To me, reading about baseball has always been much more interesting than watching it. That’s one of the reasons we’ve picked Tom Calvin and Danny Peary’s new biography Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero as our second book club selection.
Although he was born in Hibbing, Roger Maris considered Fargo his hometown. But unlike North Dakota natives Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, who were famous already in entertainment by the time Roger made it to the major leagues, Maris hated fame. He especially hated the word celebrity, according to the authors.
I wasn’t very interested in baseball in 1961, but the excitement over the race for Maris and Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth’s home run record couldn’t be missed. What I remember most is WDAY’s sports director Bill Weaver breathlessly leading just about all of his sportcasts that summer with the lastest on Roger. It made living in North Dakota more exciting.
Former KXJB sports director Jim Adelson and Fargo singer Bobby Vee are quoted throughout the book. Bobby’s father was a chef at the Grand Recreation Center on Main in Fargo where Maris’ father hung out. The careers of Roger and Bobby were peaking at just about the same time in the early 1960’s. It’s likely the two compared notes on their sons’ fame. Everything connects.
His years with the Yankees were particularly stressful for Roger Maris as a new breed of aggressive (some might say mean-spirited) sports reporter was emerging, especially in New York. And especially in the 1961 baseball season as it became apparent that Roger was likely to break Ruth’s record. The stress of the home run race and dealing with reporters seemingly bent on belittling his accomplishments on a daily basis caused Maris’ hair literally to fall out. Only much later in his retirement did Roger forgive the Yankees’ front office for lying to him about a serious hand injury the team’s doctor knew about but failed to disclose to him and about his trade to the St. Louis Cardinals. For years he declined to appear at, or even visit Yankee Stadium.
Maris died much too young at the age of 51. His name lives on not only in baseball, but also in Fargo attached as it is to the Roger Maris Cancer Center and the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament.
Roger Maris is likely to go down as the definitive Maris biography. Perhaps the main question it raises is: Was Roger Maris a great baseball player or was he lucky enough to have one extraordinary season? Clavin and Peary seem to argue for the former.