Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

August 11, 2013

SINGER: When baseball had icons

By B.B. SInger
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The latest, serious taint involving A-Rod among other baseball notables must sadden regional Yankee fans, making a former star badly treated during his New York years shine more brightly in retrospect. I’m speaking of Roger Maris, subject of a recent, co-written paperback surpassing the rest on this great, but semi-tragic figure.

Unable at first to deal with the heartbreak of his Yankee years, particularly from ‘61 onward, I started with Maris blessedly migrating to St. Louis his last two seasons in baseball, 1967 and ‘68. He was grateful to be in a new, more appreciative National League town, and one learns via interview chunks from Gibson and the rest how clutch Maris still was. I knew he’d always been stellar defensively, but not how he would invariably procure sacrifice flies when needed, break up double plays with aggressive slides–the complete package, despite a bad hand (which the Yanks hadn’t allowed to heal properly) no longer letting him drive balls as he’d once done.

Ex-players give him big credit for helping St. Louis win pennants those two years. And of course they also won the Series in ‘67, where obviously Gibson was the major figure, but where Maris had a high average and contributed as well.

Going back to the book’s beginning, I had to alter my old view that Maris was a WASP from Fargo. In fact, he only migrated to Fargo after growing up in Hibbing, Minn., and Grand Forks, N.D. — and as a Croatian Catholic. That background included a pistol of a mom, who loved to get out on the town, yet obviously gave her son the right kind of love.

Maris then became one incredible athlete, including at football, subsequently chose baseball, did almost too well in the pros–and it goes and ruins his life! Talk about an American tragedy...

I discovered that bad as the ‘61 season was for him, with hair falling out as he dodged journalists and chased Ruth’s record, that 1962 was even worse! Expectations soared, and Maris was loathed at home games for not hitting 61 again–and then there was the press! The same types who’d crucified Ted Williams in Boston made Maris even more of a target. They managed to ruin the game for him, and he was such a good man, including in his family (father of six).

On to Roger in ‘63, and for this noble, decent person, that year was awful too! The fans were still booing like mad, both in the Bronx, where Mantle was finally anointed as an untouchable, and on the road. And for Maris, a full-out ballplayer who repeatedly crashed into fences making catches, the injuries piled up, and while fans forgave the Mick’s absences, they wouldn’t for the ever-hustling Roger. Yankee management also hurt his career by the same attitude. Bad leg or heel here, hurt back there, who cared?

Into ‘64, and new manager Yogi pilots the last of a Yankee dynasty to the World Series, replacing an injured Mantle near season’s end with a remarkable Maris in center field. The latter responds with money play, and his team only loses to the powerful Cards in the Series’ seventh game.

Could Maris finally be forgiven for being a mere mortal, or could things get worse? In ‘65 the latter unfortunately occurred. That year, as the world, along with the now hapless Yanks, changed radically, the city finished off this harpooned whale in pinstripes, led by the front office and a conniving team doctor. Maris wrecked his hand and they tried all season to pretend he hadn’t. A friend finally pushed him to a private doctor near the end of the season, and despite merciless booing, Maris had been right all along — he had a broken bone at the base of his hand, and a hook-like part separated from the bone. The hand together with two numb fingers would never be right again.

Thankfully, the Cards’ new GM, Stan Musial, prodded Maris into accepting a trade that gave him a new, if brief lease on life in baseball. Aspects of his retirement were happy as well, including in his family life. And though it does him no good, the crew-cut Yankee who died at 51 remains more iconic than a severely besmirched A-Rod of 2013.

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.