Roger Maris and the Myth of the Asterisk


Phil Pepe’s superb new book, 1961: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase (Triumph Books, $20.00) is the best thing yet written – or likely to be written – about the amazing season 50 years ago which captivated the country.

Pepe dispels several myths about the legendary pursuit of Ruth’s 60 home runs by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, one of them being that the two were hostile rivals. In fact, Mantle admired his quiet, reserved teammate and actually shared an apartment with him (also with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv) in an effort to get his own life in order. Later in the season, Mickey rooted hard from his hospital bed for Maris to break the record.

Another myth Pepe tried to bust is the myth of the asterisk that was supposedly placed after Maris’s accomplishment in the record books. Sunday’s Daily News included an excerpt from 1961 in which Pepe states the case for the asterisk that never was.

There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

The myth that an asterisk was used to denote that Roger Maris needed expansion and a longer schedule of games to exceed Ruth’s single season home run record has been perpetuated in story on and film. But it’s not true. It never was. There never was an asterisk. What there was for almost 50 years, however, were two entries in baseball’s official record books, as such:

Most Home Runs, Season.

61 Roger E. Maris, AL: NY, 1961 (162 G/S)

60 George H. Ruth, AL. NY, 1927.

So there was no asterisk on the books.

Pepe’s account is mostly right, but I want to add a couple of things. I’ve been fighting the myth of the asterisk for years. First, in the 1996 book, That’s Not The Way It Was or (Almost) Everything They Told You about Sports Is Wrong and then in my 2002 book, Clearing The Bases, The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century. In the latter I wrote:

That anyone ever thought there was an asterisk is at least as much the fault of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young as of Commissioner Ford Frick. Frick worshiped Ruth and was at his bedside the day before he died (and made much of that in interviews and after-dinner speeches). Maris had the bad luck to have his greatest season in 1961 at a time when Frick was commissioner of baseball. As early as July 17, when Maris and several sluggers were ahead of Babe Ruth’s 1927 pace, Frick, apparently distressed that the new 162-game season would give someone an unfair crack at Ruth’s record, called a press conference and issued this ruling:

‘Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’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 this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.'”

In his biography of Maris, Roger Maris, A Man for All Seasons, my late New Jersey neighbor Maury Allen got it right. Dick Young, he said, called out loud “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.

What Pepe and other baseball historians haven’t understood is that Frick’s statement was not a ruling but merely an opinion: Frick had no power whatsoever to make a ruling on the subject. To put it simply, he was grandstanding. What escaped most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to escape the sports media today, is that major league baseball had no “official” record book and didn’t have one until Total Baseball got the job in the late 1990s. So, in essence, Frick was trying to pressure publishers over whom he had no authority to print his version of the Maris/Ruth home run chase.

What everyone seems to have forgotten is that Frick himself denied that the asterisk ever existed. The reason is that practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” He failed to mention that there as no “official” record and that some record books chose to list the record for “Most Home Runs Season” the way Pepe related, but several more (including Gillette’s record book) did not.

Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us that “His [Maris’s] record was set in a 162- game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.”

Frick’s denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from fans’ memories. In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record.

Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied every having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.

I don’t know if the combined efforts of Pepe, Frick, Vincent, and myself are ever going to convince the fans that there never was an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s name in the record books. But here are a few observations:

One, no matter how many games Ruth and Maris played, it should be noted that Maris hit his 60th home run in his 684th plate appearance, while Ruth didn’t reach 60 until he had had 689. Two, there was an oft-repeated theory by sportswriters who didn’t like Maris that Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch was responsible for many of Maris’s “cheap” home runs. The right field fence at Yankee Stadium was as short or shorter in Ruth’s time, but it was simply assumed that Ruth, who hit home runs longer than Maris did, didn’t need a short porch. In any event, Maris actually hit 30 home runs in Yankee Stadium that season and 31 in all other American League ballparks.

On second thought, what had has probably perpetuated the myth of the asterisk more than anything else for this generation’s fans is Billy Crystal’s wonderful 2001 film, 61*, which, after Bull Durham, gets my nod as the best baseball film ever made. I’ll give Crystal a pass for making the mistake, but as far as everyone else is concerned, it’s time to dispense with the notion of the asterisk and recognize Maris for what he did.