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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.

Meanwhile, the teammates' pursuit of Ruth continued apace until Mantle injured his right forearm in September, at which point he fell back. At that point, too, Maris's at-bat introductions were often greeted with boos, and even at home in the Bronx, his homers were acknowledged by no more than polite applause. The pressure grew so tough that Maris even pleaded with manager Stengel to be taken out of the lineup.

"I can't take this anymore," Maris told Mantle.
"You got to," the Mick answered.
In the last week of the season, an unnerved Roger Maris hit number 59 off Milt Pappas in Baltimore, whereupon the fan who caught the ball demanded $2,500 for its return. The Yankees declined. Roger got number 60 off Jack Fisher in New York on the Tuesday before the end of the season and, to her credit, Mrs. Babe Ruth was there to congratulate him. The last game of the regular season was played that Friday, and Maris came to Yankee Stadium needing one home run for the record. But only 23,154 fans showed up to watch one of the most cherished records in baseball fall--despite the $5,000 reward a restaurateur had offered to the lucky fan who retrieved a Maris home-run ball.

In the first inning Maris flied out against Boston's Tracy Stallard. But in the fourth he got a 2-0 fastball from Stallard and ripped the shot that earned his asterisk into the lower right-field stands.

Maris's housemate from Queens, Mickey Mantle, who had hit 54 home runs that year, greeted him at the plate, and the Yankees celebrated for a moment before getting ready to meet Cincinnati in the 1961 World Series. Still, given the import of the moment--the Bambino surpassed!--Maris's feat was greeted with amazing coolness. Commissioner Frick went ahead with his asterisk. Retired stars like Rogers Hornsby minimized Maris by contrasting his .269 season batting average to Ruth's heroic .356, Maris's .260 lifetime mark to Babe's .342.

When Maris's home-run production fell in successive seasons--he hit 33 homers in 1962 and just 23 in 1963--the fans rode him mercilessly. And when he suffered a series of injuries, Yankees management itself hinted he was jaking it. Roger Maris was even blamed for the epidemic of home-run fever that allegedly overtook baseball in the mid-Sixties, sending batting averages plummeting and "ruining" previous steady hitters like the Yanks' Tom Tresh and the White Sox's Pete Ward. When Harmon Killebrew won successive American League home-run titles in 1962 and 1963 while hitting just .243 and .258, respectively, the world blamed Maris. When Sandy Koufax and Sam McDowell became the first pitchers since 1946 to strike out 300 batters in a season, the world blamed Maris.

In 1967 the Yankees shipped him off to St. Louis, where he batted .258 over two seasons and hit just fourteen homers in 225 games as a Cardinal. At age 34 he retired, unsung for his skills, unappreciated because he was the man who dared to topple the great Ruth.

"It would have been a helluva lot more fun if I had never hit those 61 home runs," he said a few years later. "All it brought me was headaches."

On December 14, 1985, at the age of 51, Roger Maris died of lymph-node cancer. Some old teammates--including Mickey Mantle--attended his funeral. Despite 275 career homers, great fielding skills and the record that haunted him for the rest of his days, he was never elected to the Hall of Fame. He will sink deeper into oblivion next season, or the season after that, when Matt Williams or Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds hits his 62nd home run of the year.

If Mickey Mantle is watching when that happens, let's hope he remembers the price his old teammate paid for greatness.


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