During the final weeks of the 1961 season, New York Yankees outfielder Roger Maris visited a doctor in Baltimore, convinced that he had contracted a serious illness because his hair had begun to fall out in small clumps.
It was not a happy time.
The doctor reassured him that the hair loss was merely the result of the stress that accompanied Maris' quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. It was the same kind of stress that undoubtedly is wearing on St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire as he closes in on the record Maris set 37 years ago.
Only much, much worse.
McGwire has the baseball world at his feet. Maris had the baseball establishment at his throat.
The hostile New York media considered him an unworthy successor to the legendary Bambino. Much of the sporting public rooted openly against him. Even baseball commissioner Ford Frick took action to discredit his pursuit of the record, proclaiming in mid-August that Maris would go into the record book with "a distinguishing mark" -- the now infamous asterisk -- unless he broke it in same number of games (154) that Ruth played when he hit 60 in 1927.
"I can only imagine what he went through in New York City," said McGwire, who hit his 60th home run in his 141st game yesterday at Busch Stadium.
No wonder Maris, who died of cancer in 1985, has been portrayed as a quiet, sometimes sullen figure who came to resent the growing media attention that nearly suffocated him 38 Septembers ago. His friends remember him differently.
"He was a great guy," said Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, who played with Maris for two years in St. Louis. "It was just a perception that people had of him because of what was put on him. The Yankees never wanted him to break that record so they didn't help him [with the media] at all.
"He would stand at his locker for hours after the game answering every reporter's question, but he still got this reputation for being a snarly guy. I think if you asked 90 percent of the writers who dealt with him, you'd get a much different perception."
Maris was a country boy from Fargo, N.D., who began his baseball career out of high school and eventually became one of the many solid players who were shuttled from the beleaguered Kansas City A's franchise to the Yankees during the late 1950s. He hit 39 home runs in his first season in New York, falling just one behind league leader Mickey Mantle in 1960 in a precursor to their exciting two-man run at Ruth's record the following year.
He wasn't New York. That was his first mistake. And he was immediately in juxtaposition with Mantle, whose early years in New York also were uncomfortable because he was cast in the role of successor to the legendary Joe DiMaggio.
"When Roger showed up, Mickey was the whipping boy, because he was trying to replace DiMaggio," Shannon said. "Then Roger came in and he was the whipping boy because he was supposedly trying to replace Ruth."
So, when Maris, then 26, outdistanced a banged-up Mantle in the final months of the 1961 season, the fan reaction bore no resemblance to the euphoric fan frenzy that has greeted McGwire at every stop.
Maris found skeptics everywhere, particular in Ruth's hometown Baltimore, where longtime Evening Sun sportswriter Bill Tanton quoted a Memorial Stadium groundskeeper lamenting that "It would be a crime to see a .270 hitter like him break the record. A real crime."
The asterisk series took place at Memorial Stadium. Frick had proclaimed that Ruth's 154-game record would stand if Maris did not break it by the 154th game, which was the third game of a four-game series against the Orioles. Maris hit his 59th homer in game No. 153 and had a potential record-tying shot that hooked 10 feet foul in the late innings of the 154th game.
That took much of the suspense out of the record chase. The fans sided with Frick, whose objectivity in the matter was up for debate because he had been a friend and sometime ghostwriter for Ruth before ascending to the commissionership. Only 23,154 showed up at Yankee Stadium to see Maris hit the record-breaker off rookie pitcher Tracy Stallard on the regular season's final day.
McGwire equaled Ruth's 1927 total 13 games shy of 154 yesterday, but he offered an impassioned defense of the integrity of the Maris record.
"It was not fair to criticize him," McGwire said. "He didn't have anything to do with the season being 162 games. I wish everybody would just throw that stuff aside and accept what's happening."
Following the historic shot, Maris jogged around the bases with his head down and initially refused to acknowledge the appreciation of the fans. He had to be pushed out of the dugout by a pair of teammates to tip his cap to the crowd, but said after the game that the home run was the greatest thrill of his life.
"It gives me a pretty good feeling to know I'm the only man in the history of baseball to hit 61 home runs," he said.
Much of the negative mythology attached to him was created the following season, when several influential New York writers noted a change in his demeanor toward the press. Real or imagined, it was enough to cement his image as the surly, introverted opposite of the increasingly popular Mantle.
Maris arrived at spring training in 1962 expecting the media blitz to be over, but it was replaced with an endless string of questions about the possibility of him making a run at his own record.
"This was the first time in 34 years that someone hit 60 home runs," Maris told reporters in spring training. "Anybody who expects me to do it again must have rocks in his head."
He was right, of course, but that didn't keep Yankees fans from considering him a washout when he hit "just" 33 home runs and had 100 RBIs in his third season in New York.
Columnist Jimmy Cannon ripped him unmercifully in two-installment series in March 1962, dubbing him "Roger the Whiner" and accusing him of having a defective personality.
"It is possible that dissension caused by Roger the Whiner's soliloquies may disturb the traditional harmony of the Yankees," Cannon wrote. "The hostile attitude of Maris has even discouraged those paid to praise him. They have already become deliberately negligent in their spent crusade to have him canonized as Ruth's heir. Seldom has a man in sports so quickly alienated those who originally offered their respect with gladness provoked by admiration."
Cannon also may have created the questionable notion that Maris was disliked by his teammates, something that has been disputed by many of them during the recent surge of interest in the reigning single-season home run champ.
"He liked to joke around with his teammates," said Yankees teammate Johnny Blanchard recently, "but he kept a lot inside, too. He was a nice guy."
He was also a very good player, despite Cannon's characterization of him as "a thrilling freak who batted .269."
How many players have won back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player Awards? Maris was the MVP in 1960 and '61. He was a big-time power hitter, of course, but he also was a solid outfielder with a good arm and decent speed. He just wasn't Babe Ruth and he wasn't Mickey Mantle.
Maris closed out his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, helping them win a world championship in 1967. He would die of lymphatic cancer 18 years later without ever feeling truly appreciated for his historic achievement.
"Babe Ruth was the God of baseball," said Shannon, "and he had the audacity to break God's record. Now, everybody is pulling for McGwire and Roger would be pulling for him, too. He'd be so happy."
Pub Date: 9/06/98