Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Maris biography takes off after slow start

Through the first 28 games of the 1961 season, Roger Maris had managed just three home runs. The reigning American League MVP was on pace to finish with fewer than half of the 39 home runs he belted in 1960. Always a streaky hitter, Maris caught fire, launching four longballs in the Yankees' next four games and his season became one for the record books as he finished with 61.

Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero follows a similar arc. The new book from Tom Clavin and Danny Peary is slow out of the chute, with much of the first three chapters spent tediously detailing the Maris (Maras) family genealogy, going all the way back to his grandparents' migration from Croatia in the early 1900s. My eyelids drooped and I nearly gave up on it, but the following night I resumed reading at the start of Chapter 4, and things quickly took off, much like Maris' season.

Clavin and Peary interviewed more than 130 people from friends and acquaintances in Maris' hometown of Fargo, N.D., to teammates and opponents from his 16 seasons in professional baseball. We see from his progression that Maris remained the same strong-willed yet humble man until he died at age 51 in 1985.

Those who played with him, and many who played against him, loved him. But that sentiment was hardly shared by the writers who followed him or the fans who never forgave him for not being Mickey Mantle. The media's efforts to portray the M&M boys as feuding competitors aside, Maris and Mantle were great friends who lived together for much of the 1961 season, even as they were dueling for the opportunity to break Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record. They remained close for the rest of Maris' life.

But no endorsement from Mantle could sway Yankee fans, who wanted the mark to be broken by a true Yankee, if anyone. Maris, in just his second year in New York, didn't have roots deep enough for most fans. And the reporters who covered the team turned on him early in the season. He wasn't a colorful quote, and despite his best efforts to work with the beat writers, many portrayed him as uncooperative, or worse. The right fielder, who fought nagging injuries his entire career, had a spiel for his teammates about whatever ailments he happened to be battling at the time. Reporters turned it around and labeled Maris a whiner.

The coverage got more intense as the 1961 season, the first year of the 162-game slate, progressed. Adding to the pressure, Commissioner Ford Frick announced in July that the record had to be broken in 154 games or it would be denoted with an asterisk. After every game, whether Maris homered or not, he found the press corps waiting at his locker. Still he kept on pace, as did Mantle. At times, Maris, whose hair began to fall out in clumps, just wished the season were over.

It finally ended, like so many others with the Yankees bringing the championship to New York. Instead of warming to Maris, the fans and media only sharpened their attacks in 1962. It was the advent of the new style of reporting, with writers looking for blood in an attempt to sell papers. Their favorite target was Maris, a small-towner at heart, who never quite fit in New York.

He was on the verge of quitting when the Yankees traded him to St. Louis after the 1966 season. Finally removed from the media spotlight, he began to have fun again, helping the Cardinals win the World Series in 1967 and return the next October, though they fell to Detroit. His new teammates were surprised to find him so affable after all they'd read about him. His tremendous speed was long gone, and he wasn't the defensive stalwart he'd been early in his career. But he was fundamentally sound and dedicated to winning, and the Cardinals recognized his value both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Time has rehabilitated Maris' reputation, even in New York, where he refused for years to return when invited for old-timers games. Eventually, new owner George Steinbrenner talked him into attending, and Maris was showered with the cheers he never heard during his playing days.

The authors make a case for Maris as a Hall of Famer, blaming the writers of his day for denying him a spot in Cooperstown. Certainly the unfavorable coverage didn't help, but the truth is Maris needed a couple more healthy seasons to post Hall-worthy numbers. He topped 500 plate appearances just five times in 12 big league seasons. He was never the same after a serious hand injury in 1965, lacking the strength to properly handle good fastballs the last few years of his career.

Don't be discouraged by the slow start to Roger Maris. This is one of the best of this year's many quality biographies. Stick it out and you will be rewarded.

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