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Brad Balfour

Brad Balfour

Posted: June 20, 2010 04:48 PM

Exclusive: Author Danny Peary Tells the Story Behind the Story of an Under-Sung Baseball Hero

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I was never much for sports even though I grew up in a town like Cincinnati where the Reds were kings. When I was in junior high, if the coach put together a playing squad, which ever side lost the coin flip, they got me. So I never got into sports beyond collecting baseball cards and eventually I sold them preferring to amass vinyl records, read comics and see movies.

But I never forgot that 1961 season when the Cincinnati Reds battled the New York Yankees in the World Series (they lost) and Roger Maris beat Babe Ruth's batting record of 60 home runs in one season. At the time, I had a vague appreciation of the impact of this feat but over the years, after all the steroid charges leveled at players who went on to beat Maris's record, I came to appreciate the enormity of his toppling Ruth's place on Olympus.

What I didn't get until I read co-authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary's book Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) was the contextual significance of this act, what it reflected of the culture at the time and, more importantly for me, it humanized a shy ball player who I had previously cared little about because I was more into rebellious rockers or loner film stars than team-conforming sports figures.

In fact, I would have looked askance at the book or Maris' story if it hadn't been co-written by Peary, who also happens to be the guy who wrote a series of film books including Alternate Oscars (1993); Guide for the Film Fanatic (1986); Omni's ScreenFlights/ScreenFantasies: The Future According to the Science Fiction Cinema (1984); Cult Movie Stars (1991) and the three Cult Movies books.

Being the film and genre geek that I am, I had read most of his books and they were a big part of my cinematic education -- so when Danny e-mailed me about his new book, it aroused my interest; especially to understand how his fascination with film transfers to that of his interest in sports, particularly baseball.

Now his writing partner, Clavin, seems particularly well-suited to complement Danny with his own set of literary achievements having written 11 books on pop culture and sports, and he has been a New York Times reporter as well.

So I sent off to a set of questions to Danny (pictured right) cross-referencing his fascinating book about a under-regarded sports figure with his love of covering films.

Q: How would you describe the difference in writing about film and sports.

DP: Film is an art, and art tends to be subversive so the people who read my film writing tend to be receptive when I express any left-wing bias. I don't necessarily censor myself when writing about sports but I am aware that my audience is more conservative, so I make sure I'm clear with what I write when I venture on the baselines, rather than assuming that everyone automatically understands and agrees with what I'm saying.

Otherwise, I think I write similarly, not writing for other writers in my field but hoping to stimulate readers, even surprise them with my unusual takes on subjects. I always view myself as an outsider looking in, so my thoughts are typically different from others, which I believe is my most positive attribute.

When I write about both, I try to share my passion, which has been there since childhood, and to be somewhat conversational because I am revealing my thought process as I try to discuss a film or sports event and in many cases "figure it out" as a detective would. Readers respond, I think, because they can relate to how I try to find the keys to a mystery.

I love exploring themes in movies and in the lives of ballplayers like Roger Maris, and movie people. That usually leads to my emphasizing to the reader that a director, screenwriter, character, manager/coach, or ballplayer makes huge (though often seemingly subtle) choices, going in one direction and not in another, at pivotal points in the "storyline." I do care about the "Who?" and "What?" but the question I always want answered in film or sports is: "Why?"

Q: Because Roger Maris has been dead since 1985, you were obviously unable to interview the main character for your biography. What were the advantages and disadvantages of that?

DP: I found it amusing that a couple of Roger's teammates told me that when they asked him questions he might not give a reply until the next day, if at all. They loved Roger and that was fine with them. Maris was at best an inconsistent interviewee and could be dreadful even when he tried because not only did he not want to talk about himself, but also he could never figure out what reporters or readers would find important. So even if he patiently answered questions, he would never offer anything that wasn't asked for specifically.

Of course I would have loved to have spoken to Maris but I'm not sure he would have given me anything better than what Tom and I found in our research, taking a few good lines he said in, say, 1960, and a few good lines in, say, 1967, and a few more good lines he said long after he retired, and putting all those lines together to make one solid interview.

That he didn't want to write an autobiography or have anyone write a bio about him, and didn't want a TV-movie made about 1961 (long before Billy Crystal's 61*) tells me he wouldn't have been a great interview for this book. There were four things I really would have wanted to talk to him about and fortunately late in the research I discovered he did touch on three of them late in his life.

He said: overall he was happy that he played major league baseball despite his miserable treatment in New York; he thought he was foolish for sitting out a game after hitting his 60th homer although he had only a few games left to try to break Babe Ruth's record--because he said the difference between having hit 61 homers and 60 was enormous; and he believed he would have had a much better career if the fans hadn't booed him, which, he finally admitted, really hurt him. I would have liked to have asked him about the fourth subject, his relationship with his strange mother. But I'm sure he would have refused to tell me anything.

Q: By their very nature, ballplayers seem more taciturn than actors being more physical and less in their heads. Do you draw a distinction between interviewing performers and ball players?

DP: That hasn't been my experience with ballplayers. Roger Maris, a shy, private Midwestener who had many family secrets, was an exception because he never liked answering questions after 1960 -- although most ballplayers aren't always patient about answering the same old questions after games, particularly losses. It's not always cool to talk to reporters. Young ballplayers aren't particularly worldly and unless they came from Japan or Latin America don't have particularly interesting life stories, but they are media savvy at least.

Although Maris would have tested me, I prefer interviewing older ballplayers--my big baseball book was about 1947-1964-- because if they know you are a true baseball fan and know of their careers and all the obscure people they played with, and, thus, can ask interesting questions, they will talk endlessly about their fascinating lives and careers.

Most of the oldtimers didn't go to college or even finish high school, but I've never walked away thinking that they were anything less than smart. Maybe it's because they can tell I'm genuinely grateful to them for their contributions and making my childhood wonderful and they appreciate that I'm a fan first that we instantly bond and they feel they can give me their "A" answers.

With film people, I am rarely interested in their personal lives,or anything about their main squeezes and the names of their dogs. I always like talking about the movies and their characters. I think they appreciate that I'm not into "stars" and will ask questions that make them think and say things about the movie they never thought of until then.

Q: You've a learned a lot about a life that lead up to those two great years of ultimate success with the Yankees and of the hidden conflicts both in Maris's personal and professional life. How did you contextualize all that incorporating the big themes in his life.

DP: The two major reasons we wanted to do a biography of Roger Maris were to relive the greatest summer of our childhoods, when Maris bested Mantle in an incredible home-run race and broke Babe Ruth's unbreakable single-home run record on the last day of the season, and, having been witnesses, to correct to wrong impression today that Maris wasn't a great player who had many more than two outstanding seasons (he was an All-Star before he played for the Yankees) and isn't worthy of being regarded as a hero and a Hall of Famer.

We knew going in that Maris's sorry reputation today is the result of his being the first sports celebrity that the changing press of 1960-66 tried to destroy with unfair, negative coverage. But as researchers we set out to figure out why the writers, particularly in New York, tried to destroy Maris's psyche and image and turn the fans against him. We found that it was because they never wanted Ruth's record broken, they wanted their idol Mantle to break it if anyone did, and they were angry at Maris because didn't trade them interesting quotes for favorable coverage and in 1962 boycotted them.

Also we wanted to know why Maris was so ill-prepared to be a celebrity and handle the media, beyond that fact that he was shy and a Midwesterner who believed inquisitive reporters were intruding on his privacy. We talked to family and friends from the time he was an infant and discovered that he was so tight-lipped because he'd grown up keeping family secrets. His own parents hated each other and fought constantly, often when drinking; his mother had affairs everyone seemed to know about; and there was drinking, feuding, and dysfunction on both sides of the family.

Maybe to forget his early years, he didn't even tell people that he was born in Hibbing, Minnesota (famous for Bob Dylan and Kevin McHale) rather than Fargo, North Dakota or that he and his parents and brother changed their name from Maras. Perhaps even more significant is that Roger was uncomfortable boasting about his accomplishments because he felt he was having the career that his one-year-older brother Rudy was supposed to have before contracting polio, which we think was the pivotal moment in Roger's life.

Maris always thought that Rudy was the better athlete and would have hit 62 homers if given the chance. He was wrong.