Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris – the best of rivalries

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the M & M Boys, pursuing Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record in 1961.

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the M & M Boys, pursuing Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record in 1961.

One of the fellow customers I met in the jewelry store said I should write about baseball on my blog.

Well, here it is, a post inspired by a Sunday New York Times’ column by presidential historian Michael Bechloss about a friendship/rivalry – should that be frivalry? – between the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris

In the summer of 1961, the “M & M Boys,” as they were known, electrified the nation as they pursued Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record, 60, together. It helped that they were teammates who had a lot in common. (Although not all teammate rivals are friendly: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, anyone?)

Both Mantle and Maris were big corn-fed blonds from the Middle West, Mantle from Oklahoma and Maris from North Dakota. But they were also complements. Mantle, whose father had died young, lived a life of reckless abandon in the big city. Maris never lost his small-town, family roots. Long before “The Odd Couple,” Mantle and Maris roomed together with outfielder Bob Cerv in Queens – cooking out and shopping local. Once a stock boy was so stunned to see the diamond demigods doing something as mundane as grocery shopping, that he took out a row of cans as he fell off the ladder. The M & M Boys had that effect on people, who would reach out to touch them everywhere they went.

The comedy had its tragic flip side. The closer the M & M Boys got to Ruth’s record, the more obstacles they encountered from Ruth fans like baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who decreed that any record broken in the new 162-game schedule would have a distinctive mark like an asterisk after it as Ruth hit his home runs within the old 154-game schedule.

The pressure was harder on Maris, who was newer to the Yanks and lacked Mantle’s willingness to play the media game. As Mantle became ill with an infection and faded down the stretch, Maris stood alone – playing not only the team’s opponents but the fans who sent hate mail and death threats, a prying press and the presence of legends present (Mantle) and past (Ruth). On a particularly bad day in Detroit, a fan hurled a chair at Maris from the upper deck of Tiger Stadium. Is it any surprise his hair began falling out?

Yet Maris persisted, connecting off the Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard on Oct. 1, 1961 – 61* in ’61.

The injustices against Maris didn’t end there. It would take 30 years for commissioner Fay Vincent to remove the asterisk. Maris’ record would ultimately be eclipsed by Sammy Sosa, Mark Maguire and Barry Bonds, all of whom were found to use performance-enhancing substances. Where are the asterisks after their names?

They’ll never make the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maris, however, deserves to be there with the man he batted behind, his friend the Mick.

Mantle served as a pallbearer when Maris died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1981 at age 51. The Mick would follow him 14 years later.

On Maris’ diamond-shaped tombstone in Fargo, N.D., there’s a “61” and the words “Against All Odds.”