At a certain point, baseball lost something. It was called the National Pastime and still is, but really, it’s not anymore. Major league cities love it and kids play it in small towns but many more kids are playing football and basketball and soccer.
And part of it is baseball’s own fault. By the time the World Series was called off in 1994, it was already weakened, but that was a major blow. How could they do that? Millions quit watching in disgust. Toss in steroids, Steinbrenners and the owners dumping Faye Vincent and it had become a total mess.
In the early ‘60s though, baseball was still special and the home run race in 1961 between Yankees teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris caught the nation’s attention in a major way.
Not surprisingly, Mantle had health and injury concerns down the stretch but even by his standards, it was a bit much: he had a pulled forearm muscle, a respiratory infection, an eye infection and a nasty cold to boot. Worse, he went to see a quack and ended up with a major infection and a golf-ball sized abscess.
So at the end, only Maris had a chance at Babe Ruth’s near-sacred record. He was healthier than Mantle, but the stress got to him to the point where his hair started falling out.
Here’s the final home run as called by the great Red Barber up in the catbird seat. Given the stress he was under, you wonder if Maris considered grounding out just to get it over with. He didn’t, though. He gave it his best shot and hit a home run that put him in the record books. Not everyone was happy, not everyone accepted it, and it was very difficult on him, but he did it.
He had the heart of a champion.