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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Basic Biittner: Salute to a Good man and Good Ballplayer

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Over the recent Memorial Day Weekend, I made my first ever trip to North Dakota, to visit a niece and her husband in Fargo. While there, of course, I paid a visit to the Roger Maris Museum, something I had wanted to see for quite a few years now. Though the museum is located in the Midwest, Fargo is not exactly a short trip from here - something like 5-6 hours away. And while the Roger Maris Museum is nice, it's really not worth a 10-12 hour round trip. If, however, you are in the area for another reason, by all means, check it out. Maris, who grew up in Fargo and played baseball and football at Shanley High School there, initially resisted the idea of a museum when it was presented to him by some Fargo friends, only agreeing on the condition that it be located in Fargo, have good security, be free of charge, and be located where the greatest number of people could see it. As a result,the resulting "museum," is really not a museum, as we usually think of one. It is not a separate building, but rather occupies a small area of the West Acres Mall in West Fargo, at I-29 and 13th Avenue Southwest. The museum was developed by the Fargo American Legion Post No. 2 in 1983,with several items donated by Maris himself, who died of cancer in December 1985, at the age of 51. It was remodeled in 2003, and includes over 150 artifacts.

The museum has a display case, which includes Maris' MVP trophies from 1960 and 1961, his "Sultan of Swat" crowns from the same seasons, and his Gold Glove from 1960, among other artifacts. Also on display are genuine (wool) uniforms he wore with the Indians, Athletics, Cardinals, and Yankees. A 20 minute video highlighting Maris' career runs continuously in a small theater, whose seats are genuine Yankee Stadium seats from the Maris era.

Roger Maris is not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a fact which amazed my niece's husband when I told him. He is not a rabid baseball fan, granted, and when he asked if Mickey Mantle was in the Hall of Fame, I said "sure." Thinking that Maris has not been inducted simply because of the resentment expressed in 1961 when he broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season, I tried to explain that the Hall of Fame usually is more about long-term career achievements that single season heroics, and that Mantle played his entire career with the Yankees and hit 536 regular season homers to Maris' 275. Nevertheless, Fargo's Roger Maris, who was actually born in the same town as rock music icon Bob Dylan (Hibbing, Minnesota), moving to North Dakota with his family in 1942, the year after Dylan was born, was a pretty good ballplayer. Not too many players have won two Most Valuable Player awards,won a Gold Glove, and appeared in seven World Series, in which he hit another 6 home runs. Maris was just a "good old boy" from Fargo, whose attitude is summed up by two of his own quotes; " I never wanted all the hoopla," said Maris."All I wanted is to be a good ball player and hit 25 or 30 homers, drive in a hundred runs, hit .280, and help my club win pennants. I just wanted to be one of those guys, an average player having a good season."

Maris struggled through his record-breaking season - what should have been a joyous time - uncomfortable with the constant media attention, even losing hair with the stress. When his career ended, he said : "As a ball player, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again."

Roger Maris wound up his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967 and played two seasons, helping his new team to two World Series, playing as "just one of the guys" on a team of superstars, including Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Lou Brock. The club owner, Gussie Busch, set him up with a Budweiser distributorship in Gainesville, Florida, and by all accounts, Maris enjoyed his new business and was quite successful at it.

He and Mantle were depicted as rivals in the New York press in 1961, but in reality they were good friends and even roomed together. The Mick was one of Maris' pallbearers in 1985, and was visibly shaken by the death of the "other half" of the 'M and M boys.'

This quote from Mantle serves as a fitting epitaph : "Roger Maris was as good a man and as good a ballplayer as there ever was."

Perhaps someday, the Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee will see fit to include him in their fraternity.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner