Poor Roger Maris (or Reflections on a Baseball Card with Review of a Maris Biography)

Poor Roger Maris, 1964 Topps, ed

*An oldie but a goodie: new post with a previously posted card
**Fourth Roger Maris post–and last for a while, promise
***Essay from latest issue of Aethlon 30.1

On the front of my pocket-weary, 1964 Topps baseball card that now feels all too emblematic in its scuffed and battered surface, Roger Maris gazes skyward with a look of defiant optimism and little clue of future mishaps that would befall him in the year following the card’s release. Surely an eventual two-year stint with the St. Louis Cardinals would bring Maris some unexpected rejuvenation and another World Series ring. Yet when I examine the career statistical breakdown for Maris, at first I notice only the salient decline in his regular season homeruns—those supremely arcing beacons of progress and willpower that once soared through the open sky of the old Yankee Stadium and countless other ballparks. And as I observe the stark drop after that extraordinary year of 1961 when Maris broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding season homerun record, so, too, do I feel my heart grow heavy and sink in my chest. However, statistics rarely tell the whole story, as I recently discovered with Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero (2010).

Not unlike the worn eponymous card from 1964, Roger Maris refused to “go gentle into that good night,” even in the apparent twilight of his fatiguing career. Admittedly, he was never again the same caliber of power hitter after Yankee management intentionally misdiagnosed his broken hand in 1965 just to keep him playing so the team could be in contention for a pennant (for which they weren’t even close). And although the hand injury sapped his fastball-slugging talent and the occasional slumps and streaky character of his hitting game would dog him early and mid-season, he stubbornly stuck around—and excelled when it mattered most. While limited by physical circumstance and no longer as capable with the long ball, he nonetheless proved he could also hit the smart ball as he continued to be a scoring factor—if not a decisive one. For Clavin and Peary do well to remind (or inform) fans and readers how in both the late season and at playoff time Maris remained a remarkable clutch hitter with solid RBI numbers. Furthermore, not even a magnifying glass elucidates those figures printed in miniature font on the backs of baseball cards, which seldom reveal fielding prowess and hustle, such as so regularly exemplified by Maris. It was, in fact, that very penchant for speed and determination that likely cut his career short—first with the knees, colliding into the stands for improbable catches, and then with his hand that he broke upon sliding into home plate and a slow-footed umpire.

Roger Maris is one of the rare finds among baseball biographies, as it insightfully recounts little-known facts and episodes like these and dexterously negotiates with well-crafted narrative a field typically fraught with obstacles: those of family drama and lineage; regular season and playoff games and statistics; and extensive commentary on behalf of family and friends, reporters, and witnesses. (The reliance on others for gleanings about Maris the man prove necessary because Maris himself grew appropriately mistrusting and uncooperative toward the press after the hellish and surprisingly negative media coverage in 1961 that literally caused his hair to fall out in clumps. Thereafter, he protected his privacy and largely guarded his words.)

The book is at its best, though, when it comes to those wonderful little baseball anecdotes that swiftly usher words like guffaw back into your vocabulary, as well as fateful tales where even ordinary men are granted the experience of triumph. Take, for example, the story of Andy Strasberg, previously an ardent Yankee supporter and reportedly Roger’s biggest fan. Almost as a lark on account of his college friends who persisted in needling him about his “‘good friend Roger Maris,’” Strasberg makes the drive from Akron College to Forbes Field in Pittsburg to see Maris and the Cardinals play the Pirates (318). Maris does not disappoint. Before the game he calls out to Strasberg by name, and Andy lines up his awestruck friends for introductions “‘as if it was a wedding reception.’” Later on during play, while seated “‘in row 9, seat 9’” and watching his favorite player wear the “‘familiar number 9,’” Andy receives an even bigger treat:

In the 6th inning against [southpaw Woodie] Fryman, [Maris] hit his first National League home run. And I caught the ball! My friends were witnesses. They were screaming at the top of their lungs as the ball came toward us, and I caught it on the fly bare-handed. I started crying because I was eighteen years old and life was not going to get any better for me. After the half inning, Roger comes out to right field and sees me holding the home-run ball and says, ‘I don’t believe it!’

However, there remains a noticeable dearth of such upbeat and jubilant sentiment in much of the biography and Maris’s life on the field. After I finish reading the closing chapters, a fishhook seems caught in my throat with some final thoughts that equally stick in my heart. For Maris ultimately received more in the way of jeers than cheers during his playing days. Clavin and Peary tell how even when the increasingly ill Maris returned to New York for his final Yankee Old-Timers’ Day, an elderly usher in the stadium shook his head and coolly remarked to Maris’s former coach, Sid Cichy, how “‘Nobody, nobody should have broken the Babe’s record’” (370). Clearly the swell of ill will that once followed Maris during his time in New York as a Yankee persisted in some minds.

After that summer day in 1984 when his number 9 was officially retired, Maris stoically suffered for over a year through an excruciating and tedious battle with cancer, which eventually ended his life at age 51 and took him away from his only true joys in life, his wife and children. Fittingly, his funeral service concluded with a poignant exchange between Maris’s son, Roger Jr., and that dedicated fan, Andy Strasberg. Indeed, Strasberg later recalls the scene:

The funeral was extremely moving. . . . At the end of the service I paid my respects to [Roger’s widow] Pat Maris. As always, she was extremely gracious and introduced me to her kids, whom I hadn’t seen since the last game of the 1968 season. She said to them, ‘I want to introduce you to someone very special. This is Andy Strasberg.’ And Roger Jr. said, ‘You’re dad’s number one fan.’ I said, ‘You’ll never know how much your dad meant to me growing up.’ And he said, ‘You’ll never know how much you meant to our dad.’ (378)

So I cannot help but think about stories like these—about young Andy Strasberg now grown up, his prized baseball, and where they both may be today—when I handle and cherish my old, beat-up Roger Maris baseball card and the meaning it contains for me. Some collectors would designate my Roger Maris 1964 Topps baseball card as strictly a “filler card” (a card in poor condition meant merely as a place-holder of sorts until a “better” card may be acquired), which I believe was also the exact phrase used in the description for the online auction of this card. But let me say this: there are few cards that I will ever feel are “better” than this one with all of its painfully wrought, elaborate wrinkles—its edges frayed by time. And there is no other player whom I will ever like more than poor Roger Maris.

Ty Cobb—a Liked Guy?

Keith Olbermann’s recent interview with author Charles Leerhsen introduced some unexpected revelations about the often notorious, downright vicious characterizations of Ty Cobb. Apparently, Leerhsen uncovers “new news” in his latest book, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015), with intriguing research and claims about the thus far infamous ballplayer.

As Olbermann himself notes in the interview, we’ll have to wait and see how other historians weigh in on this perhaps “revisionist history,” for lack of a better term. Surprisingly, though, it seems that Leerhsen didn’t need to dig very far to cast significant doubt on popular assumptions about Cobb—namely, the largely unquestioned reputation for being a virulent racist and an overwhelmingly detested figure among fans and players alike.

It seems that these portrayals of Cobb as utter villain originate with or at least have been popularized by one particular biography, Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball, written by Cobb’s earliest biographer, Al Stump. Leerhsen indicates several inconsistencies and even fabrications with Stump’s depictions of Cobb.

On the question of Cobb’s assumed blatant racism, Leerhsen also emphasizes the history and likely influence of several abolitionists in Cobb’s immediate and extended family. There’s also a published and confirmed statement from 1952 where Cobb made some comparatively democratic remarks about integration in baseball.

Finally, there are some overlooked but relevant points about the oft-cited 1910 Chalmers Award, another episode that Leerhsen mentions. The award was a highly coveted prize of a new automobile for the batting leader in each league, and the race was extremely tight for the American League—with a fierce competition between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. Leerhsen’s account highlights a pivotal game with questionable fielding positioning of Nap Lajoie’s opposing team, the St. Louis Browns, which heavily favored Lajoie’s efforts. Ultimately, both players were awarded the title, yet the debate persists about which one truly deserved and earned it. However, Cobb is frequently the player painted in a far more negative light in this controversial season and career achievement, as he sat out his final games to preserve his batting average. And Leerhsen again appears to offer some reasonable support to discredit such sweeping, unfavorable characterizations of Cobb, especially when compared to peers like Lajoie (who played with an equally fiery personality).

Indeed, Leerhsen goes so far as to suggest that there were many fans as well as teammates loyal to and even fond of “the Meanest Man in Baseball.” I can almost hear a voice exclaiming from beyond the boggy grave, the much maligned and mired Cobb himself in shock: “Hey, I’m liked guy?!”

 

Calling Dr. Spengler

1990 Topps Vance Law

Who knew that Dr. Spengler, or Egon to his pals, was a bespectacled ballplayer before he was a ghostbuster? Or that he played under the pseudonym of Vance Law? Did you know he was also an All-Star and played for the Cubbies? (Usually he batted late in the order, in the 5th, 6th, or 7th slots.) Later on his fatiguing career, he even joined the same team that Tom Selleck played for in Mr. Baseball, the Chunichi Dragons. Oh, Japan—the place where American ballplayers go to learn to let go, or die. But this is a world apart from all that. Here on his Topps trading card he has thrown off the lab coat’s cold sterility. Gone is the science of paranormal rubrics and metrics. Look how he leans along the brick, elbow-high wall as the sun’s reflective glare gilds a sea of green seats in a rising hot flare. He stirs laughter yet confounds in a perfect portrait of hopeful nonchalance. He’s straight man to the funny man but funny man to most men. Try not to chortle at that chewing gum grin, the thin-rimmed frames and broad lenses like twin pools of lucid, or transparent, dreams. While not quite a star, he’s a king among “commons”—full with wool-longing, love of flannel, pinstripe aspirations. Underneath the nerd’s goofy exterior, his heart quickens to sounds of vicarious crowds. Ballpark dreams. Dreams of ghosts.

1952 Topps #195 Minnie Miñoso

1952 Topps 195 Minnie Minoso

Ever since Minnie Miñoso passed away earlier this year, I’ve been reading more and more about his remarkable career.

Of course, that inevitably leads to a casual scroll through the internets and some (digital) cardboard gazing. And who says you can’t get plenty o’ laughs & learning for free by simply browsing MichaelEbay in the wee hours of night? Check out this one seller’s fantastic auction posting details:

Orestes Minnie Minoso. Chicago White Sox. 1952 Topps 195. Barely acceptable.

Sure it’s a bit dashed off. Still, it’s one of the most colorful, earnest auction descriptions that I’ve ever read for a poor baseball card. Honestly, I think this fellow over undersold the condition of this one—re. the humility and hilarity in designating it as “a mess” and, elsewhere in the posting, “Barely Acceptable.” I’ve seen poor old baseball cards in much worse shape than this.

1952 Topps 195 Minnie Minoso, card back

Oh Jacki[e]

One critique of the pervading Jackie Robinson legacy narrative goes something like this: most fans and admirers already know about Jackie Robinson the symbolic hero and virtual saint, but we are sorely at a loss for historical accounts of Jackie Robinson the man, the conflicted, or even (gasp) the fallible. After 42 was released in 2013, much remains the same—at least in terms of onscreen portraits. However, books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983) and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997), among others, thankfully lend some dimensions and shades of complexity to a tale otherwise typically told in terms of contrasts as stark as the very racial divides that Robinson helped bridge.

However, this isn’t a book review. And in any case, there’s something else that conveys with utter realism the very ephemeral humanity of our most renowned historic figures: the curious photographic and painterly images of such popular idols printed crisp and bright at first, before they inevitably morph with age on whatever moldy or brittle scraps of cardboard. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 3rd poorest

In as much, the first time I laid eyes on this topographic spectacle of crags and rifts, a veritable ravine running prominently down the ravaged geographic center, I thought I’d found the one. Surely, this must be the poorest of all specimens of 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 2nd poorest

Not long after, though, I discovered this poor Jackie: complete with some anonymous soul’s tortured math homework scratched out and hovering ethereally in lead-penciled glory over Robinson’s right shoulder—whereupon I knew that there could be no better paradigm for a poor 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 1st poorestFinally, I found this. Then I marveled in awe at the surviving remains, how scant the frayed & burnt cellulose fibers barely holding things together.

Thus I close with an ill-advised and downright silly, sentimental quote (what my former 18th Century English literature professor might term bathetic). Still the words feel oddly apt. To (mis)appropriate from those gaudy pop icons of moussed hair, leather, keyboard synths, and moogs:

The noise electric never stops
And all you need is what you got
And there’s a place for everyone
Under heartbeat city’s golden sun
Jacki[e]

Oh Jacki[e]

   —The Cars, “Heartbeat City”