30 baseball books in 30 days of ’10: Day 26 — Roger Maris, as much as we could know him

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The book: “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero”

The author: Tom Clavin and Danny Peary

The vital stats: Touchstone publishing, 422 pages, $26.99

Find it: At Amazon (linked here)

The pitch: On this day 49 years ago, Roger Maris hit his first homer of the ’61 season off Detroit’s Paul Foytack in Tiger Stadium. It came in the fifth inning … in Game 11 of the season (linked here).

Despite the rather slow start, there would be 60 more — 61 in total — to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record and stand alone as the greatest home-run hitting season until Mark McGwire, and later Barry Bonds, would muscle their way into the picture some 40 years later, and wipe Maris’ name from the record books, fake asterisk and all.

Naturally, there’s a need to go back and review what Maris did, considering what McGwire and Bonds also did to achieve their fame.

Is it true that, as the book jacket suggests, Maris “may have been the greatest ballplayer no one really knows”? That’s why it’s backtracking to rediscovering this modest man who really isn’t from Fargo, North Dakota — he was born Roger Maras in Hibbing, Minnesota, the same town that produced Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan).

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No doubt, many baseball people consider his record to be “pure” — why can’t baseball reinstate it considering all that’s come out since 1998, when McGwire passed it with 70, and 2001, when Bonds elevated it to 73.

Sixty-one in ’61, no matter what you believe, remains one of the most dynamic moments in baseball history, one deserving of Maris’ Hall of Fame induction.

In this study of the man by Clavin and Peary, where more than 130 interviews were conducted and more fresh photos were uncovered, this is probably as definitive a piece as we’re going to get — to re-digest all that Maris was about.

Aside from the coverage of his career that at times reads as bland as a Wikipedia entry, the concluding chapter on Maris’ legacy is probably most insightful. The authors conclude:


“The real culprits (for Maris’ exclusion of Hall of Fame voting) were the writers of the 1960s who created a false image of Roger Maris as a player and person and the myopic BBWAA writers, including some from the sixties batch, who believe that reputation and steadfastly rejected him from 1974 to 1988. …

“(Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer) Hank Greenberg grew tired of people saying Maris didn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because hitting 61 home runs was all he ever did. Greenberg’s incredulous response was “All he ever did?” It was like saying that all Jonas Salk did was develop a polio vaccine, or all Columbus did was discover America. Or all John Glenn did in 1962 was orbit the earth more than any other American in history — that event and its lasting impact on space flight was enough to get him into the Astronauts Hall of Fame in 1990.”

Although, by that time, Glenn was already 16 years in as a U.S. senator from Ohio, and six years earlier ran for president.

The point is, if America’s need for a hero depends in some ways about how the person keeps himself on their radar, Maris didn’t help himself much. After his retirement in 1968, then with the St. Louis Cardinals, he made a nice living as a beer distributor for team owner Auggie Busch and didn’t really have to do much except appear at some Old Timer’s Games.

Perhaps this is his coming-back-out party then.

More from the authors:

“As the St. Louis writers clearly realized (in covering Maris), Maris was not a slugger at all. He was instead a truly great all-around player who had many superb seasons, regardless of how many homers he hit. … Maris’s contributions weren’t always apprent, his numbers weren’t always properly interpreted, and he was rarely given due appreciation by the press. But to almost everyone who played with him or against him or managed him — even after his 61-homer season — Roger Maris was a great player and a true star. No matter that he played only twelve years and had only 275 home runs, as his critics point out. He was a winner.”

The Roger Maris Museum in Fargo continues to be a destination spot for those who want to get to know the man better. It now houses his two MVP trophies. And his fans who believe he’s overdue for bigger and better things will use this book as more than circumstantial evidence — that the “brutally negative and often untruthful things that were written about him” resulted in his being “stripped of his enthusiasm for baseball and cost him a legitimate shto at being selected to the Hall of Fame — he was too stubborn, too self-destructive and too true to himself, and a bit too self-righteous, to compromised when he believed he was wronged,” the authors conclude in the prologue.

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How it goes down in the scorebook: Jim Murray of the L.A. Times once wrote: “Roger Maris was about as well equipped for fame as a forest ranger.” Maris even did an autobiography after the 1961 season, “Roger Maris At Bat,” with Jim Ogle, was even less revealing. What Clavin and Peary have managed to do here are carve out new stories that, in today’s steroid-tired world, reveal just how valuable Maris was in his time. As we wrote a day ago with the bios of Rizzuto, Musial, Kaline and Schmidt, Maris is as deserving as anyone one of them for new exposure. This accomplishes that.

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