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Books | Sports

April 29, 2010

How the Press Broke a Record Breaker

In a new biography of Roger Maris, Danny Peary explores the slugger's contentious relationship with a press bent on protecting the marks and legends of prior Yankees greats.

Tom Flynn

In Billy Crystal's 61*, Barry Pepper plays Roger Maris with what appears to be a little too much melodrama. At first, Maris is depicted as an "aw shucks" small-town Midwesterner who arrives in New York in 1960 and begins immediately belting round-trippers, while returning the Yankees to the World Series and winning the American League MVP award in the process. The next year, he hits homers at a more prolific rate than in '60. But instead of embracing him, the home fans boo him, send him hate mail, and snap up newspaper accounts that rip Maris for making a run at Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record. It sounds both laughable and a tad Orwellian, two things not on the short list of what baseball buffs are looking for in their biographies. It's also all true.

Danny Peary. Photo by Suzanne Rafer.
"He never gave the press what they wanted. Consequently, they really attacked him. They ruined his reputation."

Danny Peary. Photo by Suzanne Rafer.

In Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero, authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary dig deeply into the fascinating character of baseball's oft-overlooked and seldom understood star. Peary shared with Gelf Magazine his thoughts on a besieged childhood hero, a changing press, and the man who had the nerve to better the Babe in the very house he built. The following interview was conducted over the phone and edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What made you settle on Roger Maris as a topic?

Danny Peary: I was 12 years old in 1961 when Maris hit his 61 home runs, and that was the greatest summer of my life. It was a great thrill for me because, when many fans didn't, I did root for Roger Maris to best his teammate Mickey Mantle and to be the one to break Babe Ruth's record.
There was nothing like that at all during my whole childhood—during anybody's childhood—since 1938, when Hank Greenberg hit his 58 homers. So just as a fan, I got to relive 1961 through the book. Tom Clavin's a big Yankee fan, but I'm not. As a baseball historian, having seen Roger Maris and how great he was, I wanted to correct the impression that he was not a great ballplayer and was not somebody worthy of being a hero today.
I still read today that Maris is a one-year wonder even though he won two AL MVP awards, so there's still a distortion of his legacy. The reason there's a distortion—and this is me looking at it as a pop-culture historian—is that in 1961 the press changed. That year, and in 1962, sportswriters tried to ruin Roger's reputation, and they pretty much succeeded. I also wanted to figure out why Roger Maris was so ill-equipped to deal with the changing press that was becoming increasingly anti-celebrity. What made him the baseball player in the league at the time least-equipped [to deal with the press], yet be the one who was fortunate enough to break the record?
I was a movie critic for many years and still write about movies. There's a theory in movies, in film criticism, which has to do mostly with horror movies. It's that when you treat a person—whether it's a hunchback or a monster such as Frankenstein's monster—badly enough, he or she eventually becomes bad and monstrous. That's what happened to Roger Maris, one of the nicest guys in the world. The press just beat him down, the fans booed him, and the organization treated him like an outsider. He changed in regard to them and became a really bitter person and actually was to an extent the person they wrote about while at the same time he was a nice guy.
Having integrity, he would never exchange good quotes for good coverage. So, he never gave the press what they wanted. Consequently, they were ready to jump on him and they really attacked him. They ruined his reputation.

Gelf Magazine: In the book you allude to the press giving Mantle something of a hard time in the decade prior to 1961, in part for replacing Joe DiMaggio. Maris's response was far different than Mantle's, and it didn't help him.

Danny Peary: It was a big difference. The 1961 home-run race actually began in 1960. The role of the press was set at the end of that year. Maris was the great player in 1960. He came to the Yankees, a third-place team in 1959, and all of a sudden they were about to win five more pennants with him there. He was the sensation of the year, the guy who turned it around.
What people never remember was that he was ahead of Babe Ruth's home-run pace by the first week of August in 1960. I don't think he would have broken the record because Ruth hit 17 in September 1927, but Maris was on his way to about 50 home runs and an easy American League home-run title, which he really wanted. But he got injured and he missed a lot of August, and then he came back in September and basically had no power. He came back too soon. Mantle caught up to him in the last week of the season, and beat him, 40 to 39 for the home-run title.
For fans in New York, there was this division: Who were they rooting for in the home-run race? Who were they rooting for in the MVP race in 1960 [that Maris won]? The fans started booing the "outsider" from Kansas City at the end of the year. Maris couldn't understand what was happening: "I'm on your team, I'm helping you win a pennant, I'm hitting home runs, I'm doing everything right—why are my hometown fans booing me?" They now cheered Mantle, who had come to the Yankees in 1951 and was a lifelong Yankee.
Maris's Yankee teammates, including Mantle, were overjoyed to have him as a teammate. They loved the guy. When the race in 1961 really took hold and these guys were battling not only to beat each other but to best the greatest record in baseball history—60 home runs in one season—the press was already set up to exploit the competition, even though it was friendly. They created this false feud between Mantle, the great Yankee teammate, and Maris the "outsider" who didn't really love baseball and didn't appreciate it.
Maris could snap at the press. He did because he wasn't giving them the answers they wanted and so they kept putting adjectives in front of his name: hostile, red ass, distant, unfriendly, menacing. He would talk to the press for two hours after a game and then read the next day about how uncooperative he was.

Gelf Magazine: Someone coming from a smaller city like Kansas City to New York and saying, "I'd prefer to be there rather than New York," would be serving up a civic insult out of the gate. Add in that he was coming to a team with the Yankees' tradition yet preferring the Kansas City A's, and you have a bigger insult.

Danny Peary: Roger loved the idea of the Yankees, but he worried he wouldn't fit in with all the players on the team. He always liked the players and admired [manager] Casey Stengel for winning all the pennants; he just didn't like New York. So Maris, during the 1959 season, when he was hearing rumors that he would be traded to the Yankees, told the local press that he didn't want to go to New York. What other ballplayer on the other 15 teams at the time would say such a thing? Who doesn't want to play in New York in the spotlight and be on the championship team, the dynasty teams?
There was one guy, apparently, Roger Maris, and he admitted it. He had just built a house outside Kansas City, his family loved being in a small town which reminded him of where he grew up in Fargo, and he wasn't eager to go to the Yankees. Being an honest guy, when the press asked, "Are you happy to be a Yankee?" he said, "No." Luckily for him he was so great at the beginning of the 1960 season that he was cheered for several months. But by the end of the 1960 season, as he told his Cardinals teammate Mike Shannon years later, he wanted to beat Mickey Mantle in the home-run race just to shut up the press, and to shut up the fans who were booing him.

Gelf Magazine: I can understand that. In the 1920s, with Lou Gehrig and Ruth competing and purportedly "feuding," how was that different? The press was obviously different—of the Grantland Rice school which you mentioned earlier—so that was part of it. There really was some feuding between Gehrig and Ruth, yet it never was covered like Maris/Mantle.

Danny Peary: Yeah, I don't think Gehrig and Ruth loved each other; they were such different people. But Maris and Mantle actually did love each other, progressively, especially after they retired. In 1960 they started out friends. Mantle was a great teammate and anybody in pinstripes was his comrade in arms. He and Maris experienced something nobody else ever did. You couldn't really articulate what they went through in 1961, but they could both look at each other and know what they'd been through.
So, they bonded as the season went on more and they become apartment-mates with teammate Bob Cerv out in Queens. As the years went on, and particularly after they retired, they just got closer and closer. When Roger died in 1985, there were a lot of sad people at the funeral in Fargo, but the one who was heard sobbing the loudest and was most emotionally spent was Mickey Mantle. He referred to Maris as a brother.

Gelf Magazine: You write of Mantle saying at the funeral that Roger was a better man, and that if anyone should have had an early death, it was him rather than Maris.

Danny Peary: I found that so poignant because Roger's whole career, he felt similarly inferior in regard to his own brother.

Gelf Magazine: You allude to that, too; Maris always said his brother Rudy, Jr. was the better athlete and had he not gotten polio would have eclipsed Roger's athletic accomplishments.

Danny Peary: I think his brother getting polio was the pivotal moment of Roger's entire life. I talked about doing research to find out why he was so ill-equipped to talk to the press in '61. He was shy and private, but he also always felt that he was living the career meant for his brother and he felt the guilt that Mickey Mantle later felt, that he survived while Roger, who led a good, exemplary life and was a real family man and true to his wife and family, died. Mantle envied Roger in that way and admired him.

Gelf Magazine: Playing a little dime-store psychologist, Maris deferring to his older brother as the one destined for fame had he not contracted polio was maybe his way of being a good son. His parents certainly felt that Rudy, Jr. was the better athlete.

Danny Peary: We, Tom Clavin and I, talked to so many people. You would not believe how many people gave me the same quote, just out of nowhere: "Did you know Roger's brother was a better athlete than Roger?" And I'd say, "Yeah, I've heard that. Did you ever see his brother play?" "No, but I've heard that over and over." Roger would tell everybody, his father would tell everybody, his mother would also tell everybody: "If Rudy, Jr. didn't get polio he would have been the better athlete."
Roger went along with this and we said in the book, "We don't believe it." Even when they were in high school Roger had passed Rudy, Jr. as a football player. As great as his brother was, Roger was a junior and an all-state football halfback and Rudy, Jr., the senior, was passed over. Then in American Legion ball they played on the same team, and Roger was the MVP of the team, not his one-year-older brother. Roger always liked giving other people credit. Roger would say about Mickey, "He's the greatest player in the American League; I'm not the greatest player, Mickey is." When a guy's that modest, he doesn't make a great interview. And that's really a shame because that's exactly what journalists told me in the book: "We wrote poorly about him, because we were trying to make a living writing articles, and he wouldn't provide the material."

Gelf Magazine: You said there were 11 dailies in New York at the time, and if one needed a way to rise above the other 10, it probably wouldn't be a modest quote daily from Maris after each homer in '61 that would get you there.

Danny Peary: Mantle knew how to play the game with the reporters. He would talk about his homers if he hit one, and he hit a lot of them that year—54. He'd say "I hit a fastball and I watched it soar. Did you guys think I got hold of it?" They loved talking to him. Maris would say, "Why don't you go talk to Bill Skowron? He had the bigger hit. Or Johnny Blanchard—he was the star." He didn't understand that this was how these guys made their living. He thought they made their living by annoying him.

Gelf Magazine: To empathize with the fans: The US played Canada in this year's Olympics men's hockey final and Ryan Miller gave up the game-winning goal and the US lost the gold medal. He was asked afterwards, "What about the game?" Miller, who was great in goal throughout the Olympics, just didn't want to spend a lot of time in front of the camera, and said, essentially, "You know, it's just another game…" Certainly for him that was simply part of being a level-headed goalie and not getting too high about a win or too low after a loss, but it made you feel a little stupid, as a fan, for caring so much about the outcome. As an avid Yankees fan in ‘61, it probably would have been hard to read about Roger downplaying things.

Danny Peary: I think one of the hardest things for Roger was that most of the beat writers, who were all, if they were from New York, rooting for Mickey Mantle—if they were rooting for Ruth's record to be broken at all. It wasn't a sympathetic group. He tried to retain his calm, and what I read was that he did. Every once in while he'd lose his temper when somebody asked a third time, "It looked like an easy pitch to hit—how'd you miss it?" He'd snap at them and say, "Why don't you try to hit it?"
There also was no protection from the Yankees at all. They didn't think, "Well, let's have a 10-minute press conference every day and that would be it and Maris could go home." So Roger was the guy who suffered.
Tom Clavin interviewed one of the batboys and there's a line that struck me where he said that he would see Roger shake when the press surrounded him sometimes and he felt like a trapped animal.

Image Description

From left, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Bill 'Moose' Skowron formed a Murderer's Row in the Yankees lineup. Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Gelf Magazine: The sentiment of New York fans is not automatically supportive of the home team, but obviously it's very strong when it is. Do you think the fans' poor treatment of Roger had any lingering impact on fans' treatment of players in general?

Danny Peary: I think it went back to the Mantle thing. Fans in general, and more so in New York than in any other place, try to have an impact on players. They want to be relevant. They want to have the effect that if they boo you, you're going to have a slump. They want to have the power to drive you out of the city, but they also want to, in general, be won over. I think they wanted Alex Rodriguez to overcome the obstacle of their booing and succeed. If you do that, you've proven yourself to be a New Yorker.
With Roger, there was no way he could succeed in New York—there was no way he could turn around all the fans. They were going to boo no matter what. I don't think he realized until after his career what he'd gone through.
One of my favorite quotes in the book was from after his career ended. He did an interview with Art Spander from the San Francisco Bay area, a really great writer. He had one line to Spander: "If the fans hadn't booed me, I would have had a better career." Man, that's a powerful line. Because during all those difficult years with the Yankees, from '61 to '66, he lost his love for baseball.
Barry Bonds was booed in every National League park except his home park; Roger was booed everywhere, including at home. He tried to let it roll off his back but, as he told Art Spander, you can do that for only so long. You can't do it year after year after year. I didn't know Maris, but knowing about him, I'm so glad he went to St. Louis those last two years [1967 and1968] and not only had success but proved to the Yankees he was still a winning ballplayer by leading the Cardinals to two straight pennants. They loved him in St. Louis: They loved how he played and they loved everything about him that the Yankee fans ignored. I'm glad that's how he went out. He'd gone through stuff nobody else has ever gone through.

Gelf Magazine: Clearly this story benefits from distance from the actual events. You allude to early books on Maris in your book that still had the pall, so to speak, of the sour press relationships over them. Now that the steroids scandal has broken and it's 50 years later, it's a perfect time to examine Roger Maris's legacy as the "authentic" single-season home-run champ. What do you think will be the trajectory of his legacy from this point forward?

Danny Peary: I started the book two years ago, so I had no idea that Mark McGwire would come out with an admission of steroid use right at the time of the book. It was already to the printer when he admitted it, so I was only able to sneak in one line about McGwire's admission. McGwire apologized for not admitting he took steroids, not for taking steroids, which is very strange. He won't say he hit that many home runs because of steroids, so it was a very lukewarm apology. I don't know what that was.

Gelf Magazine: I don't either.

Danny Peary: I'm an A's fan, and always liked Mark McGwire. He's probably a good guy. And in his mind certainly he's a good guy. But McGwire committed a really major crime in 1998. He bonded with the Maris family. He was very sincerely saying how much he admired Roger, and had Roger in his heart. The family bonded with him. Pat Maris, Roger's wife, really likes McGwire and McGwire donates money every year to the charity that they have in Roger's memory.
At the same time that he was bonding with the Maris family, he was taking steroids which will help get rid of Roger's legacy of 61 home runs. The reporters diminished a lot of Maris's accomplishments, and the only way that anybody would pay attention to Roger is when they looked in the record books and saw the 61 home runs and said, "Let me see what else he did." Mark McGwire erased Maris from the record books and erased his name, while taking steroids secretly, while befriending the Maris family. I think there's a real crime there.
With Roger's name out of the record book, we were all happy to see Billy Crystal do 61* in 2001. I think the intention for Tom Clavin and myself is to continue to bring back Roger's name and have people become curious about him. If you read the book, I'd challenge anyone not to say, "Oh, he accomplished a lot more than I thought he did."

Front-page image of Maris's swing on his record-breaking 61st home run courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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