Number 9

The book Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero was released on March 16, 2010.   Here is an excerpt from this book written by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone, $26.99, 432 pages).

October 1, 1961

The savviest photographers got the two money shots.   The first, taken from behind and near the Yankee dugout, was of Roger Maris making solid contact over the plate on a 2-0 fastball by Tracy Stallard.   The left-handed pull hitter is exhibiting his much praised swing with extended bat and arms parallel to the ground, his left hand turning over, his right leg straight and left leg flexed, his right foot pointing toward third base and his left one perpendicular to the ground, his muscles in his face, neck, and upper arms tense, and his hips rotating.

The second picture, taken from the front, was of Maris, one breath later.   With, surprisingly, still-seated fans behind him, he is completing his pivot, releasing the bat with his left hand, and watching with hopeful eyes the flight of his historic home run into Yankee Stadium’s parked right-field stands.   But even the award winners among them missed something quite extraordinary that took place seconds later.   Fortunately, one of the greatest, if most neglected, visual metaphors in sports history would be preserved on celluloid.

Having completed what his bedridden Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle always called the “greatest sports feat I ever saw,” the new single-season home run champion dropped his bat and ran down the baseline.   He rounded first at the same time nineteen-year-old Sal Durante held up the 61st home run ball in his right hand; another ecstatic young male fan leaped into the field; and the clearly dejected Red Sox pitcher concocted an upbeat postgame response to the media (“I’ll now make some money on the banquet circuit!”).

As he neared second base, Maris suddenly escaped dark shadows and moved into the bright, warm sunlight.   Just like that, he had finally found a slice of heaven after a long season he’d sum up as “sheer hell.”   In Roger Maris’s version of hell, he was the prey in a daily media feeding frenzy, lost his privacy, shed some hair, received hate mail by the bundle, experienced vicious heckling from even home fans, and having arrived in New York from Kansas City only twenty-two months before, was treated by the Yankees organization like an outsider, an ugly duckling in a pond of swans.   His blow on the last day of the season was a telling response to all that nonsense.

Maris ran as he always did after a home run – head down and at a measured pace, exhibiting nothing offensively ostentatious or celebratory, nothing to indicate he was circling the bases one time more in a season than anyone else in history.   He was pounded on the back by joyous third-base coach Frank Crosetti as he came down the homestretch.   Crossing home plate, he was greeted by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, then bat boy Frank Prudenti, and, finally, the anonymous Zelig-like fan.   Then he made his way into the dugout – at least he tried to.   Several Yankees formed a barricade and turned Maris around and pushed him upward so he could acknowledge the standing ovation.

He reluctantly inched back up the steps, stretching his neck as if he were a turtle warily emerging from its shell.   He dutifully waved his cap and gave his teammates a pleading look, hoping they would agree that he had been out there too long already.   They urged him to stay put and allow the fans to shower him with the adulation that had been missing all year.   So he waved his hat some more and smiled sheepishly.

The television camera zoomed in, and everyone could see that during his sunlit jaunt around the bases, he had, amazingly, been transformed.   With the burden of unreasonable expectations suddenly lifted and the knowledge that not one more dopey reporter would ask, “Are you going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Rog?”  the strain in his face and haunted look in his eyes had vanished.   He no longer looked double his twenty-seven years and on the verge of a meltdown.

Baseball fans would, in their mind’s eye, freeze-frame forever this image of the young, cheery innocent with the trademark blond crew cut who had just claimed sports’ most revered record.   For that one moment Maris believed all the bad stuff was behind him.   For that one brief moment, he felt free.   In reality, it was the calm before an even more vicious storm…

 

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