National Pastime Museum: The Maris Asterisk*

By Marty Appel

            It’s the most famous asterisk that never was.

            In the annals of punctuation mark history, it has its own chapter. 

            In the Hall of Fame for punctuation marks, it has its own wing.

            In the annals of baseball history, it’s one-word identification for Roger Maris and the 1961 season.

            Here was the scene: it was the first year of “expansion baseball.”  The American League added two new franchises (while moving Washington to Minnesota), putting the Los Angeles Angels and the “new” Washington Senators into the league, expanding the roster of teams from eight to ten, and adding eight games to the schedule, going from 154 to 162.  The eight-team format had not budged since the league was born in 1901.

            There was, from the start, speculation that records could be threatened.  It wasn’t only the additional eight games – it was that there would now be 50 new players in the league who would otherwise have been in the minors.  That would inevitably diminish the caliber of play.  Even the New York Times, focusing on the game’s most heralded record, did a pre-season story headlined, “61 Homers in ’61?”

            The Commissioner of Baseball was Ford Frick, a former sportswriter who had ghostwritten articles for Babe Ruth over the years.  He was a former National League President, and the man most responsible for having Organized Baseball recognize the effort to build a Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

            Serving roughly parallel terms to Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, he paralleled Ike’s laid back reputation for not being an especially activist chief executive.  Chicago owner Bill Veeck ridiculed him for having his biggest decisions being the postponement of a World Series game.

            But now, 1961 was unfolding as his worst nightmare.  Sure enough, the record – most home runs in a season – was in jeopardy.  Babe Ruth’s 60, set in 1927, was looking awfully vulnerable, as two teammates, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the New York Yankees, began belting baseballs into the bleachers.

            Wherever he went, Frick was asked about the sanctity of the record.  It did not help his “neutral” position when it was repeated many times that he was a “friend of the Babe’s” and his frequent ghostwriter. 

            There was more than the home run record at stake, of course.  All records were at stake. (In 1962, Ty Cobb’s base stealing mark of 96 fell to Maury Wills).  The whole record book, the most revered in all of sports, might become a joke.  It was as if Major League Baseball was starting all over again.

            By July 26, Maris had hit 40 home runs and Mantle 38.  Frick felt he could no longer avoid the elephant in the room.  He summoned the press to his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza – yes, that “30 Rock” in the RCA building made famous by the NBC sitcom of that name.  Charley Segar, his number two man, was at his side.

            “The ruling was a simple one,” he wrote in his 1973 memoir, Games, Asterisks and People.  “In case the record was broken in 154 games the Maris mark would be recognized, and the Ruth record dropped.  If the Ruth mark still stood at the end of 154 games but was subsequently broken in the eight additional games of the 1960 {sic} season, then both records would be recognized as official and given equal billing in the record book.

            “Oh yes, during the conference the word ‘asterisk’ was mentioned, not by the commissioner, but by Dick Young, one of the outstanding baseball writers of his time.  Dick remarked kiddingly, ‘Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record.  Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.’

            “Dick and other writers have had a lot of fun with ‘asterisk’ stories through the years.  But the honor is not mine.  To Dick a low obeisance for a clever line, with or without an asterisk.”

            Of course, a more thought-provoking line came over time, when Maris did in fact hit numbers 60 and 61 in those final eight games, and some wondered aloud whether it was certain that Frick meant the first eight or the last eight as being “additional games.”  If it was the first eight, then Maris did it – in the last 154 games of the season.

            Frick was assailed for the decision as the years went by, especially when Maris’s stock rose as a great sports hero, fighting all the obstacles laid before him.  In 1961 few seemed to want Maris to emerge with the game’s holiest of records.  Certainly not ahead of Ruth, and not even ahead of Mantle.  He was a most unpopular player at the time.

            Another player in the story was Seymour Siwoff.

            Seymour had taken over ownership of the statistical bureau, the Elias Sports Bureau, which had been founded in 1916 by the brothers Walter and Al Elias.  They died in the 1940s and the company went to Lester Goodman, who died in 1952.  That was when Siwoff, just 31, who as a high school student had worked part time for the Elias brothers, bought the company. 

            Siwoff was a World War II veteran who had received a Purple Heart for severe stomach wounds suffered on the battlefield.  Now recovered, he was young but well qualified and was immediately respected as the perfect guy to oversee such an important bureau.

            The Elias Sports Bureau (the name has never changed), was the official statistician for the National League, and they published The Little Red Book of Baseball, recognized as the “official” record book of the game.  The Sporting News, widely revered as the “Bible of Baseball” published the annual Official Baseball Guide and the Baseball Register, but it was The Little Red Book that everyone saw as the record book, even more so than The Sporting News’s own “One for the Book.”

            Frick liked Siwoff because of his connection to the Elias brothers.   Having been National League President, he had worked with the Bureau during his tenure as N.L. President. 

            Seymour walked to Rockefeller Center from his office at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue to see Frick.  He had an idea.

            “I’d like to suggest that you annotate the record,” said Seymour to Frick.  “We can make it two listings – a record for a 154 game season, and a record for a 162 game season.  No asterisk, no second class listing on the bottom of the page for either of them.”

            “Frick was delighted,” recalls Siwoff, now 96, and still walking to work seven days a week.  (“There’s no explanation for this,” he says today.  “I was so badly wounded in the war, they didn’t think I’d last out the week.”). 

            And so the 1962 edition of The Little Red Book (still published today in hardcover as The Book of Baseball Records), began with a “Statement of Policy”, written by Siwoff.  It said, “…each performance will be judged on its own merit and if the accomplishment was directly benefited by an increase of scheduled games, the record will be annoted with the phrase: (162 game schedule).

            “For example, the most singular record of the 1961 season was Roger Maris’ 61 home runs.  It’s a fact that he benefited by the expanded schedule of the American League that season, and it will in no way detract from his accomplishment to list his record as having been made during a 162 game schedule.  On the other hand, it would be a gross inequity to delete ‘Babe’ Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, hit during a 154 game schedule.  Therefore, Ruth’s record will be retained along with Maris’.”

            And so it was, at least until 1991, 13 years after Frick’s death, when Commissioner Fay Vincent, (chairing a committee on statistical accuracy), ruled that the Maris record would stand alone.  There were few protests.  In 1961, the first year of expansion baseball, it felt more like a fluke.  Thirty years later, it was apparent that the record had stood the test of time and deserved to be acknowledged without “an asterisk.”

            Indeed, Maris still holds the American League record, the 61 having withstood the whole era of steroids when players like Mark McGwire (twice), Sammy Sosa (three times), and Barry Bonds – all National Leaguers – exceeded it.

            Billy Crystal made a film about the home run chase of 1961 called “61*” in which Frick was portrayed as a villain.  The perception hasn’t changed much, and his greatest guilt was failing to recognize what a marketing tool he had before him, and making the final eight games of the season anti-climatic. The whole nation should have been watching.  It was still a time when the sacred heroes of the past rated higher than the players on the field at the time. 

It was no way to grow fan interest.