The Disease That Killed Roger Maris; September Is Lymphoma Awarness Month
By Joe Guzzardi
During the waning weeks of September 1961, New York Yankees right fielder Roger Maris pulled away from teammate Mickey Mantle in the summer-long race to win the American League home run title.
The tension surrounding their pursuit to break Babe Ruth’s 60 homers in a single season record intensified when Commissioner Ford Frick decreed that to be recognized as legitimate, the M&M boys would have to hit number 61 within 154 games, the season’s length during the Big Bam’s career. But after 154 games, to the delight of his many detractors who thought Maris a colorless, unworthy journeyman who never even hit .300, he had only 59 round-trippers. Number 61 came on October 1 in the season’s finale at Yankee Stadium.
A befuddled, irked Maris later asked: “When they say 154 games, which 154 games are they talking about? The first 154, the middle 154, the last 154? If it’s the first, then I’d still have tied Ruth, because I didn’t hit my first homer until the 11th game. If it was the last 154 or the middle 154, then I’d have broken it anyway.”
Maris comes to mind because September is designated Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month by the American Cancer Society. At age 51, the lymphoma scourge took Maris’ life.
Despite setting a new single-season home run record, and winning two back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards, Maris’ six-year tenure with the Yankees from 1960 to 1966 was doomed. The press was unrelentingly critical, and its pro-Ruth and pro-Mantle stories, coupled with its anti-Maris news, influenced fans who showered boos on the player Yankee managers Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk admired for his five-tool skills. Roger could, insisted the two World Series’ champion managers, hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. Looking back on his 1961 home run season, Maris said that “it wasn’t worth the aggravation. I had so many people on my tail. People hated me for breaking Ruth’s record – especially the press.”
Maris’ critics could not have misjudged his character more completely. In his book “You’re Missin’ a Great Game,” Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog wrote about the winter of 1961 to 62 when he was building with his own hands a home in Kansas City. Maris, just coming off two consecutive MVPs seasons, including one in which he was the most famous man in the sports world, volunteered to help. Every frigid morning, at 7:30 sharp, Maris reported to work, packing his lunch pail, ready to pound nails.
As a sidebar to the then-raging debate about whether Ruth or Maris should be designated as the true home run king, the Society for American Baseball Research historian Brian Marshall calculated that the variable between Ruth’s 1927 record and Maris’ in 1961 isn’t the additional eight games played but the batters’ total plate appearances. Marshall’s conclusion: it may appear to be a “no-brainer that Maris would have more opportunity [he played more games] to accomplish his feat than Ruth did to accomplish his. The fact is that Maris actually had less opportunity on a per game basis [fewer plate appearances.]”
In December 1966, the ingrate Yankees who insisted Roger play while injured, essentially gave Maris away to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for third baseman Charlie Smith. In his two years with the Yankees, 1967 to 1968, Smith hit .224. Maris, on the other hand, led the Cardinals to two National League pennants during the same period.
Because of Maris’ hostile relationship with the Yankees and its fans, and despite new owner George Steinbrenner’s pleading, the home run king boycotted the Old Timers’ Games for a decade. Then, in 1978, without advance notice, Maris appeared to help raise the Yankees’ 1977 American league pennant. Introduced by Mantle, Maris received an unexpectedly warm reception.
Maris’ post-retirement years found him hanging out with old Yankees and Cardinals friends, and successfully managing a central Florida Anheuser-Busch distributorship, a gift from Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. Around Thanksgiving 1983, Maris began to suffer from headaches which continued into early 1984. At first, Maris ignored them. But, when he experienced intermittent difficulty breathing and developed numerous lumps over his body, he sought medical attention. Maris had lymphoma. His original diagnosis offered hope for a full recovery. After immediately beginning chemotherapy, Maris was optimistic. As the cancer progressed, however, Maris to no avail visited cancer specialists at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital and Houston’s Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute. On December 14, 1985, Maris passed.
After Maris’ funeral in Fargo, North Dakota, St. Patrick’s Cathedral held a memorial service two days before Christmas. At the service’s end, Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, looking at Maris’ grandchildren, said:
“In something somewhat unusual for this great cathedral, I’m going to ask those in attendance to give us one last burst of applause for your grandfather so that you can get some understanding about how New York truly felt about him, and get some idea of the cheers that used to fill the great Yankee Stadium.”
With that, everyone, including attendee President Richard Nixon, began to applaud, politely at first. Then, on their feet and in tears, loud chants of “RO-GER, RO-GER” filled St. Patrick’s. A long-overdue and fitting tribute to Maris, an outstanding but under-appreciated baseball hero, had finally been paid in full.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at email@example.com.
The Disease That Killed Roger Maris; September Is Lymphoma Awarness Month The Disease That Killed Roger Maris; September Is Lymphoma Awarness Month