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My day with Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin

Columnist Rick Telander recalls a day 44 years ago when he shared company with three Yankees legends.

Billy Martin, Rick Telander, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle
Billy Martin, Rick Telander, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle
Provided

The bar in the lounge at the Hilton Hotel in Gainesville, Florida, was empty except for the four of us: Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and me.

It was Wednesday afternoon, March 23, 1977, and I was glad there was nobody else at the long, wooden bar because I didn’t want needless chaos and fan interference as I tried to get a handle on these famous baseball men for a Sports Illustrated story I was working on. The assigned piece was about Maris, but he was here in this unexpected reunion with his old Yankees pals, far from New York City, where they all had labored under the glare of the massed media. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be along for the ride, a 20-something journalist, in awe.

Yet I also was concerned that Martin, in a bar, drinking (as we all were), might react badly if a rowdy crowd appeared. Martin had lots of combative precedents. He had punched a number of people and had gotten into bad fights in bars, lounges or wherever alcohol was served, even at the ballpark. It was hard to say which venue — bar or ballpark — was more loaded with tension for the high-strung former player, the slender, big-eared, big-nosed guy some called a genius and others called an idiot, now managing the Yankees.

Indeed, the year after our gathering, after getting fired halfway through the 1978 season, Martin would punch a young sportswriter named Ray Hagar, chipping several of Hagar’s teeth. There would be Martin’s barroom belting of a marshmallow salesman in 1979, with people lavishing ridicule on that incident. A marshmallow salesman? Oh, Billy, you kid!

Back in his playing days with the Yankees in 1957, Martin had been involved in a barroom brawl with five of his teammates, including Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford and Mantle, at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan. Yankees general manger George Weiss blamed Martin for the fight, even though Bauer allegedly threw the first punch at the foes, and Martin was traded to the Athletics not long after the fight.

The fights would go on incessantly, it seemed, including with opponents and later even players he was managing, such as the famous near-dustup with star Reggie Jackson in the Yankees’ dugout, which would occur a few months after our meeting in Gainesville, a nasty, vein-bulging snarl match caught by national TV for a stunned audience.

Yankees coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra held back Martin the way you might a rabid Tasmanian devil, and player Jimmy Wynn held back the profanity-spewing Jackson, who was 18 years younger than Martin and outweighed him by 35 pounds. But Martin was going to go, size be damned, no question about it. This wasn’t a hold-me-back act. This was pure Billy.

Former Yankees beat writer Bill Pennington epically would describe Martin as ‘‘one of the most magnetic, entertaining, sensitive, humane, brilliant, generous, insecure, paranoid, dangerous, irrational and unhinged people I had ever met.’’

I had determined from the start I would stay calm and not become Martin’s next KO.

Yankees manager Billy Martin sits in his office in this 1978 photo.
Yankees manager Billy Martin sits in his office in this 1978 photo.
Ray Stubblebine/AP

How had this hotel-bar reunion even occurred?

I had been with Maris for a day, much enjoying his decency and openness, and was pleasantly surprised that instead of flaring with repressed anger over his remarkably stressful 1961 season — when he hit 61 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old record of 60 — he was delighted to talk about the chase and his ultimate success.

The press had been demanding and, at times, vicious toward him in ’61. He told me about sitting for two, three, four hours at his locker after games simply to appease the requests. He tried to give them what they needed, but this was New York, with its maelstrom of media outlets, and the beast was insatiable.

The stress got to the All-Star right fielder, and his hair began to fall out in patches as the season progressed. His wife visited from Kansas City, where she and the kids lived during the season — Maris never would bring them to the crazed hellhole of New York — and she said he looked like a molting bird.

And how the writers described him! If Martin had elicited some wildly divergent adjectives from Pennington, Maris outdid him in spades. These are but some of the adjectives I dug up about Maris from 1961: ‘‘shy,’’ ‘‘quiet,’’ ‘‘decent,’’ ‘‘devout and home-loving,’’ ‘‘stubborn,’’ ‘‘hot-headed,’’ ‘‘low key,’’ ‘‘easily agitated,’’ ‘‘surly,’’ ‘‘direct,’’ ‘‘honest,’’ ‘‘silent,’’ ‘‘morose,’’ ‘‘unselfish,’’ ‘‘reticent,’’ ‘‘choleric,’’ ‘‘wonderful,’’ ‘‘petulant,’’ ‘‘self-pitying,’’ ‘‘constantly irritated,’’ ‘‘trite,’’ ‘‘sincere,’’ ‘‘self-possessed,’’ ‘‘sensible,’’ ‘‘straightforward,’’ ‘‘cooperative,’’ ‘‘talkative,’’ ‘‘likable’’ and ‘‘soft-spoken.’’

Until I met Maris, it was literally impossible to know what the man was like. The curse of incessant, in-depth media coverage and its unintended and ironic tendency to obscure, even obliterate, rather than emphasize facts had hit the modern world.

But the Yankees were leaving spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, getting ready for the season to start, and owner George Steinbrenner had made a charitable gesture and decided his team would play an exhibition game against the University of Florida before heading back to the Bronx. Florida was his adopted university, for some reason — his alma maters were Williams College and Ohio State — and he just had purchased lights for McKethan Stadium, the Gators’ baseball field.

The whole Yankees caravan was coming to this college town, and it seemed as though almost nobody knew about it. But Maris sure knew. He had been almost quivering with anticipation as we waited for the buses to show up at the hotel.

We ate lunch as we waited at that Hilton bar, and Maris, who owned the Busch beer distributorship in Gainesville — which he bought but was also something of a friendly sendoff deal from Cardinals owner August Busch after Maris finished his career in St. Louis — was pulling at his tie and seemed uncomfortable in his dress shirt, blazer, slacks and shiny wingtips.

And his longer, more fashionable combed hair — so different from the Marine-style flat-top of his playing days — he wasn’t much of a fan of that, either.

‘‘I don’t know about this stuff,’’ he said.

He was an athlete, regardless of age. It was clear he was an outdoor man wearing an inside man’s costume. In high school. he had been an electric football player, once running back three kick returns and an interception for touchdowns in a game. Besides being a naturally strong man with big quads and blacksmith’s wrists — his best playing weight for his slightly shorter than 6-foot height was about 205 pounds, he said — he also could move. As a young player, he was fast and agile and a good fielder with an excellent arm. His two American League MVP awards didn’t come just because of his hitting power.

‘‘You know, I’m about this close to getting a crewcut again,’’ he said. ‘‘I really am. It’s hard these days when athletes and professors and everybody has long hair. It’s hard for me to tell my kids to get theirs cut.’’

One thing he emphasized was how much he loved his children — all six of them — even though, after the ugliness he had been through in New York, he said he never should have named his first-born son Roger Maris Jr. But the boy was born in 1959, two years before the craziness of the home-run chase.

‘‘How would you know?’’ Maris asked, almost to himself.

In truth, the 1961 baseball season was like no other. The AL had added two new teams and the season expanded from 154 to 162 games. Old-boy commissioner Ford Frick did incalculable damage to the game (and, yes, to Maris) when he abruptly decided midway through the season that Maris and Mantle, both of whom were hitting homers at a record pace, could not officially break the season record unless they did it in 154 games.

‘‘You can’t break the 100-meter record in the 100-yard dash,’’ Frick famously declared.

If Maris hit 61 in 162 games, he’d get a ‘‘distinctive mark’’ demeaning his record, said Frick, a former ghostwriter for — and pal of — Ruth. Frick never said the word ‘‘asterisk’’ specifically — that was offered to him as a solution by caustic New York Post sports columnist Dick Young — but the unofficial asterisk behind Maris’ record was in place until commissioner Fay Vincent declared it dead and gone in 1991, ending 30 years of virtual shame for what should have been baseball’s — and Maris’ — proudest moment.

Roger Maris heads for home after hitting his record-breaking 61st home run in 1961.
Roger Maris heads for home after hitting his record-breaking 61st home run in 1961.
AP

Imagine, only 23,000 people were at vast Yankee Stadium to see Maris hit No. 61 in the fourth inning of the last game of the season. It wasn’t a cheap homer, either. It was the only run in the Yankees’ 1-0 victory against the Red Sox.

I have a news clip in my file that points out that a distant newspaper, the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Post-Gazette, didn’t even have Maris’ record blast on the front page of its sports section. Nope, just lots of analysis of the Packers’ fresh 24-0 shutout of the Bears. The overdue erasure by Vincent of the ‘‘asterisk’’ stain, sadly, did Maris no real good. He had died six years earlier of lymphatic cancer at 51.

For many years, I’ve thought of Frick’s name in asterisk terms of its own: ‘‘Ford F*ck.’’

Fans at away parks had booed Maris loudly. Fans even booed him at Yankee Stadium because he was chasing the immortal Babe and simply wasn’t worthy of such fame. There were so many things lacking in Maris, media-wise, that it was a no-brainer for opinion writers. He was in New York — ‘‘the Volcano,’’ for God’s sake — and yet he cared not a whit because he was a country fellow, born in Hibbing, Minnesota, and raised in Fargo, North Dakota.

It could be argued this decent small-town man (his high school didn’t even field a baseball team), who married his high school sweetheart, was the first sports star in history to be hounded by a multiheaded media monster that wanted gossip, opinion and scandal more than it wanted news.

Indeed, at that time, there was not another record in American sports more hallowed than Ruth’s 60 homers. And the way so many stories went, that record was not being beaten; it was being trashed by a low-level creature. In 1963, one writer would sum it up thusly: The trouble with Maris was not that he had problems with the press but that ‘‘he has proved to be such an unsatisfactory hero.’’

That’s kind of funny when you think about it now. Do you even know who owns the home-run record and what it is?

Well, it’s Barry Bonds, and the number is 73. A ridiculous number. Truly. Put up by a ridiculous man in 2001, a jealous man who had seen Sammy Sosa hit 66 in 1998 and Mark McGwire outdo him that same season with 70 and both get all kinds of attention. Bonds didn’t like this. Not at all. So he got huge and became a sledgehammer man. All three of those men are ridiculous. All three — the only ones to surpass Maris — forever are linked to steroids and other illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Maris drank beer at times and smoked Camels to help with stress. That’s all the doping he did.

But he was cool now, on this day, years before meatheads such as Jose Canseco and his ilk would make steroid culture baseball culture.

And here came the Yankees, slowly exiting a pair of luxury buses. Maris stood just inside the doors of the hotel lobby, like a greeter at a convention. He nodded at Dock Ellis, Chris Chambliss and Lou Piniella. He shook hands with Catfish Hunter and Roy White. He greeted Graig Nettles and Howard. And he had a huge handshake for Yogi Berra. He had an even bigger one for Martin, to go along with an immense smile and babbling small talk with his old pal. Then he saw Mantle.

‘‘Look who did make it!’’ he exclaimed.

And their embrace was warm, genuine, exuberant. The media tried to paint the two as intense rivals, even enemies. Mantle was the greater player — everybody knew that — so he should have been the home-run king. Such was the logic.

In fact, Mantle might have gotten to 61 homers first in 1961, but a late-season injury derailed him, and he missed a number of games. Even so, he finished with 54, and the combined 115 for the ‘‘M&M boys’’ set the record for homers by a pair of teammates in a season.

They truly liked each other and always had. Mantle, three years Maris’ senior, always had helped his teammate, soothed him during his torment. They even roomed together.

MIckey Mantle and Roger Maris pose in the Yankees locker room after both homered in a 1961 doubleheader against the Washington Senators.
MIckey Mantle and Roger Maris pose in the Yankees locker room after both homered in a 1961 doubleheader against the Washington Senators.
John Rooney/AP

Sure, as the skeptics noted, you had to throw lots more strikes to Maris, couldn’t walk him, made it easy for him, because you didn’t want to get to the switch-hitting Mantle with a man on base. And there was that short right-field wall at Yankee Stadium helping Maris, a left-handed pull hitter.

And there were other things, too. All so wrong, so unfair, critics wailed. Forget facts. Such as the truth that Maris hit more homers on the road in ’61 than he did at the cozy-for-him ‘‘House That Ruth Built.’’

But here these three buddies were now, and the ‘‘M&M&M boys’’ quickly repaired to the bar, and the stories began. A lot of the stories were racy, off-color and juvenile because these were, after all, overgrown kids. Maris hadn’t been back to Yankee Stadium in more than a decade and didn’t want to go, even for the fun-filled old-timers’ game. (‘‘I might get shot,’’ he had said earlier, meaning it.) But baseball is the quintessential kid’s pastime, the sport any gaggle of young Americans will start playing in any sandlot anywhere if a bat, ball and gloves are handy. And you don’t grow up if you think about baseball endlessly.

Beers were ordered — Anheuser Busch products, of course — and the yarns began.

‘‘So we were in this bar the other night, and this stool was in the aisle,’’ said Mantle, who was serving as a sort of emeritus batting instructor for the Yankees. ‘‘And I didn’t see it and stumbled into it. And this guy who was there — ’’

‘‘Yeah, this guy,’’ Martin interjected, ‘‘he says, ‘Mantle’s drunk again.’ And I said, ‘‘ ‘A—hole, we didn’t come here to get sober!’ ’’

They all laughed. And slowly, through their posture and words, their personalities emerged.

Maris was the steady, non-profane, good-natured pal who had zero interest in controversy. Unlike the other two, both blooming alcoholics, he hadn’t much interest in drinking, either. At lunch, when the place didn’t have the Natural Lite beer he wanted, he shrugged and drank water instead.

Mantle, in his open-necked shirt, wide-checked jacket, deep tan, light-blue eyes and blond bangs — all of which still could be discerned in the dim bar light — seemed as easygoing as his Oklahoma drawl. He looked like a handsome and charming, if heavy-drinking, lady-slayer. And, truth be known, he was.

Then there was Martin. If the other two were broad-shouldered, thick-necked, big-armed lions, he was wiry and narrow and resembled a weasel more than a cat. His mustache and beige hipster leisure suit, accessorized with tooled cowboy boots and a $20-goldpiece string tie, identified him as a man on the move. He was sharper and more cunning than the other two but always impish, ready to take charge and make sure things happened the way he wanted. It was no accident Steinbrenner would hire and fire him five times through the years.

‘‘I’ll have a Schlitz,’’ Martin said to the bartender, just to get a rise out of Maris.

All three men had father issues. Maris’ dad, Rudy, was big, tough and mean, and he and his wife, Ann, had a turbulent marriage. They finally divorced when Maris was in his late 20s, but the sting never went away.

Mantle’s dad, Mutt, died at 39 of Hodgkin’s disease. Mutt’s father, Mantle’s grandfather, died in his 40s. Mutt’s two brothers, Mantle’s uncles, died in different years at 34 from separate forms of cancer. Because of this history, Mantle never thought he would live to see 50. When he finally went to alcohol rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic at 62, he told the counselor he drank from depression because he never lived up to his father’s dream for him to be the best ballplayer ever.

This was crazy, of course. Mantle played 18 years for the Yankees, hit 536 homers, was named AL Most Valuable Player three times, won the Triple Crown in 1956 and hit more homers in World Series play than anyone. And he was a near-unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame. But a father’s presence never exits a son’s mind.

All you had to do was consider Martin, who didn’t meet his father until he was 14. That assuredly helped build his explosive core, fueling some kind of frantic search for something he never had and fighting anything in the way. The problem with Martin, Frank Deford had written, ‘‘is that he is a terribly complicated personality — not necessarily sophisticated-complicated, more ironic-complicated.’’ Deford added that because of insecurities Martin ‘‘finds liars, back-stabbers, cowards, bullies and other blackguards lurking about, anxious to do him in.’’

At the game that night, Maris talked with Jackson in the dugout, the two homer-hitting Yankees right fielders from different generations sharing thoughts only they could know so well.

‘‘Looks like a Budweiser tie,’’ Jackson said with a laugh.

‘‘No, just to hide the boiler,’’ Maris said, patting his ample belly.

They joked around, then Maris said, ‘‘Boy, times have changed.’’ The topic now was money. Serious.

‘‘People talk about high salaries,’’ Jackson said. ‘‘Well, I tell them I remember when gas was 21 cents a gallon. Now it’s 65 cents. You know, after our third World Series championship [in 1974 with the A’s], I got a $2,500 raise. After hitting .289 with 29 home runs. Kenny Holtzman had 19 wins that year and didn’t get a raise.’’

‘‘The highest I got was in 1961,’’ Maris said. ‘‘Never got anymore. So I said: ‘‘I’m just biding my time. Just biding my time.’ ’’

Nobody knew it yet, but the Yankees would win the World Series that season, Martin and Jackson almost would come to blows and Martin would get fired by Steinbrenner in the middle of the next season. The Yankees would win the Series that season, too, but Bob Lemon would finish as their skipper, becoming the winning manager of record. The Yankees wouldn’t win a championship again for 18 years, by which time Maris, Mantle and Martin all would be dead.

Shockingly, Mantle would live the longest, though he was sure he would die the soonest. He died in 1995 at 63, shortly after his alcohol rehab stint. Martin died, drunk, as a passenger in a single-car accident, the car driven by another drunk, on Christmas Day 1989. He was 61.

By many measures, none of these men had wonderful lives. They were haunted by tragedy, despite their successes in an invented game. Their short lives only made their triumphs bittersweet.

Back at the hotel bar, Martin, Maris and I had ended up in the men’s room, at various urinals, at the same time.

‘‘Hey, Rog,’’ Martin said. ‘‘Did you ever see the ninth episode of ‘Roots’?’’

‘‘No,’’ Maris said.

‘‘Yeah, it’s the one where they teach them to play basketball.’’

There was light chuckling but nothing sincere. There would be insinuations, some coming from Jackson later, that Martin had a redneck streak, that he told racist jokes and maybe was a bit of a racist himself. Other players, some Black, would defend Martin, saying that wasn’t the case.

I heard the joke, found it startling in its inherent assumption that neither I nor Maris nor anyone else who might have been in the restroom at that moment would be offended by it and didn’t know what to think. I had watched as Martin got a little more toasted with each succeeding beer, saw him state a few things maybe a trifle too loudly, looking down toward where a couple of newcomers were drifting in, as though hoping for a wiseguy response from somebody, anybody. Something that could lead to a fight.

But I also didn’t think his ugly joke was coming from an essential racist. Rather, it felt as though it was coming from someone who was angry — at what, I couldn’t tell — and hoping to start controversy simply for its own sake. Martin seemed like a man who needed conflict, wanted to bask in it. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how it seemed.

At the night game a few hours later, Maris sat smiling at the far end of the dugout with three of his young boys scattered about, a loving dad in his element, cheering on Mickey Rivers, Jackson, Willie Randolph. Next to him sat Mantle in his Yankees uniform, chowing down on peanuts. Sure, he was a batting coach, but basically he was Mickey Mantle. That was his job: Be Mickey.

In the seventh inning, Maris looked at his old pal and said, ‘‘Hey, Mick, after signing all those autographs today, you gonna take a shower?’’

‘‘You weren’t here earlier,’’ Mantle said. ‘‘I was shagging flies.’’

They both laughed. Over near the action, Martin was hollering toward the pitchers mound, ‘‘Have an idea out there!’’ He was managing away.

I am reminded of the time at Yankee Stadium when I unwittingly got on an elevator with Joe DiMaggio, just the two of us. He was in a dark-blue suit with a thin blue tie. I said hi. He said hello. And then somehow we were talking about Yankees baseball history, and he said that what was on his mind, like an unextractable thorn in his side, was a fly ball he should have caught in a game maybe 50 years before and didn’t. He didn’t know why. He could have, but he didn’t. It haunted him. And I felt bad for him. How crazy it was. How hard to define victory, success, joy.

And so what I wanted to remember about that time in the bar in Gainesville in 1977 was what it shortly would lead to — a baseball game with Maris, Mantle and Martin all at peace, secure in the ambience of what they knew best, if only until the last out. It is still, for me, a beautiful image.