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AN ASTERISK IS BORN

Except for a dozen wronged bartenders and a handful of die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fans, the whole world's happy this week that Mickey Mantle continues to recover from liver transplant surgery. We Americans like our heroic myths to go on forever, even in defiance of logic, and the Mick still supports myth aplenty atop those gimpy knees and 536 home runs of his.

He stands with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the all-time Yankees pantheon, and the idea of him has gone on long past his playing days. Ask any Yankees fan and he'll tell you exactly how Number Seven looked on a certain afternoon thirty or forty years ago as he slammed a homer into the upper deck or raced under a fly ball in Yankee Stadium's cavernous center field.

For baseball lovers, such feats are not public domain: They're deeply private. We like to convince ourselves that the Mick (or Willie, or the Duke, or Dante) performs for us and no one else. In the hierarchy of values, family heirlooms and conjugal love sometimes have trouble measuring up to the sun-drenched memory of, say, Mantle stealing third.

So why did Roger Maris get such a raw deal?
As Mantle recovers in Texas and baseball's current crop of pumped-up bashers--the ones who aren't on the 1995 disabled list, that is--continue an assault on old home-run records that began in last year's strike-shortened season, the tragedy of Roger Maris comes flooding back to mind.

He accomplished one of the remarkable feats in baseball history. But his first sin was that he was not Babe Ruth. His second was that he was not Mickey Mantle.

In the bittersweet summer of 1961, the big, quiet Yankee outfielder from Hibbing, Minnesota, did what no other slugger--not Foxx, not Greenberg, not Kiner, not Mays--had done: He struck 61 home runs in a season, to break, by one, a record set 34 years earlier by the beloved oaf Ruth. Under normal circumstances, Maris's feat would have been hailed as the inevitable triumph of better nourishment, superior training methods and raw young power over the ghost of tradition. Under normal circumstances, New Yorkers would have given Maris the key to the city, showered him with ticker tape, then gone home to bed with faith renewed that the Yankees were, and always would be, the greatest team the world had ever known.

Instead, they booed the man all season long.
"Why shouldn't he break Ruth's record?" Yankees manager Casey Stengel asked. "He's got more power than Stalin." But one enduring image from that year is a black-and-white newspaper photograph, shot in September under obvious duress, in which Roger Maris stands glumly beside Ruth's bronze monument in center field at the stadium. Another is one of those "Tale of the Tape" charts--emblazoned across the New York Daily Mirror's sports section--in which the slugger of 1961 is revealed to be in every way physically inferior to the legend he is about to topple: In 1927, Ruth was 32; Maris was 26. Ruth weighed 251, Maris 200. The Bambino was six-foot-two, Roger six feet. Even the notation regarding the Sultan of Swat's beer-keg midriff--waist size 48, to Maris's mere 35 1/4--slyly minimizes poor Roger. Real legends are big around, it said here.

But if the odious comparisons to the Babe that Maris suffered that summer were understandable up in the House That Ruth Built, the way New Yorkers (indeed, Yankees fans everywhere) shoved him into second place behind Mantle was appalling. Clearly, the faithful wanted their golden boy, not Maris, to break Ruth's record--if someone had to. For a while it looked as if they'd get their wish. By May 17 Mantle had ten homers to Maris's four, but then Roger caught fire and led the race 27-22 by June 22. At the All-Star break they were dead even, and on July 19 Maris was 19 games ahead of Ruth's pace with 35 homers, while Mantle had hit 33.

While the long-ball pressure mounted on New York's "M and M Boys," then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick belittled the effort with his meddling. A former sportswriter who had often lined his pockets ghostwriting articles for his old friend Ruth, Frick emerged from his usual absenteeism to declare that if any player were to break Ruth's record, an asterisk would go next to his name if he took more than 154 games to do it. The major-league season was now 162 games long, after all.

What got ignored amid the frenzy and the fans' ill feeling--what's still ignored--was the quality of Maris's friendship with Mantle. Three years younger than his famous teammate but not so naive, Maris got concerned early in the 1961 season that Mantle was blowing his wad living in a suite at the St. Moritz Hotel in Manhattan and that he was--yes--drinking too much. So, amid the home run race, Maris prevailed upon the Mick to join him and outfielder Bob Cerv in their roomy Queens apartment. Mantle accepted. This was a simpler time for baseball and for America, of course, but believe it: The sudden sight of Maris and the Mick pushing their twin shopping carts up the aisle of the Bohack supermarket in Queens Village caused more than one startled shopper to drop a carton of eggs.

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