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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Roger Maris, Ford Frick and the asterisk (*) for 61 Home Runs in 1961.

Excerpts from old research:

The Single Season Home Run Record – July, 1998


Ken Matinale

“Sixty, count ‘em, sixty!  Let’s see some other son of a bitch match that!”  … Babe Ruth, Friday, September 30, 1927, in the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after hitting his record setting 60th home run.  It was 34 years before some other player did and it's been another 36 years since Roger Maris did it...

The implications of the eight extra games drew two oddly interesting comments from new Yankee manager Ralph Houk and baseball commissioner Ford Frick, a former writer and an old friend of Ruth's.  In late October 1960 Frick was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "It's a question that has been bothering me for some time.  The principal records in the book seem safe … My opinion on that (Babe's record of 60) is almost a conviction.  I don't think the Babe's record is vulnerable … but I intend to ask the rules committee to study this problem and try to soften the impact when necessary.  My own idea is that some records might deserve to be listed in two categories - the one made during a 154-game schedule and the other one made during a 162-game schedule."

The origins of what would become known as the asterisk were earlier than most people realize.  Frick did not think that the great records were in jeopardy and that there was plenty of time to deal with it later.  Frick would finally make this ruling on July 17 or 18, 1961:

"A player who may hit more than 60 home runs during his team's first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record.  However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record book to show that Babe Ruth's record was set under the 154-game schedule, and that the other total was compiled while the 162-game schedule was in effect."

Obviously, this is not a generic ruling.  In addition, much has been written about Frick's motives.  Frick was a crony of Ruth's and had been a ghost writer for the Babe.  Frick had been a beat writer covering the Yankees in 1927.  Frick was supposedly leading the majority of writers who openly rooted for Ruth to beat Gehrig in 1927.  However, that should not affect one's view of the ruling.  Logic was further clouded because this was the most cherished record in baseball, accomplished by the man who had saved baseball after the betting scandal.  The older players were honored by the writers and by the fans to an extent that is way beyond what we hear today.  Jimmy Powers wrote:"The caliber of play has deteriorated so badly that anything is possible".  During the 1961 season both Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb insulted Maris in terms that were crude and inaccurate respectively.  This stuff really riled the players of 1961.

Oliver Kuechle, The Milwaukee Journal, wrote: "Maris's failure to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 homers in 154 games evokes no regret here …  If the record is to be broken, it should be by someone of greater baseball stature and greater color and public appeal … Maris, aside from his threat on the record, is not more than a good big league ballplayer.  He is colorless. He has never hit .300 in the majors … He has been just average in the field and is often surly.  There just isn't anything deeply heroic about the man."

The Times studied whether the balls or bats gave the 1961 players an advantage but that did not appear to be the case.  The issue of dilution of pitching because of expansion was addressed clumsily.  A Sporting News retort by Joe King was titled "Bambino had his share of patsy chuckers in '27".  So what?  That did not address the issue but analysis was lagging way behind emotion.

I was so inculcated by this reverence for the old timers that I was not sure if I wanted anyone, even my hero, Mickey Mantle, to break the immortal Babe's record.  In other words that record was not meant to be broken.  Many fans shared my ambivalence, especially with the writers casting nasty aspersions on the modern players.  A Sporting News poll of the writers showed that two-thirds supported Frick.  Dick Young of the New York Daily News expressed it well by comparing it to "permitting a man to run 95 yards to break a record in the 100-yard dash".  In other words, there was some basic common sense and fairness in Frick's ruling regardless of his motives and many, if not most people, understood that.  Maris did not agree but Mantle said: "I think Frick is right".  If a player in 1998 hits 60 I want him to do it in 154 games.

On Sunday January 15, 1961 at the press conference for the signing of Mantle's 1961 contract, Houk responded to a question about the affect of the extra games on Mickey's vulnerable legs: "I hope he plays 162 games, and if he hits 60 homers and Maris hits 59, they'll make me a hell of a manager".  Notice that only Mantle is even allowed to tie the immortal Babe. 

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