I was absolutely consumed by baseball until I was about 13. I played on a Little League team, I practiced pitching in front of a full-length mirror in my home, I watched games on tv incessantly, and I collected baseball cards. At the end, I had 3,333 baseball cards, mostly from the 1950s, which my mother overlooked in the basement when she moved from my childhood house. I never saw them again. Oh Mom! Because of this addiction and the data on the back of the baseball cards I had memorized, I knew nearly every stat about every player on nearly every team. In 1958, one set of stats I committed to memory was the following: right fielder, batted left, threw right, born in Hibbing, MN, rookie year with Cleveland Indians.
Roger Maris only played for the Indians during 1957-58, the first year of his famous career. He was traded to Kansas City in 1958, and then to the Yankees in 1960, where he played with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. But even in his first year as a pro, there were high hopes for Maris, who later hit 61 homers in the 1961 season, breaking Babe Ruth's record that had stood for 34 years. So Maris was already one of our heroes among my baseball-loving comrades on the northwest side of Lima, Ohio. His Rookie Year baseball card of 1958 was hot within trading circles, one of those prizes where you instantly threw away the gum inside the package as soon as you saw the "Roger" and the Indians' uniform.
In those days, it was a common field trip for boys' groups at school to go to a professional baseball game. Given where I lived, the trips usually went north to an Indians' game in Cleveland; on occasion, we got to travel south to a Redlegs' game in Cincinnati. The cost of a ticket was about $2, and the stands were never even a third full back then. (Many years later, I thought I would take my family to a Blue Jays game when we were visiting Toronto. We walked up to the stadium at game time and were promptly told they had been sold out for weeks. And if they had tickets, it would probably cost our family of five about $150. I was in disbelief. I don't remember reading that stat on the back of a baseball card. I guess I had been out of touch with my childhood game for a long time.)
So it was sometime in 1957 when the group of boys (it was always only boys) with which I was traveling headed to Cleveland for a game. I can no longer remember who the Indians played that day or who won the game. Our excitement was focused on the habit of congregating around the outside door on the back of the stadium where the players emerged after the game and their showers. If you were lucky, and the players were in an accommodating mood, they would stand there for a few minutes and sign autographs. After one of those games, I remember an angry Mike Garcia emerging into the light and the throngs of baseball-loving boys only to shove us aside and to stomp his way to his car, signing nothing. He had pitched badly that game, and he was bringing his work home with him that day.
But the highlight of my baseball celebrity memories was the day that Roger Maris and Al Smith walked out among their faithful disciples. We rushed to get their signatures. I got Al Smith's right away, and he had hit a home run that day. Then I jumped over to the Maris crowd, and eventually worked my way to a position right in front of the guy. He signed my baseball program. But the immense pressure of all those young male bodies was incredible, pushing me forward well within the personal space of the soon-to-be famous ball player. It reminded me of the feeling I had at the Pussycat Dolls' concert I attended at Cornell last year outside on the lawn. Students pressed so hard toward the stage that I had to get out of there. I staggered toward the edge of the crowd as best I could, inadvertently groping students of both sexes. I was embarrassed at the looks I got, but it was not my fault. I wanted to scream that I have been married to the same woman for 41 years, and I'm the father of three grown children, and I have peripheral neuropathy so my balance is not so good, and I am not a pervert. But no one would have believed me.
So to extricate myself from the crowd of autograph seekers around Roger Maris, I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl out of there. I swear to whomever you believe, I crawled right between his legs to escape! It did not seem that weird to me at the time. I was desperate, I couldn't move, and I was not big enough or strong enough to push my way out of that mess. So I saw daylight about 18 inches above the ground and I went for it. I was successful. I escaped intact with the guy's autograph, which was worth significant bragging rights for many months after.
Men like Maris and Mantle were a big deal to boys like me. We had little chance of becoming famous or of mingling with the famous, so our brief moments of encounter with them were worth a lot. Those brief moments gave us something to talk about back home, and made watching them on tv even more magical than it would have been otherwise. They were heroes to us in every sense of the word. Maris' autograph, for which I was so proud, was written in pencil. That signature later faded badly on the glossy paper of that baseball program, which disappeared along with my baseball cards. But the memory of that day is still very fresh in my mind.
Those men informed our dreams and kindled our imaginations, in spite of any personal problems or improprieties they might have suffered off the field. I think Bob Costas, the sports commentator par excellence, said it best. Although he was referring to Mantle, I hope his sentiment still applies to many stars who young people emulate today: "In the last year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it."