HE WAS THE unpopular choice in 1961, when he hit his 61 home runs despite the fact no one wanted him to, and he's still the unpopular choice 37 years later, in 1998, as crowd favorites Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. seriously hammer away at his record.
Some things never change.Who's crying about poor Roger Maris?
Well, besides my brother.
My brother was 12 years old and a diehard Yankee fan when he latched onto the bandwagon the summer Maris hit his 61 in '61. He has never unlatched. He is a kind of one-man stand for Roger Maris rights.
Every January, when they announce the latest inductees into the baseball Hall of Fame, he can't believe they left Roger Maris out. Again.
And though far from an otherwise avid baseball fan, he still monitors the box scores every season, from April on, to see if Maris's record is safe. Every year, Roger Maris is in another home-run race.
The last few years, there have been many scares. In 1994, it looked like a new record was on the way for sure, but then, in August, the players went on strike, derailing their own train.
For Roger Maris it was an aberration. Something went right.
Thirty-seven years ago this past Friday, on July 17, 1961, Ford Frick cleared his throat and stipulated that since Babe Ruth's home run record of 60 was set during a 154-game season, any record erasing Ruth's would have to be accomplished in 154 games - even though, in 1961, the season had been expanded to 162 games.
Ford Frick was the commissioner of baseball. Before that, he'd been Babe Ruth's ghostwriter. There are indications he was not completely unbiased.
When Frick made his declaration, Maris already had 35 home runs.
While shortening the runway for Maris - that interloping no-account from Fargo, N.D., who dared make a run at Ruth - Frick conveniently overlooked the fact that baseball had no historical precedent whatever for record adjustments according to season length.
In 1919, for example, when Babe Ruth broke Ned Williamson's home run record that had stood for 34 years, nobody said a word that Williamson's 27 home runs came in a 112-game season, and Ruth's 29 in a season of 140 games.
And when Ruth set his record 60 in 1927, there was no consideration that the season had increased to 154 games.
Only Roger Maris got that kind of attention. Some think he should have been flattered. But he responded by having chunks of his hair fall out.
1961 was a year of showdowns. A Soviet became the first man in space and the Americans countered with Alan Shepard, and there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs, leaving Fidel Castro and Washington in a stare-down.
It was amid that backdrop that Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle battled back and forth in the quest to topple Ruth's record. Like McGwire and Griffey Jr. this year, they seemed to bring out the best in each other. Only an abscess on his hip forced Mantle out of the race in mid-September, with 54.
Maris wound up with 59 home runs in 154 games.
He got No. 61 on the last day of the season, in the fourth inning of the 162nd game.
It wasn't like Russia and Cuba had won. But it was close. Yankee Stadium was half empty that day.
It's hard to imagine any game with McGwire or Griffey Jr. - or Sammy Sosa for that matter - not being beyond sellout if and/or when No. 62 goes on the line this summer.
Everyone will want to be there to see Maris' record fall.
They'll be on their feet, clamoring for it.
That's going to be a tough day for my brother.