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"1961*" Book Review

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On a day when the Yankees will honor Roger Maris' feat of breaking the single-season home run record, it seemed fitting to review the book about that magical season.

50 years ago, Maris and Mickey Mantle battled each other in a race to break Babe Ruth's sacred record of 60 homers in a season. Phil Pepe's book, 1961*, tells the behind-the-scenes story of that year.

Most of the text is a chronological account of the '61 season, from Maris' highs to lows to highs again; sometimes with detailed single-game (and even pitch-by-pitch) accounts, and elsewhere skimming over weeks at a time.

Phil Pepe was the Yankees beat writer for the New York World-Telegram & Sun that year and therefore had first-hand access to one of the greatest teams and seasons in baseball history. It shows. For one, he's emotionally involved, even to this day, with the players and events from that time.

The author clearly cared for many of the Yankee players (especially Maris), which gives the story some unique insights but also robs it of detached objectivity. We learn about Maris' humble beginnings before he joined the Indians organization, and the endearing husband/father/teammate roles he played. But there was also a sense that Pepe excused some of Maris' less favorable actions (though some were justified) like refusing to take a photo with Rogers Hornsby in 1962 because Hornsby had called Maris "unworthy" of breaking Ruth's home run record the previous season.

It appeared Maris was still bitter about media, fan and management slights, and unfortunately, being a stubborn guy, never tried to "make it right" with the media, which would have helped his reputation. For example, he signed an "X" instead of his name for a child's autograph request, intending to sign it for real once the kid realized, but he ran right back to his father who, livid, went to the press. After a critical article reported the incident, Maris refused to talk to reporters, even ones he had formed bonds with. He was stubborn. He probably could have defused the situation with one interview, but instead decided to avoid the press entirely, which soured them on him even more.

In general though, Maris was treated unfairly, and mainly for one big reason that was entirely out of his control: he wasn't Mickey Mantle. Mantle came up through the Yankees system, played centerfield, hit over .300, and clubbed 500-foot home runs. Maris was from a small town (Fargo, North Dakota), and never seemed thrilled with playing in the spotlight. When he first came to New York, he was told the Yankees wouldn't like his outfit. He replied, "The hell with them. If they don't like the way I look, they can send me back to Kansas City." In fact, he had envisioned playing his whole career in KC before being traded to the Bombers.

He never seemed comfortable in the big city. His hair even began falling out in late 1961 due to stress.

Despite consecutive MVP Awards, Yankee management didn't raise his salary as much as he wanted in 1962, triggering another media backlash calling Maris "greedy" and "ungrateful." It always seemed to be something with him.

He never reached the height of 1960-'61 again in terms of on-field success, and health problems prevented him from playing full seasons after 1962, when he averaged 104 games over the rest of his career (four years in New York, then two in St. Louis), but he was an integral part of back-to-back title-winning clubs, and his consecutive AL MVPs has been accomplished only five other times.

The book concludes with Maris' dwindling Hall of Fame chances. So I ask you: does he belong?