Sport: The Making of a Hero

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Bottle-green eyes smolder malevolently, and thin lips curl in a perpetual pout. "I was born surly," says Roger Eugene Maris, "and I'm going to stay that way. Everything in life is tough." But last week, as he has all season, Yankee Outfielder Maris knew just where to direct his sullen anger: at a baseball. Leaning into a low fastball thrown by Baltimore's Milt Pappas, Maris sent a whistling drive soaring high into the rightfield seats. It was his 59th homer in 154 games; he had come within one heart-stopping wallop of tying baseball's most dramatic and cherished record: the 60 home runs hit by George Herman Ruth in 1927 (seven years before Maris was born).

Nothing in recent baseball history has aroused such sustained excitement—or provoked such profound and varied emotion—as Maris' determined, season-long assault on Ruth's enduring achievement. Most fans cheered him on; ballparks were jammed wherever the Yankees went, and encouraging messages flowed into Yankee Stadium at the rate of 3,000 a week. But a few sentimentalists saw every Maris homer as a personal attack on Ruth. They argued that today's ball is livelier, today's fences shorter, today's pitching easier to hit. Groused Oldtimer Rogers Hornsby: "Maris has no right to break Ruth's record."

As season's end approached and pressure mounted, Maris was having trouble enough: bad weather jammed up the schedule, and pitchers cautiously gave him nothing to hit. Umpires, he complained, were calling the close ones strikes. And Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick (Ruth's onetime ghostwriter) announced that a new home run record would have to be set in 154 games—the number Ruth needed to hit 60—even though the current American League schedule runs to 162 games. To a whole generation of baseball fans who never saw Ruth play, it will matter little how many games Maris needs to hit 61. To them, Roger Maris already is an authentic American hero.

Biggest Moments. But as a ballplayer, Maris still is no match for Babe Ruth. A rollicking, muffin-headed giant (6 ft. 2 in., 230 Ibs.) with the slender legs of a showgirl, Ruth was the finest baseball player who ever lived. As a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, he won 46 games in two seasons, pitched 29 consecutive scoreless World Series innings—a record that still stands. As an outfielder, he joined a Yankee club that had no ballpark and had never won a pennant; his presence (backed up by the formidable figure of Lou Gehrig) turned the New Yorkers into the most fearsome team in baseball. To a sport that had been damaged by the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, Babe Ruth's booming bat brought new virility and respectability. Even when he struck out, Ruth was impressive—and he struck out often. But when he connected, he gave baseball its biggest moments. Nobody ever hit a ball so hard: he once drove a liner through a pitcher's legs with such force that it sailed over the centerfielder's head. In 21 years of big league ball, he hit 714 home runs, a total that has never been approached. In all, Ruth set or tied 54 major league records. In the golden '20s, the era of big names—Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden—Babe Ruth was the biggest draw of them all.

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