"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Roger Maris homered at Met in fabled season

John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president in January of 1961. He was the victor vs. Richard Nixon in a tight race that pushed TV ever more firmly into our national consciousness. Kennedy and Nixon debated. Kennedy ushered in "Camelot." Professional sports was growing. TV would have a huge impact on that.
Television would elevate football over the venerated old sport of baseball, the sport that FDR refused to let go into hiatus. It was necessary for our national morale, FDR proclaimed. The movie with Tom Hanks showed how girls baseball kept the sport viable. "There's no crying in baseball."
Baseball showed it could survive the war. It did not keep going in the face of labor vs. management strife in the 1990s. Today, I would argue, baseball still bears some scars from that. It bears scars from performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) also.
Today, one can't avoid the impression that baseball is merely a big money-making apparatus in which the "one per cent" types and lawyers coldly calculate, daily. Fine. It's the American way - to make money. I have lost virtually all interest in baseball. I have heard people say they are flabbergasted at the expense involved to take in a major league game - concessions included (or perhaps emphasized).
I was kindergarten-age when JFK became president and the American League expanded by two teams. Spring of '61 saw players, like their forebears, in the ritual of "getting in shape." Year-round conditioning wasn't the norm. Players around the age of 33 might well discover they had dropped a notch. Year-round conditioning has helped players keep a continuum of performance to a later age. Or is it PEDs with some players?
Major league baseball desperately needed the McGwire/Sosa home run race. Major league baseball couldn't have cared less about the ethics at that time - the ethics of allowing a couple guys to use the science of PEDs to swat baseballs into the outfield stands continually. Baseball had been staggered by the strike of 1994. Fans drifted back as a result of the homers. Lemmings, we are.
By the time Barry Bonds got done surpassing McGwire, we were ready to start yawning about it all. 
McGwire was the guy who got Billy Crystal inspired to make a movie about 1961 baseball. I suppose baseball and all of humanity could have been on their last legs considering the Cuban missile crisis soon to come. JFK dealt with that. In the meantime we got a magical 1961 baseball season, preserved in cinema by Crystal.
Why is the season special? In Minnesota it was a spectacular time because we became big league. We so take that for granted today. Minnesota life before 1961 was without our now-iconic Twins and Vikings. We had the Gophers. Did minor league baseball ever engender interest in outstate Minnesota? The Twins were born in 1961 and fans began getting on buses from the outstate MN environs. We were captivated.
Jim McRoberts remembers going to Metropolitan Stadium to see Vic Power. I so wish Power had still been with the Twins for the 1965 pennant run. He was so deserving to be in the World Series spotlight, to have a chance to be a World Series hero. He was a dark-skinned man who came from Puerto Rico. He dealt with all the bad racial stuff. He must have been dazed, coming as he did from a country where skin color didn't matter.
Power was intelligent, flashy and "his own man" - qualities that delayed his entry to the big leagues. But he made it, and in 1962 was a full-fledged star with our Twins who that year finished second behind the Yankees.
Two years previous we were that "cold Omaha." That's a dated expression now, isn't it? Not to mention pejorative. I couldn't care less if I were to live in Omaha today.
I have lost interest in baseball and am slowly phasing out of football. Football has imposed addictive qualities on all of us. Football exploded in popularity in lock-step with the advancement of television. The TV picture became sharper. TV was in the hands of everyone, or could be. Today we'd use the term "user friendly." In this respect TV offered what computers today still don't: a moron could operate a TV set. Computers still require some sophistication. I still don't own one. I feel like I'd just be buying a bunch of problems. And, that it would become obsolete in six months. I'm typing this post at the Morris Senior Community Center.
The obsolescence of camera equipment staggered me.
In 1961 we watched baseball in black and white in a time long before "high definition." The Yankees played their home opener against the new Minnesota Twins. I assume that's true because that's what we see in Crystal's movie. The historical accuracy is challenged because we see Camilo Pascual as a dark-skinned person, dark enough to be considered "black" or "Negro," the latter term still having currency then. I recall Pascual, a Cuban, seeming more light-skinned than dark. It wouldn't matter to me except that in 1961, a player who was black was categorized as such and commented on as such.
The Yankees walked on eggshells opening the door for a black player to enter the fold. They should have done it when Vic Power was in their system. Power was too much of an individual. So in the eyes of racists he'd be "uppity." In Crystal's movie we see Elston Howard as the pioneering black player with the Yankees. He was a lightning rod. How could he not be a lightning rod, no matter how he behaved? He drew some derision for being too passive, for "rolling with the punches" too much.
It's amazing of course that the mere presence of a dark-skinned player on the roster was a big deal. Today it seems African-Americans have lost their interest in baseball. Baseball would like them back. Look what Willie Mays meant. Willie played with the Minneapolis Millers in the early '50s.
The racial aspect gets no attention in Crystal's movie. The regressive lifestyle of Mickey Mantle does. Mantle is the boozing and "womanizing" man who tells jokes about "homos" (homosexuals). Actor Thomas Jane nails Mantle, and Barry Pepper gained film immortality, in my view, absolutely nailing Roger Maris, the man destined to break Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record.
William Bendix most certainly did not nail Babe Ruth on the big screen. Gary Cooper did nail Lou Gehrig.
Crystal's movie is sentimental but not in a contrived way. It takes us to a time that really was magical for the young boomer boys like me. We couldn't have cared less about the old Minneapolis Millers. The Twins were life-transforming with their presence. Later the Vikings would even surpass that.
 
Frick was enlightened, opened doors
I applaud Crystal's movie for its reverence and historical perspective. However, Hollywood is the dream factory and casts illusions. We are led to believe Ford Frick is the "bad guy." He wants to enact rules sapping the significance of Maris' home run feat! He is standing in the way of this wholesome but uncharismatic man from Fargo ND, a man loyal to his wife and family in a Norman Rockwell-esque way. Maris is the anti-Mantle.
Frick was the commissioner of baseball. The movie shows this apparently stuffy older man getting booed on opening day. He's chummy with the similarly stuffy and shallow (as portrayed in the movie) widow of "the Babe." We diss these people the way we might diss the Lawrence Welk TV Show.
In truth, Frick was a hero. Donald Moffat plays Frick who belongs in league with Branch Rickey. Hollywood gave us Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Frick was the National League president in 1947. Various players around the league were trying to resist the presence of Jackie Robinson. Frick was steadfast vs. them, saying he'd "go down the line" with Robinson, and "didn't care if it wrecked the league for five years."
Frick was reflecting astute business sense as much as being an accommodating human being. Let's assume the latter motivation was foremost. Inclusion always wins.
Frick had to deal with the new 162-game schedule. Previously, 154 games had been the rigid norm. Frick felt any new records should be categorized separately, but in this he simply reflected the views of a large majority of the baseball establishment. Eventually the distinction was shrugged off.
And would you believe, there never was any asterisk affixed to the Maris home run total? The notorious asterisk wasn't even mentioned when Maris did his thing. Perhaps some writers later used this on their own. Something happened to fuel the mythology. But mythology it was, and Hollywood has never been averse to mythology.
I have avoided mentioning the name of Crystal's movie to this point. It's "61*". It's an awkward movie title to deal with. Most action scenes in the movie were actually shot at Tiger Stadium, Detroit. The movie is a lens into the primacy of the print media in 1961. The media hound Roger Maris like jackals.
Anthony Michael Hall plays pitcher Whitey Ford. Chris Bauer plays Bob Cerv. I love Joe Grifasi in his role as the easily-distracted broadcaster Phil Rizzuto.
Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, breaking the Ruth mark of 60. Thomas Jane as Mantle calls Babe Ruth "that fat f--k."
 
Our Met Stadium welcomes Roger
The 1961 Yankees played 18 games at the stadiums of the two new American League teams: the Twins and Angels. He didn't knock the cover off the ball at those places, as he managed just three home runs. He went one-for-three in the Yankees' first appearance at the Met on May 2. Amazingly he had only one homer up to that date. On May 3 he homered off Pedro Ramos at the Met. He was hitless in the final game of the series, a series swept by the grand Yankees. Many fans drove from Fargo to the Met (240 miles). Roger was a Fargo Shanley High School graduate.
Would you believe, this player who would have an other-worldly home run total was batting seventh in the lineup vs. lefthanders? That was early in the season.
Much is made in the movie of how manager Ralph Houk (played by Bruce McGill) adjusts the lineup, allowing Maris to bat ahead of Mantle. Thus Roger would see more hittable pitches. Indeed, Maris batted only .174 with seven homers in 115 at-bats without the benefit of Mantle batting after him. His overall average in '61 was a pedestrian .269, but let's consider he batted .303 with runners on base and .329 with runners in scoring position. Amazingly he received no intentional walks in '61!
Mantle was the player that New Yorkers revered. Crystal strives to elevate Maris as the man with desirable personal traits. Crystal succeeds. Oh, but here's an asterisk: Maris smokes too much!
The movie "61*" was made for HBO. Crystal allows the "little kid" in him to come out, as if he's admiring old baseball cards.
It might have been fun to see more of the Yogi Berra character. Yogi shared catching duties with the trailblazing Elston Howard. It would have been fun to hear Berra say "that restaurant is so crowded, nobody ever goes there anymore."
In real life Berra wasn't this inadvertent comedy machine. He might have been funny a couple times, and coupled with his appearance which was rather like an old, long-eared, lovable dog, he had a persona seized upon by the likes of Joe Garagiola.
Any New York Yankee in those days was a potential celebrity. Fame eventually made Jim Bouton bitter. Bouton's famous book "Ball Four" was probably more the product of a clever writer/editor, rather than Bouton's own personal tome. Mass entertainment twists reality every which way! Be ever vigilant about this. All the famous people around the Yankees were really normal human beings - nervous, anxious, trying to fulfill their obligations and make a living.
Maris had his hair fall out, such was the fishbowl treatment he got.
The highlight of the movie in my eyes was the "pep talk" Houk gave Maris when Maris was getting discouraged by all the fame or infamy. Houk speaks as a total father figure, telling Maris he's misreading a lot of the attention. He tells Maris to focus on the real priorities and to ignore all the tabloid-ish stuff.
Maris is a tough player to figure when you look at his career statistics. The 1961 season is anomalous. You have to look past the stats. Maris was like a ticket for a team to the World Series. He did it with St. Louis as well as New York. He was in seven total World Series, winning three. Legend has it his throw from the outfield help seal one of those wins.
Roger retired as a Cardinal after '68. He died from Hodgkin's lymphoma in December of 1985, just age 51. He's buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in north Fargo. He was a hero, as was Ford Frick. Let's allow Roger in the Hall of Fame.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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