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Myths, misconceptions
and asterisks from '61

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The Billy Crystal movie, "61*," debuts Saturday night on HBO amid nearly as much publicity as the Great Home Run Race produced back in 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle challenged Babe Ruth's 34-year-old record of 60 home runs in one season -- the sexiest record in sports.

Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane
Actors Barry Pepper, left, as Roger Maris, and Thomas Jane, as Mickey Mantle, certainly look the part in Billy Crystal's "61*."
As happened when Mark McGwire pursued and broke Maris' record three years ago, the buildup to the film's debut has unleashed various retrospectives on Maris and the '61 season -- some reasoned and some shrill.

The asterisk in the film's title, of course, refers to commissioner Ford Frick's decision, reached in mid-July that year, that in order to be recognized as breaking Ruth's record, a player would have to exceed the Bambino's total within the first 154 games played by his team. In 1961, the American League had expanded from eight to 10 teams, and in so doing, increased the number of games that each team would play, from 154 to 162. (The 154-game format had been standard for more than 50 years.)

Maris and Mantle one-upped each other through most of that summer, until Maris pulled ahead to stay in mid-August. (Mantle missed much of September with an injury.) But the Frick-imposed deadline came into play: Maris belted his 59th homer at Baltimore on Sept. 20, in Game No. 154. (Actually, it was the Yankees' 155th game, including an earlier tie game; Frick had amended his original announcement to parallel the conditions that existed in Ruth's 1927 season, when there had also been a tie.) His 60th and 61st home runs came after the deadline, and were greeted with a lot more ambivalence than should have been the case.

Maris had been the American League MVP in 1960 (as he would be again in 1961), but was not then regarded as one of baseball's biggest stars. And so some fans of Ruth (and to a much lesser degree, of Mantle) loudly offered a litany of reasons why Maris would be an unworthy successor to the Sultan of Swat.

The schedule was not only longer, those claims went, but expansion had brought a new wave of sub-standard pitchers into the AL, the new ballparks were homer-friendly, and Maris had Mantle hitting behind him. The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst, which I co-authored along with Seymour Siwoff and my brothers Peter and Tom, delved into the matter.

Some of what we reported 10 years ago:

  • Yes, the American League's two new stadiums in 1961, Wrigley Field in Los Angeles and Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, were both good hitters parks. (In fact, there were 248 home runs hit at Wrigley that season, then a big league record.) But Maris hit a total of only three home runs in the 18 games that the Yankees played at those two parks.

    Roger Maris
    Maris' .269 average in 1961 still ranks as the lowest ever in a 50-homer season.
  • Nothing indicates that Maris took undue advantage of expansion pitching. Against pitchers who had 25 starts or were credited with 10 saves (then unofficial) in 1960 -- before expansion -- Maris, in 1961, hit 23 homers (and batted .343) in 166 at-bats; against all other pitchers in 1961 (in other words, those who had not done as well the previous year, some of whom might have owed their jobs to expansion), Maris had a lower rate of home runs (38 in 424 at-bats) and a far lower batting average (.241).

  • Yes, Maris benefited big-time from batting ahead of Mantle. Roger did not receive a single intentional walk in 1961. He hit .293 with 54 homers in 475 at-bats with Mantle on deck, but hit an astonishingly low .174 with seven homers in 115 at-bats without the Mick's imposing presence on deck.

    To be fair to Maris, the difference in his batting average according to whether or not Mantle was on deck is a bit skewed. Early in the season, Maris characteristically batted seventh against left-handers, so his .174 average was produced chiefly against pitchers against whom he might be expected to have the most difficulty. In addition, research has determined that back in 1927, Ruth had a pretty good guy coming up behind him ... some fellow named Gehrig.

    Some of the scorn heaped on Maris that year had to do with his modest batting average; he finished the season at .269. There have now been 30 occasions on which a big-league player has hit at least 50 homers in a season; Maris' average is still the lowest produced in any of the 30 seasons. (The nearest to him: Greg Vaughn batted .272 while swatting 50 homers in the 1998 season.) But an inspection of the innards of each game in 1961 shows that Maris hit much better with runners on base (.303) than with the bases empty (.241), and he did even better with runners in scoring position (.328). Alas, no one kept these kinds of figures back in 1961, so they could not be used to temper his critics' carping about his low batting average.

    As to the film itself, Crystal has taken great pains to faithfully mimic certain aspects of the season. Those of you who can't watch a baseball movie without playing the "gotcha" game will appreciate that, yes, the Moose Skowron character is really wearing No. 14 and the Al Kaline character No. 6. Crystal asserts that the contents of Maris's locker replicate those seen in a photo of the day, and, in the scene in which Maris hits his 61st homer, the actors are sitting on the Yankees bench in exact correspondence to footage and photos that captured the actual moment. And, of course, actors Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane bear strong resemblances to Maris and Mantle.

    Thomas Jane, Anthony Michael Hall
    Mantle (Jane) and Whitey Ford (Anthony Michael Hall), right, watch Maris from the dugout in the HBO film.
    All that is fine, but I find the emphasis being placed on such things kind of amusing. Is the purpose of a baseball movie exact imitation of the original? Does that mean that "Pride Of The Yankees" and "Fear Strikes Out" -- probably the two best baseball movies that deal with actual characters and events -- are to be relegated to the bench, just because Gary Cooper and Anthony Perkins (who played Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Piersall, respectively, in those films) didn't look the part?

    Is the drama of "Pride" lessened because, in the film, Gehrig comes to his manager and ends his playing streak on the field at Briggs Stadium, rather than in a Detroit hotel room? Is the tension of "Fear" mitigated because the Red Sox players are seen running around a faux Fenway Park wearing uniform numbers in the 60s and 70s? I say, no and no.

    The emphasis instead should be focused on larger points -- the relationship between Maris and Mantle; the points of view of the media; the reaction of the fans; and the role of Frick. With regard to the latter, Crystal has identified Frick as the "villain" of the film, because of his ruling on the 154-game deadline. Frick, a former sportswriter, had known and admired Ruth, and had worked with the Babe on various stories that appeared under Ruth's byline. So perhaps, unlike Caesar's wife, he was not above reproach. But as to the merits of Frick's decision itself, things were not as clear in 1961 as they are now.

    For more than 50 years, the year-to-year sameness of the baseball schedule was part of the religion of the sport. That seems a quaint notion now, but it was a real one then; HBO began its "When It Was A Game" documentary -- still the best sports program that I have ever seen -- by talking about the rhythm of the season and its familiar two-league, eight-team, 154-game schedule. When Maris and Mantle threatened to break the record the first year after the schedule was changed, the questions that were raised on how the record should be treated were legitimate ones. Would this happen every year? A poll by The Sporting News showed that more than two-thirds of veteran writers supported Frick's decision. Perhaps more to the point, more than 70 percent of active star players questioned by that publication on Frick's ruling also endorsed it. Among the players quoted on the subject were:

  • Stan Musial: "It's a good rule. Baseball records were based on 154-game schedules. ... Eight additional games can make a big difference in the records."

  • Norm Cash: "If a player is to break Ruth's record, he should do it in the same number of games that Ruth did."

  • Warren Spahn: "It should be the way the Commissioner ruled ... in order for it to count, they should do it in 154 games."

  • Whitey Ford: "I'm all for the Commissioner's decision. ... it's got to be done within 154 games or it won't mean anything."

  • Mickey Mantle: "I think it's right. Ruth set it in 154 games, and you should beat it in the same number of games. If I should break it in the 155th game, I wouldn't want the record."

  • Roger Maris: "I think the Commissioner shouldn't have made any 154-game ruling when he did. But if Mick breaks it, I hope he does it in 154. The same goes for me."

    Thirty years after the fact, commissioner Fay Vincent rescinded Frick's ruling and removed the mythical asterisk from Maris' record. I think Vincent was correct in doing so, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm proud and happy to have played a small part in his decision. But the point is that whatever your feelings on Frick's decision, it was truly a difficult one at the time that he made it.

    Finally, I never met Ford Frick and don't know anyone in his family. But this much is clear: however important and controversial his decision on the home run record, it was not the most important one of his baseball career. Because it was Frick, when he was National League president in 1947, who stood tall in opposing the plans hatched by various National League players to refuse to play against the Brooklyn Dodgers if Jackie Robinson were in the Dodgers' lineup.

    It was Frick who was the second-most important baseball executive -- second only to Branch Rickey -- in that saga. It was Frick who proclaimed that he would go "down the line" with Robinson, and that he didn't care if there were forfeited games "or it if wrecks the league for five years" - that Robinson had as much right to play in the league as any other American citizen. The resistance to Robinson crumbled.

    It would be a shame if his legacy is reduced to that of a "villain."

    Steve Hirdt is the executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau.

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