," recalled Bob Turley, then a pitcher with the Yankees.

    Maris hit No. 59 in Baltimore off Milt Pappas on Sept. 20. Seeking a haven, Maris spent that series in the home of Whitey Herzog, then playing for the Orioles. The two had long been friends, and their children had played together when both families lived in Kansas City.

    During the series, the Yankees played their 154th game. Orioles manager Luman Harris brought in Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm to pitch to Maris in his last turn at bat within Frick's prescribed deadline. Maris tapped back to the mound against a pitcher he always found difficult.

    Afterward, Maris humbly told reporters that he had done his best and if all he merited was an asterisk, so be it. But there were more games, and Maris kept swinging.

    The writers maintained their own pursuit. Maris hit No. 60 against Baltimore's Jack Fisher at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26, in the 159th game. On Oct. 1, Maris hit No. 61, also at Yankee Stadium, off Boston's Tracy Stallard in the 163rd game (a tie game had been played on April 22). Only 23,000 attended, but Turley, who was in the bullpen that day, remembered fans crowding together in right field hoping to catch the historic home run.

    "One guy had his coat off – he was going to try to catch the ball with his coat," Turley said. "We all had our gloves on. When he hit it, we ran underneath the stands toward the dugout to congratulate him. I hit my head on a beam and knocked myself down. I saw stars. I was the last to get to the dugout. All the players had him surrounded. They had to push him back out to acknowledge the crowd."

    It didn't get easier for Maris in later seasons. In 1962 he could not live up to expectations of another record-breaking season. Still, he averaged 35 home runs and 100 runs batted in for five years through 1962.

    In 1963 he was often injured, the result of playing hard. But in 1964 he rallied for 26 home runs and 71 RBI. In 1965 he suffered a critical injury. Sliding back into second base, Maris broke his wrist. That, said his son Kevin, "robbed him of his power."

    Roger Maris grew alienated from the Yankees because they played down the injury, leaving him to struggle with it. They showed him even less courtesy two years later.

    "The Yankees traded him without telling him," Kevin Maris said. "He had been considering retiring. But instead of leaving the Cardinals on the short end, he said he'd play two years."

    The Cardinals twice went to the World Series, winning in 1967. Maris, happy at long last, did well – nine homers, 55 RBI and a .261 batting average in '67. "Dad went back to playing his game," said Kevin.

    A decade later, George Steinbrenner called. Maris had purposely stayed away from Yankee Stadium, but the new owner wanted to bring him back to participate in old-timers functions. Maris agreed, on the condition that Steinbrenner donate the money for the field. "George was good to dad. Dad enjoyed his company," Kevin said.

    In 1984, Steinbrenner invited Maris to Yankee Stadium to have his No. 9 retired. "The whole family went up for that," Kevin said. "Dad was very appreciative. It was very touching."

    During his commissionership, Fay Vincent made official what almost everyone knew, that Maris was the sole record-holder with his 61 homers. A final fence-mending for the Maris family would be Maris's election to the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee.

    "He deserves it," said Kevin Maris, walking across Maris Field. "American League MVP in 1960 and '61. The record. For everything he did for baseball, attracting fans to the game just like McGwire is doing now" – ironically, for all the small things he did on the field that made him an excellent player as much as the single thing that made him famous.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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