I was 9 during the summer of 1961 when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chased the ghost of Babe Ruth. Life was good for 9-year-olds in 1961. I still got my news from the newspaper back then, and the first thing I did every morning was check the box scores to see who had done what the night before. Yes, I was a Yankees fan back then, but have since overcome it.
And I loved Babe Ruth's ghost. Who didn't? He was larger than life, and according to that sappy black-and-white movie starring William Bendix, he hit homeruns for hospitalized little boys and rushed injured puppy dogs to the hospital. For all I knew, it was Coca-Cola he drank with all those hotdogs. This was a time, understand, when little boys like me spent all their extra change on Topps baseball bubblegum - you got one stick of gum and one card for a penny - and spent hours memorizing the statistics on the back.
I was a baseball stats junkie back then. I could give you the starting lineup of every team in both leagues and the batting average, homeruns and RBI totals of almost every player. Numbers were magical to baseball fans in those days, and perhaps the most glorified number in sports at the time was 60, because that's how many homers the Bambino had hit in 1927. Sixty homers in a year was a record that had stood for 24 years, and in '61 not one, but two, New York Yankee ballplayers were trying to break it.
Even at the tender age of 9, there was a part of me that wanted to see the record fall - as long as it was at the hands of Mantle. A part of me didn't want the record desecrated in any way, shape or form. There wasn't a molecule in my makeup that wanted Roger Maris to surpass Babe Ruth, although I don't know why, other than the fact that he wasn't a "real" Yankee like Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford because he had played for another team.
Yeah. The game has changed.
As you may or may not recall, Mickey Mantle, always plagued with injuries, missed a number of games down the stretch and fell out of the chase, and as Roger Maris got closer and closer to the coveted record, the public turned against him. I wasn't the only person, by a long shot, who didn't want the record to fall. The baseball season had been expanded in 1961 from 154 games to 162, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced at some point during the summer that if anyone broke Ruth's record, they would have to do it in 154 games for the record to count.
Roger Maris took Tracy Stallard deep for his 61st homerun in the 162nd and final game of the 1961 season and an asterisk the size of - well, an asterisk - was placed into the record books beside his achievement.
Hank Aaron was the next mortal to chase Babe Ruth's ghost. The Braves' right-fielder had the audacity to challenge the Holy Grail of Records. It became apparent in the early '70s that "The Hammer" would eventually surpass Ruth's mark of 714 homeruns and, seemingly, the whole world turned against him. Many, including Aaron himself, thought the opposition to his run at the record was based on racism and I'm sure there were those that shuddered at the thought of a black man surpassing the great "Sultan of Swat." But many baseball purists hated the thought of anyone surpassing that mark. Aaron did, of course, and made 755 the new magic number in the baseball record books.
Consistency and longevity were Aaron's two greatest allies. His highest homerun total for a single season was 47, in 1971 and from 1927 until 1997 - a 70-year period - only Maris had surpassed Ruth's 60 homers.
So why the history lesson? Because in 1998 Mark McGuire, who had averaged 35 homers a year in 11 previous seasons, hit 70, leaving Ruth and Maris in his wake. Because that same year, Sammy Sosa, who had averaged 22 long balls a year in 10 previous seasons, hit 66. Because in 2001 Barry Bonds - 33 homers a year over 15 previous years - hit 73, and is now poised to surpass Ruth and Aaron. And because dozens of others have experienced similar increases in production over the past nine or 10 years and they are cheating.
They are using steroids and they are destroying the integrity of the game and the sacred record book. And they are lying about it and playing dumb and baseball won't do anything about it. Pete Rose can't be in the Hall of Fame and baseball pretends that Barry Bonds is clean. And baseball insults the intelligence of the fans who pay the bills by instituting a "get tough policy" concerning steroids that provides for a one-year suspension if a player is caught four times. Four times!
Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis must be rolling over in his grave. There isn't an asterisk big enough to temper the records that the current crop of liars and cheaters is producing, and it's a crying shame to those of us who love the game.
This wouldn't be happening if Bud Selig were still alive!
Darrell Huckaby is a Newton County native and the author of six books. He lives in Rockdale County where he teaches high school history. E-mail him at DHuck08@bellsouth.net.