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Rewind to '61

Page 2 columnist

In the early summer of 1961, I was 27 years old, and newly minted as a foreign correspondent, on my way to Leopoldville, the Congo, for the New York Times. I had come to New York for two weeks of briefings (primarily by people who had never been to Africa, let alone the Congo) and my requisite inoculations. What I remember most clearly about those two weeks, however, was that it was the moment when the joint Maris-Mantle assault on Babe Ruth's home record simply exploded into the national consciousness.

Roger Maris
Roger Maris' goal for the 1961 season was to beat Mickey Mantle for the home run title.
In those days, baseball was still played in the daytime and the Yankee games were on WPIX locally, albeit in black and white, and I tried to arrange my schedule so that I could have the early afternoon off in order to watch the games. If you are a serious sports fan, there are a few moments when the fantasy world of sports intersects with your real life, and you can forever after connect where you were and what you were doing and what you were feeling to the transcendant sports events of that moment.

So it was that summer with me: Six months earlier I had been a general assignment reporter for a paper in Nashville, Tenn., and now, both nervous and wildly excited, I was on my way as a correspondent to the most dangerous foreign assignment in the world, even as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were embarked on a journey of their own, taking on Ruth's sacrosanct record. I am reminded of this now, because it is all recalled with remarkable accuracy in HBO's new movie made by Billy Crystal about that summer and those events, "61*."

In those afternoons, often still reeling from my various shots, I would turn on the television set and watch the games. It was, I should add, great fun with an excitement all its own, and I was immediately caught up in it. Mantle was by that time a given as a great ballplayer, and especially as a power hitter -- his home runs suitably majestic. He swung with such force that his strikeouts were almost as exciting as his long drives.

Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle's majestic power made him the favorite of most Yankees fans.
Pedro Ramos once told me of surrendering a home run to Mantle that the ball looked when he last saw it as if it were on its way to Connecticut. By then, his 11th season in the majors, he had come into his own, escaping not just the shadow of the unwelcoming and ungenerous DiMaggio, who had tried as best he could not to pass the torch, but the shadow of the super hype -- too much promised too soon -- with which he had struggled from the start. He was on the threshold of becoming not merely admired but loved by the New York fans -- it would take the rivalry with Maris to cement that relationship.

Mantle was the country slicker incarnate, shrewd and funny if not wise, at once raw and unfinished, a great teammate, much given over to sophomoric practical jokes that were funny to his teammates primarily because they were his. Had they been played by anyone else, they might have fallen flat. But they were his way of reaching down from that largely unwanted superstardom to show his teammates he was one of them, and they were appreciated as such.

Maris was quite another thing. He was not a great baseball player, but he was a very good one, and he was in fact a very good all-around athlete, having been offered a football scholarship to Oklahoma as a running back in the days when Oklahoma was one of the dominant football powers in the country. He was an excellent defensive outfielder with an exceptional arm, and a good base runner as well.

If he was emotionally ill-prepared for playing in New York because he preferred small towns over big cities, then he was nonetheless an almost perfect physical specimen for the Yankees. He hit left-handed as if brought up to swing for that short rightfield fence long before he saw it for the first time. His swing was level and compact, and it wasted nothing. He seemed to leverage his entire body when he swung, in an almost perfect use of it as a physical instrument.

  Maris was an edgy, unvarnished man who had no desire to be anything different that what he was. New York could never be Kansas City, which in turn could not be Fargo -- New York was a hard place for him, a media capital where people wanted him to be verbal and clever and, he suspected, smarter than he was.  

His friend Mike Shannon, the Cardinal outfielder, thought Maris was better at pulling an outside pitch than any hitter he had ever seen. His home runs were different from the imperial drives of Mantle -- they were sharp line drives that carried exceptionally well. It was in the baseball sense at least a remarkable year for him, one in which the stars were suitably well-aligned: he was physically in good shape for the entire year; Mantle was hitting behind him so there were a lot of fastballs over the plate; and the league's pitching had been diluted just enough by the addition of two expansion teams.

He also had a certain goal, which he kept to himself -- the home run title. The previous year he had come to New York from Kansas City, and had hit 39 home runs, one fewer than Mantle who led the league. That year the Yankee fans, all too accustomed to winning pennants by then, had remarkably enough booed Maris when he had challenged Mantle for the home run title; years later, Maris confided to his friend Shannon that he had decided to get even with the fans by beating Mantle out for the team home run lead in 1961. It was a decision very much in character with a certain contrariness that was an important part of Maris' makeup.

Roger Maris, Sal Durante
Maris poses with Sal Durante, the fan who caught his record 61st homer. The scene was accurately depicted in Billy Crystal's "61*."
He had not wanted to come to New York in the first place, and he was quite open about saying that: he had been happier in Kansas City, thank you, which was quite big enough for a boy from Fargo, N.D. The defining Maris story was once told to me by a great New York character named Big Julie Isaacson, who had been assigned by Irv Noren, a former Yankee playing in Kansas City to keep watch over Maris in the big city.

Big Julie, who seemed right out of the cast of "Guys and Dolls," had met Maris at the airport when he first arrived, and had been appalled by the casual quality of his clothes -- and in particular a pair of shoes from Thom McAn that looked like they should be worn by Pat Boone. Yankees, Big Julie told the newcomer, did not dress like that; they wore jackets and ties, and above all, they did not wear Pat Boone shoes.

The next day Big Julie picked up Maris so they could look for an apartment. But before they could do anything else, Maris demanded that Julie take him to the nearest Thom McAn store so he could buy a second pair of the same shoes. The point was obvious -- no one told Roger Maris what to wear or what to do.

He was an edgy, unvarnished man who had no desire to be anything different that what he was. New York could never be Kansas City, which in turn could not be Fargo -- New York was a hard place for him, a media capital where people wanted him to be verbal and clever and, he suspected, smarter than he was.

Mickey Mantle
Actor Thomas Jane tries to capture The Mick's swing in "61*."
Things that went wrong for him tended to fester. There was an innate suspicion at all things and people that were a little different from what he was accustomed to. That summer was the first one of Jack Kennedy's presidency and much was being made of the talent in the Kennedy cabinet. Whitey Ford, the Yankee pitcher, had decided that there should be a cabinet made up of different Yankees. Maris' position, Ford decided, was Secretary of Grievances.

Was there ever a player less well prepared for what was to be one of the groundbreaking events of a new media society -- which was just beginning to change the world at an accelerating rate, as the power of television became infinitely greater? Maris was soon caught in the eye of this new communications world. The networks were soon to go from 15-minute newscasts to 30 minutes, and Vietnam was to be the first living room war.

The effect of this on sports was immense -- Muhammad Ali was the first great athlete to understand that sports was now as much theater as it was pure athletics. Other athletes understood the changed nature of their profession better and adapted better than Maris -- realizing that there was a quid pro quo at work here, that greater celebrity eventually meant more money, and that the price of fame was both greater scrutiny (and loss of privacy) but greater affluence.

Certainly Joe Namath, about to enter the New York stage, understood this and played it perfectly throughout his career. Not by chance was he called "Broadway Joe." Young and single, he understood the tradeoff in terms of celebrity and money versus privacy. But Maris hated it. He was the anti-Ali, the anti-Namath. He was a ballplayer, nothing more, nothing less, resolutely square, relentlessly colorless. Other ballplayers, the sportswriter Maury Allen once noted, claimed that they did not care about the fans and the media and said they would be just as glad playing before empty seats, but only for Maris, he added, was it true.

1961 Yankees
Actor Barry Pepper, far right, portrays Maris in the HBO film, which debuts April 28.
It is part of the myth of that season that no one wanted Maris to break the record. I don't think that is true. I think, in general, most sports fans root for records to be broken; in addition, they root for the underdog, and in this case, Maris, going against both Mantle and Ruth, was the underdog. I tend to trust my own rooting instincts, and in that season I wanted Maris to break the record.

In addition, I thought the asterisk was simply stupid. What is also true is that Maris, by nature of his personality, his inability to be anything but what he was, was never a very sympathetic underdog. He seemed to be wearing a sign which said that he wanted it all to end and for all the media and the fans to go away.

Certainly the chase was an ordeal for him. There was no doubt that it represented a prolonged kind of media scrutiny unlike that anyone had ever experienced before (the DiMaggio hitting streak had been carried on radio), and the media scrutiny in the new age because of television was far more intense and more ravenous in its need for more and more details not merely of what had happened -- was it a fastball or a curve? -- but about a player's personality and private life. That is what happens when television arrives -- it turns its subjects into instant stars, and there is a hunger for personality; lines are crossed that were once considered essential to an athlete's privacy. Other great media events -- a heavyweight fight, a football championship -- last with all their hype, a few days. Even a World Series lasted only about two weeks.

  It is part of the myth of that season that no one wanted Maris to break the record. I don't think that is true. I think, in general, most sports fans root for records to be broken; in addition, they root for the underdog, and in this case, Maris, going against both Mantle and Ruth, was the underdog.  

But this started in full fury some time in June and went on ceaselessly for three months. No one was prepared for it. The Yankees failed to protect Maris and set any kind of ground rules for media coverage. Because Maris himself was bluntly honest, he tended to give straight answers to questions and his answers often offended people. Once during the record hunt, a reporter asked him whether he thought he could break Ruth's record. "How the f--- do I know?" he answered. He did not know how to play the media game, to give answers which were palpably false, but which were what the fans wanted to hear.

That summer a great many people seemed to take sides. Older fans, and some older journalists, wanted Ruth's record to stand. Some Yankees fans wanted it broken, but felt Mantle, by far the better ballplayer, and the long-time Yankees star should break it. Most of us, or at least most of us under 45 at the time, I think, wanted it broken, and did not care who broke it -- our feeling was, whoever broke it deserved to break it.

I wanted it broken and, if anything, rooted for Maris because he was the underdog. I followed that grand challenge from a distance of thousands of miles away, while covering the civil war in the Congo, helped by a kindly assistant in the Times Paris bureau through which my copy and messages passed. He would attach brief cryptic notes, which read something like "Mar-53-Man-48," which must have seemed like the strangest kind of codes for the varying intelligence agencies which monitored all the cable traffic in a place like Leopoldville during the Cold War.

Billy Crystal's movie examines the events of that summer with great care and the most serious of intent; this is the work of a good and serious and thoughtful sports fan. Crystal, it should be said, is not a summer soldier of celebrity sports watchers. Quite the contrary. He is a serious sports fan, who knows the games, takes them seriously and is in no way faddish. I can vouch for this. If much of Los Angeles likes to show up courtside at major (nationally televised) Lakers games, then Crystal is the rare Los Angeles celebrity who has season tickets to and shows up regularly at, yes, Clippers games. He is clearly a man of dazzling faith.

The movie has many attractive qualities. Barry Pepper, who plays Maris, looks eerily like him; if anything, his performance is somewhat flat because the man he is playing is so flat. By contrast, Thomas Jane, playing Mantle, is marvelous with a wonderful, raw country boy outrageousness -- Mantle, after all, was always a much better show than Maris.

Thomas Jane, Anthony Michael Hall
Mantle (Jane) and Whitey Ford (Anthony Michael Hall), right, watch Maris from the dugout in the HBO film.
What we have here is a cautionary tale for a media age: a good portrait of a decent, honest, square man determined to be himself, and unable to match in heroic words and luminescent personality what a hungry and attentive fan base wanted to go with his heroic deeds. In other ways, he was doomed to disappoint a newly created media world. Or, as Roger Angell, the wonderful New Yorker baseball writer, once told me when I asked him about a ballplayer, "They are what they do."

I think it is in some ways a surprisingly accurate portrait of this moment, and that might be the problem. Because for all of it's good qualities, "61*" seems somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Part of this stems from the lack of drama. A baseball season is, in the end, a baseball season; it is not about life and death. The drama of a home run derby which took place 40 years ago is limited by the fact that we know how it came out, especially since the more accurate it is, the more limited the emotional range of its principal player is going to be.

In terms of real life human drama, what was happening daily in the American South in those days was of considerably larger daily human drama, because it really was about life and death.

In the movie, the forces of darkness -- we always need forces of darkness to make a movie work -- are represented by Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball and a former Ruth ghost writer, who wanted Ruth's record to stand and who awards Maris, because the new record is not achieved in the requisite 154 games, an asterisk for his troubles. But a man wielding an asterisk is not a great villain for that day, or any other.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, will write bi-weekly columns for Page 2.

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