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The 1961 Expansion and the Roger Maris Asterisk

As Marty Appel shows in this essay, the 1961 expansion of the American League brought a period of anguish as fans and even the commissioner of baseball proved unready for the cherished heroes of baseball’s past to be bettered by a throng of new talent.

By Marty Appel, July 26, 2017
After serving as National League President for 17 years, Ford Frick was elected the third commissioner of Baseball in 1951.

It’s the most famous asterisk that never was.

In the hall of fame for punctuation marks, it has its own wing.

In the annals of baseball history, it’s a 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 10, 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 preseason 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 had played a central role in the establishment of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

Serving roughly parallel terms to Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, Frick mirrored Ike’s laid-back leadership style. Chicago owner Bill Veeck ridiculed the commissioner for the fact that his biggest decision had been the postponement of a World Series game.

But 1961 was unfolding as Frick’s worst nightmare. Sure enough, the record for 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.

The M&M Boys—Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris—in the clubhouse after a game in 1961.

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.

But there was more than the home run record at stake, of course. All records were at stake. (In 1962, Ty Cobb’s base-stealing record 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 [1961] 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 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 over the years, especially as Maris’s stock as sports hero began to rise. But 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.

Roger Maris is congratulated by Mickey Mantle after hitting home run number 33 of the season off Boston's Bill Monbouquette, July 9, 1961.

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 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, 31, who had worked part-time for the Elias brothers as a high school student, 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 statistical agency for the National League, and they published The Little Red Book of Baseball. 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 most authoritative source for all things baseball, even more so than One for the Book published by The Sporting News.

Frick liked Siwoff because of his connection to the Elias brothers. He had worked with them during his tenure as National League president.

Seymour Siwoff with author Marty Appel in 2011.
Source: Marty Appel

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 annotated 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’.

The Little Red Book of 1962 featured individual home run records in a season for both 154-game and 162-game schedules.
Source: Marty Appel

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—61 having withstood the whole era of steroids—even as National Leaguers Mark McGwire (twice), Sammy Sosa (three times), and Barry Bonds have 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. But Frick’s greatest sins were failing to recognize what a marketing tool he had before him, and making the final eight games of the season anticlimactic. The whole nation should have been watching. But it was still a time when the sacred heroes of the past rated higher than the players on the field.

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle (shown here with teammate Whitey Ford) were honored as co-holders of the 1961 “Player of the Year Award” by the New York Baseball Writers Association.

 

 

 

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I've never understood how anyone can honestly refute the logic behind Frick's ruling and Siwoff's decision to honor it. What if expansion had resulted in a PCL-length season of 196 games? There wasn't anything smallminded or vindictive about what Frick did; he was merely using common sense.

Andy Moursund

posted 07.28.2017