Baseball Books Reviewed: Roger Maris

Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 257 pg., $26.99). HB, 2010.

Heretofore there have been only a couple of books about Roger Maris; including Maury Allen's Roger Maris: A Man for All Seasons, published in the wake of Maris' untimely death at the age of 51 in December of 1985, and Maris at the Bat, a collaborative account with Jim Ogle of his sixty-one home run season in 1961. Thus, it is high time that a more definitive biography, such as Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero, should be attempted. Authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary are experienced writers, and Peary in particular has written much about baseball, often as a co-author with former players. That experience is reflected in the style and approach of this work. To understand what the authors attempted, and largely accomplished, one should start at the end, namely the three pages of acknowledgements. That section begins "During the two years that we researched and wrote about the player who gave us the most thrilling baseball season of our youths, we were given tremendous help from old and new friends. Like us, they passionately believed that Roger Maris never received proper recognition from fans and the media for his talent and achievements, his fine character, and his pivotal role in the emerging war between the press and uncooperative celebrities." These words summarize the central feature of their method and the basic thesis of the work.

The "tremendous help from old and new friends" is most obvious in the numerous quotations throughout the book which both provide information and contribute to the authors' conclusions about his character and achievement. The basic thesis is that Maris was not simply a one-trick pony but a great baseball player who deserves more recognition, including election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The story unfolds slowly with the arrival over a several year period in the early 1900s of the five Maras (the original spelling) brothers in the United States. They all settled in the Hibbing, Minnesota area. While mildly bewildering, the descriptions of the relationships (good and bad) among these brothers and their families has a purpose in that where Roger came from says much about who he came to be. That reality sharpens when the story focuses on the generation of Roger's parents. Without elaborating on the causes and effects, it should be said that most of the Maras families were dysfunctional, which helps explain why Roger changed the spelling of his name and why he always identified Fargo as his home town even though he had been born in Hibbing. Nevertheless, Maris' apparent rejection of his roots was only superficial, for his character remained Mid-western, ethnic, and Catholic. In their account of Maris' early life the authors rely less on documentary evidence and more on the information gleaned from the many interviews they conducted. This can be unsteady ground as memories are imperfect, but the authors handle their materials well, and the voices they include balance and counterbalance one another.

Once Maris rides his athletic talent -and it is often forgotten that he was not simply a slugger but an extremely gifted athlete- the record becomes more public, especially when he reaches the major leagues; but Clavin and Peary continue to rely heavily on the interviews to move the story and to delineate their portrait of the man. The effectiveness of this method is clearest in the long section (seven chapters and seventy-six pages) chronicling the 1961 season, a section which demonstrates vividly the authors' argument that the public and the media created a false impression not only of Maris' abilities but also of his character, which effectively diminished his legacy. Everything from Ford Frick's silly asterisk decision, to the antipathy of the fans, to the rantings of numerous sportswriters about his unworthiness cast a dark shadow over that season and the rest of Maris' career in New York as well. This raises a question about the primary "documentary evidence" being no less imperfect than the memories of the interviewees. The Yankees' organization itself failed Maris. Only the players -including Mickey Mantle whom the writers tried to portray as Maris' bitter rival- supported him. And, when Maris didn't come close to breaking his own record in 1962 the ill will of fans and writers alike was only intensified.

The atmosphere in which Maris had to play for the rest of his Yankees career changed little. Even his departure was sour. Pondering hanging up his spikes during the winter of 1966, he told GM Larry MacPhail that he would make a decision before the start of spring training but added that if the Yanks were planning to trade him he would submit his retirement papers. MacPhail said the Yankees had no intention of trading him, but in early December a reporter and photographer appeared at his door to ask his reaction to being dealt to the Cardinals. Not surprisingly, after he did retire Maris for many years declined all invitations to return to Yankee Stadium on ceremonial occasions.

Yet, as the voices of his family and those of his Cardinals teammates make clear, his two year tenure with St. Louis, which included two World Series appearances, was a healing experience. It also provided him with a lucrative retirement plan when August Busch offered him the Anheuser-Busch franchise in Gainesville, Florida. Until the cancer that would kill him became manifest, the following years were happy ones. Enticed by George Steinbrenner, he finally returned to Yankee Stadium on Opening Day 1978. At long last the fans stood and applauded him lovingly. The description of that event and of Maris' declining years as he confronted his illness are deeply moving and once more demonstrate the ability of the authors to weave the words of their sources into a compelling portrait of a good man and a great baseball player.

Reviewed by: William J. McGill (Feb. 4, 2010)