JIM THIELMAN: When The ‘Aw Shucks’ Boys Chased The Babe’s Record

There will be some chit-chat about Roger Maris this month at North Dakota coffee shops and saloons because Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees is chasing the slugger’s single-season home run record.

North Dakotans still claim that Maris’ 61 homers in 1961 remain the legitimate, nonsteroid record. North Dakotans still claim Roger Maris as their own, even though he was born in Hibbing, Minn.

To be fair, Charles Lindbergh was born in Michigan, but damned if Minnesotans don’t love to claim that feller, and Lucky Lindy isn’t even buried in Minnesota, he’s buried in Hawaii. How Minnesotan could he be?

Maris is buried in Fargo’s Holy Cross Cemetery, although he lived most of his life in Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Florida. He died in Texas.

Because Maris called Fargo home, he was buried on a 2-degree day in North Dakota after an overflowing funeral in the red brick facade of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Among the mourners were baseball names such as Bob Allison, Whitey Ford, Whitey Herzog and Mickey Mantle.

Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet.
Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet.

After Maris bested Mantle in the 1961 home run race, Yankee fans found a soft spot in their hearts for Mantle, who had never quite lived up to Joe DiMaggio’s elegance. Fans would boo Mantle when he struck out, and boo louder when he threw his batting helmet in disgust.

Mantle, like Maris, was an “aw shucks” country boy who was never at home in New York and had a difficult relationship with Yankees fans.

“I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. But I couldn’t do wrong after Roger beat me in the home-run race in 1961,” Mantle said in the 1980s.

“I became the underdog,” Mantle said. “They hated him and liked me. Everywhere I went I got standing ovations. All I had to do was walk out on the field. Hey, what the hell, it’s a lot better than having them boo you.”

Mantle had struggled to tolerate his critics, yet when he saw Maris clench his jaw in ’61 while dealing with the pressure, media and fans, it was Mantle who told Maris to accept it. “You’ve got to, Rog. That’s part of what goes with it.”

“When Mickey saw my problems,” Maris recalled, “he looked into the mirror and saw himself. He relaxed more with reporters and then received what he should have had all along: The recognition.”

Missouri break

Sportswriter Red Smith said rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. I never could stand the Yankees. Maris emerged from the dark side for me when he was traded to St. Louis after the 1966 season.

Maybe it was the sudden smile that triggered my double-take, and Maris certainly looked electric in that red-trimmed, “birds on the bat” uniform, the best uniform in baseball. He seemed happiest in flyover country.

The Cardinals went to the World Series in ’67 and again in ’68, which was Maris’s seventh Series in eight seasons.

In October 1968, Sports Illustrated produced a fold-out cover of the Cardinals starters, all seated on stools by their lockers. Maris sat in the front with a smile on his face.

Smiling was rare when he played in New York, but then he had never yearned to be a Yankee. Maris was happy playing for lowly Kansas City, and later St. Louis, because by then his family lived in Bob Allison’s birthplace of Raytown, Mo.

“I don’t see them enough,” Maris said after he broke Ruth’s record. “I sure miss my children and my wife, that’s why I liked K.C. so much.”

Babe Ruth bathed in adulation, and that’s the kind of hero fans want. They expect heroes to appreciate their attention. At best, Maris tolerated it. At worst, he was sullen.

The chase of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record captivated America in 1961. Every story needs conflict, and fans created one by making Mantle the hero and Maris the villain. Yet the pair were friends, understandably.

Mantle’s family had been dirt poor in Oklahoma. Maris’ dad was a mechanic for the Great Northern Railroad. The family moved around until they landed in Fargo, when Maris was 13.

Mantle was playing in the World Series for the Yankees at age 19. Maris was about seven years out of high school when he broke Ruth’s record.

More than once, each must have wondered, “What the hell am I doing here?”


Mantle and Maris were just a couple of “aw shucks” lads from the heartland, christened with stardust.



The myth of the asterisk

Before becoming baseball commissioner in 1951, Ford Frick had been Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter. Little wonder that Frick had a soft spot for “The Big Fella” and bristled over the prospect of someone hitting more than 60 home runs in a season.

Frick saw an opening to preserve Ruth’s record when the American League added two teams in 1961 and expanded its schedule from 154 to 162 games.

As Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle neared Ruth’s single-season home run mark, Frick considered adding “a distinctive mark” to any home run record that was not set in the 154-game schedule Ruth had played.

Today, people refer to this as “the asterisk.” Frick never used that word, and no mark ever appeared in official records. It should not have even been considered.

Even though he played in more games, Maris reached 61 home runs faster than Ruth reached 60.

  • Ruth hit No 60 in his 687th plate appearance.
  • Maris hit No. 61 in his 684th plate appearance.

Heck, Maris even took a day off with four games left in the season after hitting his 60th homer. No one would do that today.

What’s more, Ruth had set a new single-season homer mark of 29 in 1919, when he broke Ned Williamson’s mark.

  • Williamson had played 107 games when he hit 27 home runs 1884, when he came to the plate 459 times.
  • Ruth played 130 games when he hit 29 homers in 1919. He batted 543 times.

The precedent was set. If Ruth’s record didn’t get a “distinctive mark,” why should Maris?

Maris’ detractors also like to say that adding two franchises in the American League watered down pitching in 1961. Naw.

The National League didn’t expand in 1961, yet the league batting average rose seven points. The average in the expanded American Leagues rose just one point.

Baseball was America’s sport in ‘61, and it was barely a decade after the color barrier had been broken. There was plenty of pitching to go around.

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