In praise of Roger Maris, the anti-Bonds

FR. RAYMOND DE SOUZA

Where have you gone, Roger Maris? Baseball should turn its downcast eyes to you.

Roger Maris
(1934-1985)


The indictment last week of Barry Bonds, baseball’s single-season and all-time home run record holder, has shone a light once again on the sport’s steroid problem. Most fans have long concluded that Bonds used steroids, it being the simplest explanation for the fact that he got stronger and much bigger as he aged. The federal indictment accuses Bonds of lying to a grand jury about the subject.

Bonds, though guilty of bringing his sport into disrepute, is just the latest victim of the fearsome American prosecutorial power. As unlovely a character as he is, Bonds was given what prosecutors offer today instead of due process, namely the option of confessing to a crime and ratting out your colleagues, or being punished for not squealing with a perjury or obstruction of justice charge. Whether prosecutors are successful in railroading Bonds remains to be seen, but the damage to baseball is already clear.

Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60, set in 1927, was one of the three great New York Yankee records that adorned baseball. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, still stands, and Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played (19251939) stood for 56 years. Ruth’s record was finally broken by another Yankee, Roger Maris, in 1961, when he hit 61 home runs. That record stood for 37 years until 1998, when Mark McGwire hit 70, a record that Bonds broke in turn in 2001, hitting 73.

Since then, McGwire, too, has been accused of being a steroid user. Though eligible for the Hall of Fame, McGwire had a dismal showing in his first year of potential election, leading many to conclude that despite his records, the Hall of Fame will remain closed to him on account of his apparent steroid use. There are similar expectations for Bonds.


Baseball also needs Maris’ character. A self-confessed hick from North Dakota, a player who worked hard and said little, he is the antidote to Bonds — the egomaniacal, cheating athlete. Indeed, even in 1961, he was the antidote to the wilder side of sports.


That brings us to Roger Maris, the one who succeeded Joe DiMaggio in centrefield for the Yankees, but not in America’s heart. Simon and Garfunkel did not sing about him. Dead since 1985, he was not elected to the Hall of Fame. Indeed, as league MVP in 1960 and 1961, he is the only two-time MVP not yet elected.

That should be remedied. Maris is eligible under the veterans’ process, and his addition is overdue. While not the dominant player of his era, his career statistics measure up to others who are in the Hall of Fame, and he did hold baseball’s home run record for 37 years — longer than Babe Ruth held it.

The reason for putting Maris in the Hall is also the reason for keeping McGwire and Bonds out. Were it not for steroids, Maris’ record would almost certainly still be standing. While the record books show what happened — even if by hypodermic hook or steroid-cream crook — the Hall of Fame can reflect a more complete judgment. Were Maris to enter the Hall of Fame even as McGwire and Bonds were denied, baseball would have rendered an indisputable judgment against steroids.

Baseball also needs Maris’ character. A self-confessed hick from North Dakota, a player who worked hard and said little, he is the antidote to Bonds — the egomaniacal, cheating athlete. Indeed, even in 1961, he was the antidote to the wilder side of sports. His rival that season for the home-run record was Mickey Mantle, his Yankee teammate and the toast of Manhattan. Mantle was a hard-living, hard-drinking celebrity. Maris married the girl he met in high school, and was a family man who went home after practice to a modest home in Queens. In the magnificent film made of the 1961 season by Billy Crystal, there is poignant scene in which Maris takes Mantle in as a roommate, to help him slow down and sober up.

Maris was simply a good man and great ballplayer. He would honour the Hall of Fame, and the game, in a way that Bonds no longer can.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "In praise of Roger Maris, the anti-Bonds." National Post, (Canada) November 22, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post



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