Back in 1961, Roger Maris, right fielder for the New York Yankees, hit sixty-one home runs, breaking the 1927 record of sixty by Babe Ruth. This achievement did not impress much of the fanbase, loyal to the Babe. Also not impressed was then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who declared that the record could only properly be broken if it had been broken in 154 games, and Maris had had only 59 through 154, getting his 61st in the 162nd game of the recently expanded season. Then again, Frick was a pal of Ruth's. Did that friendship affect his judgment? Maris didn't say a word at the time, but apparently he was seething on the inside:

Speaking at the 1980 All-Star Game, he said, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing."

Despite all the controversy and criticism, Maris was awarded the 1961 Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year, and won the American League's MVP Award for the second straight year. It is said, however, that the stress of pursuing the record was so great for Maris that his hair occasionally fell out in clumps during the season. Later, Maris even surmised that it might have been better all along had he not broken the record or even threatened it at all.

Subsequent assaults on the record, by Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, were deemed tainted for, um, pharmaceutical reasons.

The number 61 has been on my mind of late, inasmuch as it denotes the number of years I've completed on this planet. And it's shown up in several of my personal interests: there's US 61, the "Blues Highway," northward from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta to Memphis to St. Louis and, until 1991, the Canadian border; in cribbage, one trip down and back is 61 points; in MySQL, you can't join more than 61 tables in a single query. But I keep coming back to Roger Maris, who still isn't in the Hall of Fame, though I suspect this it has less to do with his home-run record than with his lifetime .260 batting average. (In that ill-starred year of 1961, he hit .269.)

And certainly I'm not making any comparisons between Maris and myself; I've never set any records for anything, so far as I know I've had at least one blog post every day for the last 5,268 days, but I'm pretty sure some of the old-school scribes can beat that and I suspect that I've received more attention than I could possibly deserve. Still, I wonder if I might not react the same way as Maris had I done something that had never been done before, even if the definition of "something" had some elasticity to it, and been largely ignored for it. Furthermore, I'm now wondering if I'm in any condition to do something that has never been done before, now that I've reached the ripe old age of wait for it sixty-one.

Maybe I can take it a little better. In that case, my role model becomes Harvey Haddix, pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who retired 36 Milwaukee Braves in a row in a game in the spring of 1959, only to lose it in the bottom of the 13th. Félix Mantilla was the first Brave on base, reaching after an infield error; Eddie Mathews put up a sacrifice bunt, moving Mantilla to second; Hank Aaron was walked intentionally; Joe Adcock sent a line drive into deep center right, scoring Mantilla. Despite this, Haddix was credited with a perfect game, at least until a 1991 MLB rule change that redefined the term. "It's okay," said Haddix. "I know what I did."

Or maybe I should follow the example of Lew Burdette, the actual winning pitcher in that Pirates-Braves game. He did, after all, pitch a shutout through 12 innings, scattering a dozen hits. In the offseason, he joked: "I'm the greatest pitcher that ever lived. The greatest game that was ever pitched in baseball wasn't good enough to beat me, so I've got to be the greatest!" This sort of attitude probably wouldn't have kept Roger Maris alive Maris, diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1983, died two years later but maybe it can do something for me.

The Vent

  25 November 2014

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 Copyright © 2014 by Charles G. Hill