Burton on the Bay:
Baseball Is a Very Lucky Game --Hail the Big Hitters
Baseball is very lucky, very lucky indeed. It not only has new home run records, but the pair of fellows with the bats are legitimate role models. Everyone is rooting for them, interest in the game is revived and ball park turnstiles are clicking.
Major League Baseball owes a lot to Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs and the Cardinals' Mark McGwire, but sadly the league, its owners, players and others associated with it - including many fans - have a history of short memories.
If one individual were to epitomize baseball, it would be none other than Babe Ruth, the legitimate and everlasting Sultan of Swat. He was as colorful as they come, banged enough home runs season after season to revive flagging interest in the sport and earned his recognition in the common reference to Yankee Stadium as "the House that Ruth built."
Ah, but professional sports is plagued with short memories. Amnesia is a more appropriate word.
Major League Amnesia
Not long after the Yankees sold Ruth to the Boston Braves as his batting prowess - though not his popularity - waned, the latter team dropped him after only 26 games.
The old Brooklyn Dodgers signed him on as a coach in 1938, but that winter, with Leo Durocher as manager, exit the Babe, who later speaking at a sports dinner in New York attended by nearly a thousand baseball men said:
"I've given 25 years of my life to the game, and I'm ready to give 25 more." Know how many job offers he got? If you know the answer, it's not a question.
The gregarious home run king, who incidentally was among the best pitchers of his time before he was moved to right field so he could bat regularly, couldn't get a job in the sport he propelled to prominence.
Okay, maybe the owners and their managers and coaches goofed; who is not entitled to a mistake? But you're supposed to learn by mistakes, and since his death, the Babe was reincarnated. Too late to do him much good - though reminding fans of his exploits did baseball a lot of good.
The conscience and memory of baseball again fell flat. The Babe slammed his 60 homers in 1927. In 1961 along comes Roger Maris, another Yankee with an electrifying bat, who on the last day of the season got the Big 61. His chase for the record again had baseball on everyone's lips.
Like the Babe, Maris filled stadiums, had people who ordinarily weren't serious followers of the game going to ball parks, tuning in radios and TVs, talking baseball.
So what happened to the new home run king who the following year blasted 33 more round-trippers? In 1967, the Yankees dumped him on the same Cardinals that McGwire now belts his homers for. Two years later, he was out. Practically forgotten.
Maris, the strong and quiet fellow from Fargo, North Dakota, who proved that even the most formidable records are made to be broken, didn't ask for another job. He didn't even ask that the asterisk alongside his record be removed - though it had to rankle him.
So what if the season had been lengthened by several days? That was the doings of money hungry owners whose logic dictated more games, more profits. Maris wasn't part of that decision. His job was swinging a bat to keep fans interested in the game he played so diligently.
In Cooperstown, NY, you'll see balls and bats as reminders of both the Babe and Maris, and you will see the former's name in the Hall of Fame. But curiously missing among those hallowed names is that of Roger Maris, who for 37 years reigned as the Home Run King.
Can you believe that? The guy who set the most prized record not only in baseball, but any sport, has not been inducted into its Hall of Fame!
Now a lot of people are asking why. Where's Roger? The Babe made it, McGwire is destined to do likewise, so is Sosa. So, in the past, have a lot of guys the average baseball fan knows little if anything about. But not Roger Maris who broke a record that stood for 34 years - and held it for 37 more. Does that tell you something about baseball?
Or put it this way. That 62 HR ball socked out of the stands at Busch Stadium, St. Louis, by McGwire would probably have been worth more on the open market than either Maris or the Babe made in their careers. Does that tell you something about baseball?
The Men with the Bats
In Babe Ruth, baseball had the hellion, a man - though still a kid - who liked parties, booze and women as well as baseball. A likable chap who probably set another record that never went into the books.
He was also known for his disdain for training or physical fitness, but boy could he wallop a ball, which was just what baseball needed in the years following the Black Sox scandal.
Other than their ability to send baseballs into the stands, dying of cancer in their mid-50s, and playing for the same team, Maris and Ruth were worlds apart. Maris was quiet, studious and dedicated. He didn't want to be the main attraction, just to do the job. He was what Ruth wasn't: a role model.
The pressure did him in, with never a moment to himself once the chase got serious for Ruth's record. Ruth had broken his own record. Maris had to break the Babe's mark, which some didn't want topped. The press rode him mercilessly, fans rooted for his teammate, the more colorful and Ruth-like Mickey Mantle, and he went into a shell, for which he was never forgiven. Major League Baseball wanted color, jazz, dynamite. Home runs weren't enough.
Both Ruth and Maris set their records in a season in which they battled teammates almost until the end for the new mark. Lou Gehrig, like Maris, was the opposite of Ruth, and in mid-August of the big year led the Bambino 38 to 35 before fading to a finish of 50, though his batting average was higher and he led both leagues in runs batted in.
It was a nip and tuck race between roommates Maris and Mantle until late season when at 27, the former pulled away. His reward: an asterisk in the record book, which fortunately and fittingly was ultimately erased.
Today, we have McGwire and Sosa from two different teams tied as I write. Both are more of the Maris and Gehrig mold than that of Ruth and Mantle. Their competition is friendly, for all its drama.
Realistically, awesome as the Babe's 60th was, the same for the 61st by Maris and the 62nd for both McGwire and Sosa, all those home runs just might not be baseball's most memorable moments.
Think back to the early '50s when, with two out in the last of the ninth, Bobby Thomson put the New York Giants into the World Series when he belted a three-run homer at the Polo Grounds. That was the most energizing swat ever in baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were 1312 games ahead of the Giants in August, and Bobby's stroke capped one of the most - if not the most - remarkable seasons ever.
Just when baseball appears headed for the doldrums, something always happens to perk interest, and this year it has a humdinger. Hopefully, baseball will show its appreciation. Enough said ...
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VolumeVI Number 37
September 17-23, 1998
New Bay Times
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