On Saturday afternoons, when the sun warmed our skin, and the chores were done, and we didn’t have to visit some stupid relative, we would play baseball. All of us back in the old neighborhood.
There was Barooji, and Sandy, and the twins, Gibby and Gary, and a kid whose name I can no longer remember but I know his father was a preacher, because he couldn’t come out on Sundays. Gil? Was that it? And sometimes my kid brother, who was too small then even to have a glove. He’d come, too.
There were other times for homework and for riding to the shopping mall. But Saturday afternoons were sacred. At least where I came from. Bring your bats. Bring your gloves. Everybody take a position, and first guy to the pitching mound gets it.
We’d play all summer. And every summer we’d try to keep our own statistics. We would count singles and errors and strikeouts (not your own, of course). But mostly we would count home runs. They were a source of pride, as I suspect they still are, if kids even play baseball anymore without the aid of a video screen.
Usually we would lose count of the other stats by July. But home runs we remembered right until Labor Day.
“How many you got?”
“You do not.”
We swore we’d never forget our stats. We lied. I think the highest anyone ever got was 30. Maybe 32. I know that no one ever came close to 61.
But we all knew that number. It was magic.
It belonged to Roger Maris, who swatted that many round- trippers — as baseball folk like to call them — back in 1961, and broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record by one.
I don’t know if it was the number itself or the fact that he had broken Ruth’s record that made him part of our childhood vernacular. I never thought about it much.
But I thought about it Saturday afternoon, when I heard that Roger Maris, 51, had died of cancer in a Houston hospital. Maris: No Mr. Nice Guy
I never got to meet Maris. He was long past baseball and the Yankees when I got into writing sports for a living. I remember hearing he was sick, and raised a mental eyebrow whenever I saw one of those charity golf tournaments for him.
Charity? For Roger Maris? But he was King. That was the word we all associated with him growing up, before we knew that things like cancer could wipe out baseball players just like everybody else.
True, he was never the flamboyant hero that Ruth was. You thought of Maris and you thought of a crew-cut head atop a checkered sports jacket. He wasn’t the type to point toward right field before hitting a home run. Or to try to pick up your wife while he signed an autograph.
The fact is, he was a self-professed meanie. “I was surly from the day I was born,” he once said, “and I guess I always will be.”
Casey Stengel once said of Maris: “You ask him a question and he stares at you for a week before answering it.”
He hit only 275 home runs in his career. He might never had raised any dust, might just have been remembered as the brooding slugger alongside Mickey Mantle, who helped the Yankees to a fistful of pennants in the early
But he had that one glorious season, those 61 homers — with the record-breaker coming against the Red Sox on the last day of the season — that followed him like a shadow the rest of his life.
It made him unforgivingly famous. Which in most cases is as much a curse as a blessing. The record haunted him
People never left Maris alone, in his company or not. So many felt he should not be recognized as the true home run king, because he had played in a 162-game season, while Ruth’s lasted only 154.
He became known as the Asterisk Hero — the same way Pete Rose is considered by some for the way he broke Ty Cobb’s hit record. “Took too long,” the experts mumble, before returning to their scrapbooks.
Many fans never forgave Maris for usurping Ruth’s throne in only his second season in pinstripes. Why, the kid had no right. Yankees fans — any hard-core fans — can be like that.
But it bothered Maris. So much so that he avoided old-timers’ games once he retired. The record never brought him as much unbridled joy as it should have. He may actually have resented it to his dying day. We’ll never know. He kept a lot inside, including how seriously he was sick. Even down to his last hours, the family’s request was to keep the details out of the newspapers.
And now he’s gone. He never knew the group of kids from the neighborhood. Never knew how we daydreamed about catching his record one day, just as he had done to Ruth. And we never knew him.
But he died on a Saturday afternoon. And, for some of us anyhow, it was only fitting.