Roger Maris could do one thing better than any ballplayer who ever lived--hit the 325-foot home run.
He had the most perfect swing for it you will ever see in your life, a compact, level stroke that was smooth, economical, effortless. It was pretty to watch if you weren't a pitcher.
If you took Babe Ruth's home runs, or Mickey Mantle's, and laid them end to end, they might reach to Hong Kong. Maris' would barely make it out of town.
But this is not the point of Roger Maris. This is not to put Roger Maris down. Roger already has all the asterisks he will ever need. But Roger Maris was the best in baseball at doing what he had to do and not embellishing it. He lived life that way, too.
Roger aimed for the seats, not the moon. In one incandescent season, 1961, he reached them more often than any other ballplayer who ever played.
The media were horrified. The baseball Establishment was insulted. They began to refer to it haughtily as the Incident, the Great Mistake or 1961.
Years later, when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all-time record and reaped something less than the total acclaim he expected, he thought it was because he was black. Roger Maris could have told him differently. Babe Ruth was beyond color. Babe was an icon you dassn't break.
You can shoot czars, burn saints, drown cats--but you better not knock out Dempsey, or hit more home runs than Ruth. You leave Santa Claus alone.
Roger Eugene Maris quit playing baseball in 1968. That means that, at any time since 1973, he could have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That means the writers passed him over 12 times.
That is a disgrace. That has set up one of the saddest moments in baseball history since Lou Gehrig stood in the center of Yankee Stadium with months to live and said how lucky he was to be a Yankee.
If all Roger Maris could do was hit 325-foot home runs, the fact that he hit 61 of them in one season would be enough to put him in the Hall right there. There are a lot of ballplayers in there who couldn't hit 325-foot homers or who couldn't hit 61 of them in a lifetime.
The man who hit the most home runs in one season of anyone who ever played is entitled to Cooperstown on that alone. Just as any guy who stole more bases, got more hits, threw more no-hitters in one season. That's what a Hall of Fame is all about.
But, Roger Maris was more than a one-dimensional trick-shot artist. Roger Maris was a complete ballplayer.
I remember him in the 1962 World Series in San Francisco. With the Yankees holding a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, the Giants had Matty Alou, a fast runner, on first with two out and Willie Mays at bat. Mays slashed a long drive to right field that had triple written all over it.
Maris swept over, made a spectacular stab, whirled, held Alou on third and then threw to the cutoff man. The play saved the Series. When the next batter, Willie McCovey, lined out, the Yankees had won the championship.
"Shouldn't Alou have gone for home on that play?" I asked Yankee Manager Ralph Houk after the game.
Houk growled: "Maris would have thrown him out by 10 feet."
Maris elevated every team he ever played for. The Yankees were in the World Series five of the seven years he played for them, and the St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series both years Maris played for them.
Maris was lucky he had Mickey Mantle hitting behind him, but Mantle was lucky he had Maris hitting in front of him, too. Between them, they hit 115 home runs in 1961.
I traveled on the Mantle-Maris home run parade that late summer of 1961 and I have never seen a journalistic circus to compare with it. At the fore were the new breed of sports journalists dubbed "the Chipmunks" by the late Jimmy Cannon: "Small, furry creatures who chatter among themselves and ask unanswerable questions."
One of the questions posed to Maris one night makes everyone's all-time Hall of Fame for sports questions. A magazine writer with an open notebook asked Maris if he cheated on his marriage vows on the road. I think that was the night Roger Maris' hair began to fall out.
Maris never wanted to be Babe Ruth. He wanted to be Roger Maris. Where Ruth reveled in the spotlight, Maris hated it. He was a matter-of-fact country boy from North Dakota. He was decent, honorable, honest, at first bewildered by fame and then disdainful of it. He could do without Broadway and Broadway could do without him.
They booed him in New York, not so much because he wasn't Babe Ruth but because he also wasn't Mickey Mantle, whom he also beat out that year. Mantle comforted him because Mickey remembered when he got booed because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio.
They took Roger Maris home this week, dead before his time, gone too young at 51.
The man who wasn't Babe Ruth, who shrank from fame, who rejected notoriety, nevertheless performed one of the great achievements of baseball. To give you an idea, since Roger Maris hit 61 in a season, no American League slugger has even hit 50. In 24 years.
He may or may not make Cooperstown now but he'll be back in the Yankee Stadium outfield, a statue in center field along with Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins and the rest of the great Yankees. This time, they'll cheer.