The aging record player was laboring away in the spacious clubhouse of the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Memorial Stadium late last Saturday afternoon, and Lou Brock, the 5'11" left fielder who had begun the 1967 baseball season with three tremendous home runs (he was to hit two more on Sunday), was listening intently. Roger Maris, a 32-year-old father of six from Independence, Mo., came over and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Three, Lou," Maris said. "That's gonna start to put the pressure on you. You're already three games ahead of my home-run pace of 1961." The two laughed and then Brock said, "Roger, listen to this song. I'm gonna play it again. We're gonna play it all year long. It's called A Fistful of Dollars."
There was a strangeness to baseball last week as a new season began. Mickey Mantle broke his own injury record by surviving only three innings, and Willie Mays, normally a fast starter, was hurt in Atlanta. It was news when the power failed in Anaheim, causing a postponement of a game between the Angels and the Indians, and no news at all when the power continued to fail in Chicago, where the White Sox got two lonely hits against the Washington Senators but still stretched a game into 11 innings. They lost. Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants and Jim Kaat of the Minnesota Twins, who between them won 50 games in 1966, had a combined record of 0-4. And just when it looked as though the Baltimore Orioles were going to win 162 games and score a zillion runs the Kansas City Athletics put on their little white kangaroo slippers and scored 11 runs themselves to stop the Orioles. But even in a week when Ernie Banks, going on 103, rediscovered the Fountain of Youth, the strangest and loudest noises in all of baseball were coming from Cardinal fans as they watched Roger Maris' entrance into the National League. By last Sunday evening the Cards were the sole undefeated team in the majors, and the only things Maris had not done were to hit a homer and run backward up the inside perimeter of the 630-foot Gateway Arch.
All winter long the city of St. Louis had wondered about Maris, and Maris had wondered about the city. The trade that brought him from the Yankees to the Cardinals for Charlie Smith, a journeyman third baseman, had raised some doubts. The things they had read about Maris in the past went against the nature of Cardinal fans. Things like: swings for the fences, jakes it, doesn't run out ground balls, tries to pull everything, red neck, plays for himself, gets himself out of the lineup and doesn't try to get back in....
All this was forgotten last week as Maris played the way players do in the baseball novels of John R. Tunis. He helped make the Cardinals, a dark horse for this year's pennant, look better than any team can possibly be. His presence more than doubled the attendance of the first four Cardinal games of last season, and it brought from Cincinnati's Warren Giles, the president of the National League, one of the funniest stories that he will ever tell on himself. "I put on an old hat," said Giles, "and a pair of sunglasses as a disguise, and I went out into the bleachers to see how things were going. When I was out there I tapped a man on the shoulder and said, 'What about Maris? He isn't going to help this club, is he?' The man looked at me and said, 'Mister, haven't you heard what happened to Frank Robinson when he got out of Cincinnati?' "
Should Maris continue to perform well he will also put Lee MacPhail, the general manager of the New York Yankees, in a spot rife with irony. It was MacPhail who set up the trade with the Reds' Bill DeWitt that brought Robinson to Baltimore. Now MacPhail could become the man to make people forget about DeWitt for at least a little while.
Maris' fast start as a Cardinal was not something that just happened. Early on the morning of Feb. 28 he stepped from his hotel room at the Sheraton Inn in St. Petersburg, Fla., a city he remembered well. He had last trained there as a Yankee in 1961, the year he broke Babe Ruth's record and noticed that his hair was falling out. The decision to join St. Louis this season and remain in baseball was a hard one for Maris to make, because at the end of 1966 he had made up his mind that his career was over, and over on the lowest of notes—a batting average of .233, with 43 runs batted in and 13 homers for a last-place team. After the trade was announced few defended him, but the late Johnny Keane, the deposed manager of the Yankees, was one. "I liked Roger Maris," Keane said the day after the trade. "He is a high-class man who has gone through a lot of injuries. If the Cardinals can get him interested in playing baseball again and he can stay healthy, they will have a heck of a good player—one who can make them a strong team."
Maris walked around the outside of the hotel and one of the bellhops came up and shook his hand. "I hope you have a heck of a year, Roger," he said. Maris thanked him. Then he smiled and said, "That would be a surprise, wouldn't it?"
As Maris stood there, Red Schoendienst, the Cardinal manager, saw him and asked, "Roger, can I give you a lift down to the park?" Maris got into the car, and on the way to Al Lang Field Schoendienst told him, "We know that you are a pro and we know what you can do, because you've already proved it. Just get yourself in shape and don't worry about the hits in the spring. Get in shape. We've got a heck of a bunch of guys on this team, and they'll make it easier for you. Don't throw hard in the outfield. We'll leave it up to you, but we want you in the best shape you can get yourself in." When Maris stepped from the car he felt his decision not to quit had been the right one.
Maris produced only one homer in spring training and batted .225 on a club that had a team average of .275. But every time anyone looked up, there was Maris running alone in the outfield with his hat off, moving as hard as he could. "Every day when he was taken out of a game you'd see him in the outfield running for at least a half hour," says Dick Sisler, the St. Louis batting coach. "He was doing it all by himself. Nobody told him to." Still, when spring training came to an end, Maris had only two hits in his last 17 at bats, and Cardinal fans knew it; in St. Louis you grow up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a box score in the other.
Thus last Tuesday evening, with a chill in the air, bands playing and horns tooting, Roger Maris rode in an open convertible along the left-field line toward home plate in Busch Memorial Stadium for his debut as a Cardinal. He waved to people in the stands as they shouted his name, but he held his breath continued for the reaction when he would be announced formally. When the big ovation came, he tipped his cap and scrambled awkwardly from the car to join the lineup of teammates on the first-base line. As he trotted to right field a few people in the bleachers waved to him, while others hollered encouragement.
Maris came to bat in the first inning with runners at first and third and Juan Marichal pitching for the San Francisco Giants, which is just about as much pressure as any newcomer needs. He hit the ball to third and, although the run did not score, he advanced the runner from first to second. In the second inning the Giants shifted the infield against him by putting three men between first and second. They were saying, "There's the challenge, Roger, baby. Be a hero. Hit the ball through it or over it." Maris never even stepped from the batter's box. He tugged at the black golf glove on his right hand and went to work. "It surprised the heck out of me to see it," he said later. With the count 1-1 he tried to bunt up the third-base line, but fouled the pitch off. In trouble now with a 1-2 count, he lashed at Marichal's next pitch and punched the ball into left field for a single, but—oops—Jesus Alou, the Giant left fielder, moved slowly on the ball and Maris kept right on going and into second with a double. The biggest opening-day crowd in Cardinal history cheered. He bounced out his next time at bat, and then, in the sixth inning, the Giants threw the shift at him again. Maris pushed a bunt up the third-base line, beat it out, and a delighted man in the Stadium Club in left field kept hollering, "Roger Maris bunted for a hit! He bunted for a hit!" After that inning, when Roger went to his position in right field, the fans in the bleachers stood and applauded. He had showed them something and they liked it.
Two nights later the Cardinals got in an inning and a half of their second game of the season before it was rained out. With the rain Maris lost a clean single he had gotten in the first inning off Don Drysdale. In six at bats against Marichal and Drysdale he had collected three hits, which is not what those two are paid $100,000 each for. "The people were cheering for me, Maris said afterward, in some wonderment. "It's strange hearing it. Different. I enjoyed beating the shift, because it gave us a chance for runs with Orlando Cepeda coming up behind me, but I'm really happy because it's been such a long time since I've heard a good reaction. I guess, too, that when I beat the shift it made me realize that they hadn't seen me when I was young and first came up, and the things I could do then."
That should have been enough for Roger Maris and Cardinal fans, but on Friday night he put on a batting show that will long be remembered. He walked to the plate in the first inning with Curt Flood on first. A banner hanging in back of home plate read, "Welcome, Roger Maris." Earlier one had been draped over the fence in right field that said, "Beat the Dodgers, Roger," and before the game he had caught fly balls in practice and waved to the fans. Little waves, done with his back to the infield so only those in the bleachers could see. With Flood leading off first and the count 0-2 against him, Maris pounded the ball over Lou Johnson's retreating body in center field and to the fence 414 feet away for a triple. It set up a three-run inning. The next time up Maris singled and then scored on a double by Orlando Cepeda. But it was on his third time to the plate that Maris showed something many people thought he had lost long ago. Flood was on base again, and Maris pushed a ball into short left center. Flood went to third, and Maris could have stopped at first, but he has always been a smart base runner. Realizing that the Dodgers figured he would hold with a single, Maris put his head down and went on toward second. Ten feet from the base he went into a headlong slide and easily beat the throw from the outfield. Gene Michael, the Dodger shortstop, was obviously startled. He caught the throw, looked around slowly and—peekaboo—there was Roger Maris.
That double did it. The applause that had grown louder with each of Maris's successes became thunderous. Cups and torn paper spilled out onto the warning track in right field and the bleacherites were hollering at him through popcorn-cone megaphones. Whistles blew and people waved. Sportswriters in the press box looked at each other and then out at him, as if to say, "Maris, do you know who you are and what you're doing?" Maris made only one small gesture, for there was no way he could answer the applause. Standing on second base he put his hands on his hips and looked around the park just for an instant.
After the game Maris tried to explain the head-first slide. "I don't know why I did it," he said. "There was plenty of time for me to slide feet first. I don't ever remember doing it that way before. There must of been a reason for it, but I don't know what it was."
On Saturday Maris picked up two more hits as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers again, 13-4, and on Sunday he drove in three runs against Houston. All the Cardinals were hitting—the team average was .371, and on Saturday they had batted around in the fifth inning—but the kid with the biggest and newest toy was Roger Maris. "I made the first and last outs in that inning," he said later. "That's something I don't remember doing before, either, but the fans didn't boo me. The whole thing this week has been better than I thought it could be. When I went through the thing about retiring I said to myself, 'This is the only thing I know.' When you quit you lose a lot. My wife came here with the kids this week to see me play. Before, the only time they ever got a chance was when the Yankees went to Kansas City.
"I'm happy, and when I'm happy my wife is happy. I know that this week here meant an awful lot to her, just as it has to me. I'm crazy about this ball club, and so far I'm crazy about this city."
The city didn't seem to object too much to Roger Maris, either.
After pleasing the St. Louis fans with his hustling play on opening day, Maris really captured their affection Friday when, on a routine hit to left, he suddenly sprinted past first base (left), dived for second (center) and beat the throw from the outfield with a rousing, head-first slide.
Cheered in a pregame parade on opening day in St. Louis, Maris, more used to boos than applause, responded with a shy wave and a tentative smile.
THE OTHER HALF OF M&M HAS A TOUGH FIRST WEEK
There he is, Mickey Mantle, outfielder for 16 years, and the time is right now—inning one of game one. All the things that are supposed to happen so fast at first base are happening. The ball is a hop-hop blur, a base runner is hightailing it for second and the batter is sprinting toward first. Fret not. There was no disaster. The ball caromed off his glove, off his chest (below). But Mantle boxed it, stopped it, picked it up and got the out at first. If one batted ball means anything, Mantle showed that he was a first baseman. But two innings later, disaster did come—in the old-fashioned Mantle way. Trying to score from first, Mickey went around second, legs churning and, damn, he did it again—a pulled muscle. The look of pain and disgust on his face as he hobbled across home plate was the most pathetic and familiar in baseball. Yet by Sunday, back in the lineup, he hit hard, made two fine plays in the field and seemed ready to rejoin Roger in the headlines.