Even the most hardcore baseball fan might not realize it, but exactly 50 years ago today — April 26, 1961 — the very first chapter of one of the most improbable stories in the history of baseball got written.
In the fourth inning of his team’s 11th game of the season, New York Yankee right fielder Roger Maris took a Paul Foytak pitch deep into the right field stands at old Tiger Stadium. And while it may have been Maris’ first HR that season, it would certainly not be his last.
Before the summer would end, Maris would go deep 60 more times and by doing so carve out for himself a slice of baseball immortality that, frankly, even induction into the Hall of Fame would not have brought him.
In the process, he would go on to surpass the single most hallowed mark in all of sports, one held by the most iconic and beloved athlete this country has ever known.
And what was remarkable about Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season HR record wasn’t so much that he actually did it, though that was certainly amazing. It was that he did it with so many people rooting against him, and so many external forces conspiring to do whatever they could to stop him.
Compare that to 37 years later, in 1998, when all around baseball pitchers viewed being taken deep by either Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa — the bloated, Popeye-strong poster twins of the steroid era — as something of a badge of honor. So much so, in fact, that at times it appeared they were tossing batting practice to the two sluggers on the off-chance they could one day tell their grandchildren about the role they played in that chemically enhanced full-frontal assault on Maris’ remarkable record.
And that doesn’t even take into account the thousands of fans who were rooting for McGwire and Sosa whenever they came to bat that season, even on the road, often imploring their pitcher to groove one, regardless of the score, so that they too might share in a little slice of history.
In fact, as savagely cruel as the New York media and some Yankee fans were to him in 1961, and as little as the Yankee management and the Commissioner’s office did to shield him from such savagery, you could argue Maris achieved something immeasurably more difficult than McGwire and Sosa, despite ten times the pressure and only a fraction of the support.
Looking back at what Maris was somehow able to accomplish in the summer of ’61, I’ve realized that of all the things I resent about the hulking apes of baseball’s steroid era, with their ridiculously inflated, video-game numbers, this is what I resent most: that in less than a decade’s time, McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero, Manny Ramirez and their ilk — each of whom, we reasonably be assume, saw himself as bigger than the game — stole from us the yardsticks we once used to measure greatness.
They tossed aside our most hallowed touchstones, plowed under a century’s worth of our game’s history, and painted over one precious benchmark of ours after another.
What’s more, they robbed us of ever again being able to experience another season like the magical summer of 1961, when a single, unassuming and remarkably decent man from North Dakota somehow found himself anointed by the baseball gods to measure his worth against the greatest sluggers the game had ever known.
Because thanks to those guys, the odds that we’ll ever see someone make a legitimate run at the single-season HR record — whatever the hell it is now — are about the same as the likelihood that you’ll be run over by a herd of yaks. In your bathroom. Today.
But rather than worry about all baseball lost because Bud Selig chose to ingore a problem that proceded to strip-mine the game of its most precious numbers, I’ll chose instead to spend today honoring Roger Maris and the very special gift he left on our doorstep 50 years ago.
And I’m taking a moment even as I write this — as I hope you’ll do as you read it — to quietly celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the first of those 61; Roger Maris’ very first step on what would prove to be the single most remarkable, courageous and unlikely six-month journey any baseball player has ever taken.