Patricia Maris, the widow of Roger Maris, sent me a blanket as a gift this week. I am overwhelmed.
I’ll explain, but it will take a while: This story starts more than 55 years ago.
I don’t remember being at all aware of baseball from 1957 to 1960, when my father was stationed in England in the U.S. Air Force. My strongest childhood memories of England are of Mrs. Shaw, the retired school teacher next door who tutored me and taught me to read, using Janet and John books.
We moved to Utah when I was 5, and I was reading at the fourth-grade level, already launched on a lifetime as a nerd who loved to read and pursued passions single-mindedly. One of my first such passions was geography. My parents bought me some flash cards of the states to amuse me on that long drive west from New Jersey, where we landed in the United States, to our new home in Utah. I memorized the shapes and capitals of the states. I asked Mom or Dad which state I was born in. Dad was stationed then at Sampson Air Force Base in the Finger Lakes region of New York. So that became my favorite card and my favorite state.
Soon baseball became another passion for this intent, focused nerd. We didn’t have a television yet (my parents didn’t cave in on that indulgence until after the JFK assassination in 1963). But Mom listened to the 1960 World Series on the radio. A lifelong Cubs fan (yeah, more on that later), Mom rooted for the National League team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. But New York was my state and New York became my team.
So my early baseball heroes were Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson and Whitey Ford, who had historically great performances in that World Series. And the season’s Most Valuable Player, Roger Maris, played pretty well, too, and I started liking him as well. But Bill Mazeroski broke my young heart.
This young Yankee fan rebounded emotionally the next year, and the little nerd developed a lifelong passion. Maris and Mantle chased the hallowed single-year home run record of another Yankee, Babe Ruth. I didn’t care about the old dead guy. I wasn’t one of those Yankee fans rooting for Mantle over Maris, or claiming they weren’t worthy of breaking the Babe’s cherished record. I wanted them both to break the record, and when Maris did that, I cheered the record and booed the petulant asterisk that idiot Commissioner Ford Frick said would diminish the achievement in the record books.
I swear I watched that homer live. I know I sometimes watched baseball on TV at friends’ homes, so maybe I did. Or maybe I’ve just seen it replayed so long that it snuck in there with my actual childhood memories.
Maris, of course, could not match his incredible 1961 season again. But no one else could either, except decades later using performance-enhancing drugs that tarnished their names more than that silly asterisk besmirched Maris. He had a solid 1962 season, with 33 homers and 100 RBI, but injuries (including a misdiagnosis by team doctors) took their toll the next few years. Maris was traded in 1967 to the Cardinals for Charley Smith. Maris didn’t play more than 125 games or hit even 10 home run either season he was a Cardinal, but they made it to two more World Series (seven for his career) and won his third championship. And he was a contributor, with 13 hits, a homer and 8 RBI in his 13 World Series games for St. Louis.
And then he was finished. His career statistics don’t match many players in the Hall of Fame: 275 homers, 850 RBI, 1,325 hits, .260 batting average. But it’s not the Hall of Career Statistics. Roger Maris achieved a level of fame that few players before or since have reached. And he wasn’t a one-hit wonder: He won back-to-back MVP Awards, something only eight players in the Hall of Fame have done today, some 48 years after Maris retired.
But Hall of Fame voting was a privilege reserved to the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. And young Roger Maris had the temerity to be brusque with the writers who chronicled his chase of Babe Ruth. He was shy and didn’t handle their pressure well, except on the field. So the grudge-bearing men with the keys to Cooperstown voted against the man they knew damn well was one of the most famous of his era, a man whose fame they could see was enduring.
Maris didn’t even reach 30 percent of the writers’ vote in the first 11 years he was on their ballot. Even as the writers who resented him personally started dying off, they handed down rationalizations for voting against Maris to younger writers: His batting average was too low; he wasn’t great that long; he set the record in an expansion year (an argument that ignored how many times baseball expanded since then without records falling). Yada, yada. The argument that Maris was unworthy of the Hall of Fame was deeply embedded in sports writer culture.
I should note here that later research, which prompted me to start this blog, proved beyond doubt that baseball writers share the national hatred of the New York Yankees. Not only do borderline Yankees have very little shot at the Hall of Fame, Yankees with unique niches in baseball history get barred as well.
Tommy John was the first pitcher to undergo the surgery that allows pitchers to return to the mound after an injury that used to ruin careers. He won nearly 300 games, more than any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame (and not stained by a drug scandal) and more than a dozen-plus pitchers voted in by the writers. But he was a Yankee, so he’s not in the Hall of Fame.
Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly were the best players in their leagues at their positions for long stretches, a distinction that usually puts you in the Hall of Fame, unless you’re a Yankee. Those players and Maris also trigger another bias of the sports writers: They didn’t play long careers. Hall of Fame voters value longevity over peak performance. Time and again, they vote for players who were pretty good for 16-20 years over players who were truly great for 8-10 years.
So Maris had two general biases against him with the writers: He was a Yankee and he played only 12 years. But it was also personal with Maris. And it became personal with me. Sometime in the 1970s, in the first few years Maris was eligible for the Hall of Fame, and receiving insultingly low vote totals, hovering right around 20 percent of the writers’ votes. I vowed I would never visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum until Roger Maris was a member.
In that same stretch of years, this nerd was a young man with a new passion: a young son, followed by another. And another.
Perhaps because Dad watched and talked a lot of baseball, the sons all became baseball fans, too. Mike, the oldest, became a fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Johnny Bench, because in the early 1980s, the twilight of Bench’s life and the dawn of Mike’s the famed catcher hosted a Saturday morning TV show, “The Baseball Bunch.” Dad might have watched the show with Mike occasionally, possibly telling a few stories of Roger Maris and other childhood heroes.
Bench retired from baseball in 1983 and Mike asked whether he might make the Hall of Fame. I said, “Oh, sure.” Mike asked when that would be. I said he had to wait five years before he would be eligible, so after the 1988 season. And I was pretty sure Bench would be elected in his first year on the ballot. Voting results would be announced in January and induction in July, so I was pretty sure Bench would make the Hall of Fame in 1989. “Can we go?” Mike asked. “Sure,” I said, maybe momentarily forgetting my pledge about Maris, maybe not having learned yet from the parental perspective how single-minded young, passionate boys can be. Maybe I just thought he’d never remember such a promise years later. C’mon, Mike was just 6. Same age as I was when Roger Maris chased down Babe Ruth.
Well, I was right. Johnny Bench was elected in 1989, with 96.4 percent of the writers’ vote. That was the year Maris fell off the writers’ ballot. Back then you got 15 years for the writers to vote you in. You need 75 percent of the vote to make it to the Hall of Fame and Maris never got more than 43.1 percent, in 1988, his final year. I thought maybe after his death from cancer in 1985 at age 51, the writers would relent, but they never did. They held this grudge beyond the grave.
By this time, we had moved to Kansas City (the Maris family’s home for much of his career), and I was taking the boys to Royals Stadium regularly. (It would later become Kauffman Stadium, named for the team’s owner when we were fans). I made another stupid promise to Mike in those years, telling him in 1985 that I’d take him to the World Series if the Royals ever made it back. I wrote about that stupid promise (and keeping it) in 2014. By 1989, Mike’s love for the Royals now exceeded his love for the Reds. But he still loved Bench.
And an excited Mike Buttry said to his Dad after learning of the 1989 Hall of Fame vote: “We’re going, aren’t we, Dad? You promised!”
Well, at the moment, my fatherly promise to Mike seemed more important than my personal promise about Roger, so I conferred with Mimi and we said yes. Like many young parents, we struggled financially but somehow managed family vacations about every other year: a 1985 trip to a family gathering in eastern Tennessee, a 1987 trip to Colorado Springs. So in 1989, we decided to take our minivan and those three boys all the way to New York, and many other points East.
It was at the same time the Vacation from Hell and the Best Vacation Ever. We saw the boys’ only living great-grandparent, both living grandparents and an aunt and uncle on each side of the family. We saw a natural wonder (Niagara Falls), a national landmark (the Statue of Liberty), historic sites (Valley Forge, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell) and just about every site you could possibly see in a couple days in Washington, D.C. Those boys traveled not only by minivan, but also by air (their Uncle John, a private pilot, took them up in a plane), water (ferry to the Statue of Liberty) and rail (the Washington Metro). A photo with the Twin Towers in the background would take my breath away years later after the towers fell in a terrorist attack.
But the linchpin to the whole trip was to spend the last weekend of July in Cooperstown, N.Y., for Hall of Fame weekend. We’d tour the museum Saturday and sit among the throng on the green outside Sunday to see Johnny Bench inducted into baseball’s hallowed shrine. Or would “we”? I could take the family to the Hall of Fame, enjoy the induction ceremony outdoors on Sunday, but let them tour without me on Saturday. Tom was 6 by then, my 1961 age. Mimi could handle the three boys herself. She often did. I truly didn’t decide until that day. But I went. Much as I still harbored a grudge about the baseball writers’ treatment of Roger, I didn’t want to make the weekend all about me. You don’t want part of your sons’ cherished memory to be what a jerk Dad was. So instead we toured the museum together and created a wonderful memory together. Maris has a display there honoring his achievement: a bat in the museum, but not a plaque in the Hall.
But I’ll tell you this: It’s a long damn drive from Kansas City to Cooperstown and all those other places. And back. And the boys might have heard a story or two about Roger Maris along the way. This was before earbuds.
A couple years later, I accepted a job as editor of the Minot Daily News in North Dakota. It was another long minivan drive from Kansas City to Minot, taking us right through Fargo, the hometown of Roger Maris. The boys might have listened to another Maris story or two on that trip. We were in Minot less than two years, but took another trip or two to Iowa to visit family, again going through Fargo, perhaps triggering another story or two. (By the way, Maris wasn’t born in Fargo; his family moved there when he was 5. His birthplace was the hometown of my son Mike’s music idol, Bob Dylan, soon to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, if he goes to accept it.)
Our story moves ahead to into the 1990s. Many of baseball’s best sluggers by then were using steroids and human-growth hormone to grow bigger muscles which allowed them to drive the ball farther. Year after year, Maris’ record, which had long since lost its asterisk, was challenged early in the season, but still stood at year’s end. Even Ken Griffey, who was always viewed, and still is, as one of the clean players, reached 56 homers twice.
But in 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a Mantle-Maris-style dual chase for the ages. They were Mantle and Maris (but rivals, not teammates) chasing down Ruth, all over again. I didn’t want them to break the record, of course. But I celebrated when McGwire (and then Sosa) did. I was pleased to see the Maris family present to honor the new home run king in St. Louis when McGwire hit No. 62. While I hated to see the record fall, I hoped the attention to the record, which lasted longer than Ruth’s, might finally get Maris into the Hall of Fame.
Since he had fallen off the writers’ ballot, Maris’ chance for enshrinement rested with a Veterans’ Committee whose rules changed occasionally. I thought maybe someday a Veterans Committee would give Maris his due.
Well, the McGwire-Sosa chase didn’t get the holder of the record they broke into the Hall of Fame. And neither did the scandal over the next few years, as tell-all books and drug tests confirmed what everyone had suspected in the 1990s, that McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds and other sluggers with cartoonishly huge muscles achieved their power with the help of drugs. In many people’s minds, that restored Maris as the rightful record holder, placing imaginary asterisks after the names ahead of him on the list of single-season home run leaders. And no one has approached Roger’s legitimate record in the past decade.
Even Billy Crystal’s outstanding 2003 HBO movie “*61” didn’t do the trick.
The following year, I turned 50. My extended family got together every few years back then, and earlier gatherings had sometimes included comedy roasts of a family member: Mom when she retired, brother Dan when he turned 50 two years before I did. So 2004 was my turn. In a skit performed for the rest of the family, Mimi and the boys set up four chairs in pairs, like the front and back seats of a car. Mike played Dad, with Mimi in the passenger seat and Joe and Tom in the back. Not quite a minivan, but there were only four of them. We got the idea. Of course, there were a few other Dad jokes to get started (I couldn’t find my keys, etc.). But once they’re rolling, Mike starts making the case for Roger Maris to be in the Hall of Fame (he had the arguments down pretty well). In the back seat, Joe and Tom were rolling their eyes, trying unsuccessfully to interrupt or change the topic, then pantomiming falling asleep. Mom and my siblings roared with laughter. My devotion to Roger Maris had become a family punch line.
Let’s jump to 2011. The baseball establishment and media made a bid damn deal of the 50th anniversary of Roger’s 61st homer (hmm, am I getting old?). I thought that might do the trick. I mean, who else had as big a deal made 50 years later over his special moment in the game? Jackie Robinson, for sure. Hank Aaron’s 50th anniversary of breaking Ruth’s career record is still eight years away. I hope they make a big deal of it, and that he’s alive for it. Roberto Clemente’s death in a plane crash will be 50 years ago in just six years. Maybe that will be big, too. I hope so. But I’ll tell you this: Not even a dozen of the 200-plus players in the Hall of Fame ever did anything that was or will be remembered 50 years later the way Maris’ 61st homer was remembered. Bill Mazeroski’s homer got barely a ripple on its anniversary. And he’s in the Hall of Fame with the same batting average as Maris and fewer homers in a career that was five years longer. And the big deal over the 50th anniversary didn’t move Maris one step closer to the Hall of Fame.
The 2011 Hall of Fame selection showed how writers were still keeping Maris out. Though the Veterans Committee included Hall of Fame members, a panel of writers chose the ballot of players eligible for consideration by the committee. In the 50th anniversary of Maris’ 61st homer, the writers absurdly chose eight players for the ballot whose achievements and fame didn’t even approach Maris’. Five of the 2011 nominees didn’t even match Maris’ top percentage of the baseball writers’ vote when they were on the ballot. Only Gil Hodges (63 percent) and Tony Oliva (47 percent) got more votes from the writers than Maris. Ron Santo, the player chosen by the committee, topped out in the writers’ votes at 43 percent, same as Maris’ best vote total.
Well, in 2008 I started my journalism blog, now called The Buttry Diary. And in 2009 I started my baseball blog, Hated Yankees. Twice on Hated Yankees, I have made the case that Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame. And I did it once on The Buttry Diary, blasting the clear biases of these sports writers who in other contexts sing the praises of objectivity in journalism. (I’m posting this epic to both blogs.)
I maintain hope. A comparable player, Hack Wilson, set the RBI record in 1930 but like Maris played only 12 years, and didn’t have a lot of great years. Maris had more career homers, Wilson more career RBI, but neither approached usual career stats for Hall of Famers. Wilson made it into Cooperstown on a brief but outstanding prime, highlighted by a record-setting year. Wilson was chosen by the Veterans Committee 45 years after his playing career ended, 31 years after his death. We’re now 48 years after Maris’ career ended, 31 years after his death. I haven’t come this far to give up now.
The next time the Veterans Committee will consider players from Maris’ era will be 2020. Maybe that will be the year.
And that brings us almost to 2016 and to that gift I promised to eventually tell you about. In 2014, I joined the faculty of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Sometime in 2015, I became friends with Freda Yarbrough Dunne, a retired journalist and adjunct faculty member. I have been a guest speaker in Freda’s classes and she in mine. And we worked together in planning a project earlier this year. And we’ve chatted over lunch once or twice at a faculty meeting. And somewhere sometime, I actually inflicted on her one of those Roger Maris stories my sons heard in the minivan. And Freda’s such a sweet person that she actually listened and remembered that I’m a Roger Maris fan. (I don’t recall the conversation, perhaps because I’ve had too many.)
And this October 3rd, Freda sent me an email, telling me a student in her class was Maris’ grandson. He had yawned when she was talking to him after class, and she said he should get some rest. He agreed, saying he had just returned late the night before from New York. She asked him what he was doing there, and he said his grandfather was a baseball player, and they had recognized him at the final game of the season with a bobblehead. Freda asked who was the ballplayer and the student answered: Roger Maris.
This wasn’t just a bobblehead giveaway. It was a ceremony observing the 55th anniversary of the 61st homer. Really, what achievement is so famous that it’s honored on the 55th anniversary? The four Maris sons had been honored on the field (the student is the son of a Maris daughter, and his mother couldn’t be there) and other family members came, too, including this LSU student.
Freda emailed me the interesting news, and I emailed back with links to my three posts linked above, making the case for Roger Maris to be in the Hall of Fame, saying she could share them with the student if she wanted. She did.
Which finally brings us, some 3,400 words into this post, to my gift. I taught Freda’s class for her Monday. Afterward, a tall young man came up to me and introduced himself as Christian Fallo, the grandson of Roger Maris. He thanked me for the links I had sent Freda and said he had shared my posts with his grandmother, Patricia Maris, widow of the man who belongs in the Hall of Fame. He said she had sent me the plastic-wrapped, folded blanket that he was handing me. I was stunned and kind of babbled a bit, but I thanked him and asked for his grandmother’s address.
And I had received one of the most precious gifts of my life. I won’t make you scroll back up to see it again. It’s from the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf tournament, still an annual charity event in Fargo, but it doesn’t attract the celebrities it once did as Maris’ old teammates and rivals have died off (Berra died just last year).
I thought I knew all the trivia there was about Roger Maris, but it was mostly baseball trivia. Since getting the blanket, I have read his SABR biography by Bill Pruden and learned a couple more connections I have to this childhood hero. Maris died of lymphoma. I endured a year of treatment in 2015 for lymphoma. My particular strain of lymphoma is called mantle-cell. I don’t know whether Maris had a different type or whether mantle-cell had not been identified in the 1980s when Maris was being treated. But I’m certain if they knew he had mantle-cell, it would be part of the story and I see no mention that he had this type. Too big a coincidence not to mention (I did), even though it’s not named for The Mick (he died of liver cancer). Mantle-cell lymphoma is named for the shelf-shaped “mantle” around the top of a lymph node, where my type of cancer starts.
And here’s one more connection between me and Roger: He died at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. That’s where my current cancer (in my pancreas) was diagnosed this summer. I return there next week for another scan and consultation on what comes next in my treatment.
But I don’t plan to die at MD Anderson, at least not any time soon, so let’s not leave it there.
Here are two more coincidences in the timing of the gift:
- As I said in my July post about my most recent diagnosis, I have shifted some of my personal writing time from my blogs to letters to my sons. Not that I think death is imminent, but when it comes, I don’t want anything unsaid. Monday morning, I sent my sons a letter about baseball. A really long letter, more than three times as long as this post, with 10 mentions of “Maris” and nine of “Roger” (excluding Clemens mentions). Of course, it was the ideal time for such a letter. The World Series would open the next day and Mom’s Cubs would be playing (she has advanced Alzheimer’s so I’m not sure that she knows). Seemed the right time for that letter to my sons. I hit “send” on it at about 9 a.m. Then about 4:30, I received the gift. By about 9 p.m., the boys were getting another baseball letter, with a photo.
- Christian gave me the gift from his grandmother two days before my birthday, which was yesterday. So I consider it one of the most special birthday gifts I’ve ever received.
As I told Mrs. Maris in a thank-you note, one of my sons will have that blanket someday. And maybe he’ll bore his children (or even a colleague) with stories of his Dad’s love for Roger Maris. And maybe that son will tell them about the trip he and his brothers made with Gramps to Cooperstown when Roger finally received the recognition he deserved.