The myth of Maris' asterisk

The asterisk some gripers want to put on Barry Bonds is as imaginary as the one they put on Roger Maris.

Published October 3, 2001 6:28PM (EDT)

So now they want to put an asterisk on Barry Bonds! "The home run has been devalued," says someone on NPR. There's Murray Chass in the New York Times writing about "The Measure of Inflation in the Home Run Race." And one of the hosts on New York's WFAN let the cat out of the bag when he said we should put "a mental asterisk" around Bonds' record, whatever it turns out to be.

Of course, the idea that the achievements of a new generation of ballplayers should be qualified isn't new. In fact, with the possible exception of Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, the game's most enduring myth has been Roger Maris' Asterisk. Now, thanks to the enormous success of Billy Crystal's TV film "61*" (released last week on home video), it seems the asterisk next to Roger Maris' name has sole possession of the top spot.

The asterisk supposedly came into being 40 years ago when Maris became the first player to surpass the most famous American sports record of the past century, Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in one season. The asterisk was supposed to accompany Roger Maris' name into the record books to indicate that Maris had broken the record over a 162-game span instead of the 154 schedule that Ruth played.

In point of fact, no such asterisk was ever put beside Maris' name in any record book; it never existed.

That anyone ever thought there was an asterisk is at least as much the fault of sportswriter Dick Young as of commissioner Ford Frick. Frick worshiped Ruth and was at his bedside the day before he died (and made much of that in interviews and after-dinner speeches). Maris had the bad luck to have his greatest season in 1961 at a time when Frick was commissioner of baseball. As early as July 17, when Maris and several other sluggers were ahead of Ruth's 1927 pace, Ford, apparently distressed that the new 162-game season would give someone an unfair crack at Ruth's record, called a press conference and issued this ruling:

"Any player who may hit more than 60 home runs during his club's first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth's record was set under a 154-game schedule ..."

Crystal's film gets this right. What the film doesn't say, and what escaped most of the baseball writers present at Frick's press conference, was that Major League baseball has no "official" record book and didn't have until Total Baseball got the job a few years ago. So, in essence, Frick was telling publishers over whom he had absolutely no authority whatsoever that they change their books to suit him.

It's possible that little or nothing would have come out of the press conference if not for the crusty and acerbic sports columnist Dick Young, then writing for the New York Daily News. According to a Maris biographer, Maury Allen, who was present at the meeting, Young said out loud, "Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there's a difference of opinion." Of course, there was no "difference of opinion"; the issue didn't exist until Ford created it, and it wouldn't have lasted unless Young had kept it alive. Indeed, there are those in the journalistic community who suspect that Frick and Young set up the scene together. But publishers never really took the hint. When the 1962 record books appeared, there was no asterisk and no distinctive mark of any kind. Some, such as the the Sporting News' record book, simply listed Ruth's record and Maris' record on separate pages. It could be said that this was in itself a form of anti-Maris discrimination, but in any event after a few years all record books came around to giving Maris sole credit for the single-season record. Today there is no more question that Roger Maris held the record for home runs in one season from 1961 through 1998 (when Mark McGwire set the new record) than there is that Hank Aaron surpassed Ruth's career record for home runs.

And yet, the myth that Roger Maris' achievement was somehow qualified has survived even the denial of the man who instigated it, Ford Frick himself. In his little-read autobiography, "Games, Asterisks and People" (Crown, 1973) -- little read because most baseball fans had no idea that the nondescript Frick had ever been commissioner in the first place -- Frick wrote, "No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection with that accomplishment." But, he couldn't resist reminding us, "His [Maris'] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season." For all the mention that's still made of that fact, few fans or writers realize that Maris hit his 60th home run in his 684th plate appearance, while it took Ruth 689.

There are two bizarre postscripts to the Maris asterisk story. The first is that Maris himself went to his grave in 1985 believing his record was tainted. In an interview at the 1980 All-Star Game he said, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something." Then, in 1991, commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement that indicated that he supported "the single record thesis," which is that Maris hit more home runs in a season than anyone else. The committee on statistical accuracy then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris' record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner had denied ever existed even though he was credited with having created it.

If baseball's record books had put an asterisk beside Maris' name in 1962, it would eventually have been removed and the whole incident might now be forgotten. The fact that it never really existed in the first place has made it impossible to kill the myth of the asterisk, which it appears will be with us at least for another generation, waiting to ambush an athlete who is approaching a momentous record only to have someone suggest that, because of changes in the game, he or she might have to endure "a Roger Maris-type asterisk after their name in the record book."

And now, we can hardly wait for the TV movie, "Doubleday."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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