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.

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