The deed was done, the Bambino caught, the pressure off. A Brooklyn kid named Sal Durante had delivered the precious baseball to Roger Maris right after the game in which Maris’ 61st home run had given the Yankees a season-closing 1-0 win over the Red Sox and Maris a passing lane to usurp Babe Ruth. The weight of the world suddenly lifted, Maris told Durante: “Sell it, kid. See what you can get for it.”
Maris, as tightly wound as a ball of string for weeks, was actually smiling. The newspaper men had been hounding him, gathering before games and after games and peppering him with questions. That wasn’t Maris’ style, ever. He preferred to be left alone to do his job. His hair fell out. He heard boos, and he blamed the jackals of the press.
So that night, Oct. 1, 1961, freshly crowned as the single-season home run king, Roger Maris went to dinner at Joe Marsh’s Spindletop Restaurant at 49th Street and Seventh Avenue, heart of Manhattan’s theater district, dressed to the nines. Having barely eaten for days, he devoured a shrimp cocktail, a steak the size of teammate Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt (medium), a mixed salad with French dressing, a baked potato, two glasses of wine and a slice of cheesecake.
His dining companions, all of them delighted to see him laugh again, were his wife, Pat; their two closest friends in New York, Julie and Selma Isaacson; and Milton Gross, the sports columnist for The New York Post.
Yes. In his happiest moment of the season, he ate with the enemy, although Gross was hardly that, midway through a two-decade tenure at The Post in which he was known for his work ethic, biting commentary when he saw wrong in sports, and relentless fairness. He’d written empathetically about Maris’ plight while many other reporters went for, shall we say, different angles.
(True story. A reporter from Time magazine asked him one day, flatly: “So, you play around on the road, right?” Maris replied: “I’m a married man.” “So am I,” the reporter said, “but I play around on the road.” Maris stared at him and didn’t do what he probably wanted to do, instead simply saying: “That’s your business.”)
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Gross marveled at Maris’ appetite and asked if he’d skipped breakfast. “I couldn’t eat,” Maris explained. “Pat and I went to Mass at St. Patrick’s and then I went right to the ballpark.”
The next afternoon, Gross wrote in The Post — front page, jumped to the back page: “He seemed thoroughly at ease and yet he wasn’t because his name is the most celebrated name at the moment. Say Kennedy, say Khrushchev, say Maris and you’ve said it all. His face is the mirror of fame. He can no longer hide as a faceless athlete from Hibbing, Minn., Fargo, N.D., or Kansas City.”
Still, after weeks of looking like a condemned man, Maris finally conceded his true feelings as Gross refilled his wine glass and Pat offered a match so he could light a cigarette.
“This was the greatest experience of my life,” Maris admitted.
Yet even then, he couldn’t give himself completely to the moment.
“It has to be because I wouldn’t want to go through it again for anything. Relax? I haven’t unwound yet. I’m just beginning to unwind. A lot of it is still a little hazy.”
What wasn’t hazy to Maris, or his companions, was the enormity of the season. Maris and Mickey Mantle had mounted a two-man assault on Babe Ruth’s cherished record of 60 home runs all year, before Mantle fell ill with an abscess in his hip. Maris roared at his table at the Spindletop that it wasn’t just the newspaper guys who’d tried to drive a wedge between Maris and Mantle.
“Last winter I was home and kidding with my daughter Susan,” Maris said. “She’s only a little girl, she wasn’t four yet. I asked her, ‘Who’s the best baseball player in the world?’ ‘Mickey Mantle,’ she says.”
Maris called for the check then; he wanted to hurry to Lenox Hill Hospital to visit Mantle and Bob Cerv, with whom he’d shared an apartment that summer, before visiting hours ended. Before he could, a teenage girl walked to the table, asked for Maris’ autograph, then added: “Would you put the date on the top too, please?”
“What’s the date?” Maris asked.
“The date,” said his pal, Julie Isaacson, “is the one you did what nobody else ever did.”
The next day, Milton Gross summed it up for everyone at that table.
“Commissioner Ford Frick,” he wrote, “can have his asterisk.”