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Hochman: Remembering Roger in red — when Maris rejuvenated his career with Cards in 1967

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Yankees Maris 1967

Roger Maris holds up mail in St. Louis Cardinals dressing room in St. Petersburg, Fla., March 17, 1967. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

Above the famous face, it looked out of place. It sat atop that famous crewcut worn by the famous man known for the famous home run total with the infamous asterisk.

It was a Cardinals cap, worn by a Yankee.

Roger Maris wasn’t supposed to be a Cardinal in 1967; he was supposed to be retired. That was his plan. Debilitating injuries and exhaustion from playing in New York made this baseball immortal mortal. But he gave the Cardinals a shot — and would give the Cardinals all he’d got. As Tim McCarver, 80, said at opening day this year: “Roger was a key, key ingredient to that team.”

That team being, of course, the 1967 World Series champions.

Fifty-five years ago, “El Birdos” won it all. And 55 years ago this coming Monday, Maris made his debut in the red cap. Played right field. Got two hits in the opener — a Cards win. And he batted .424 in the first eight games, as St. Louis opened the season at 7-1.

The story of Maris in New York is a complicated one. Heartbreaking, at times. But there’s something cool about that second act — the famous face reclaiming his name. For St. Louis in 1967, Maris had an OK season but an amazing World Series. He had some fun that year. He reportedly even smiled. He made great friends. He got clutch hits. He won a championship.

“He surprised everybody — he wasn't just a home run hitter; he was a baseball player,” McCarver said of Maris, who died in 1985 of cancer at the age of 51. “He ran the bases well, he took guys out at second base. He was ruthless around the bag, which is something, because you might say, ‘Wait a minute, he’s a home run hitter, he’s not supposed to do that.’ Home run hitters trot; they don’t fire into the shortstop at second base.

“And he never missed the cut-off man, which is very important.”

Roger Maris was, and is, forever a Yankee. He won the MVP in 1960. Then, in 1961, he won it again. He hit 61 homers in '61. Broke the seemingly unbreakable record of Babe Ruth’s 60 homers. But since it was in 162 games, and not 154 like Ruth played, the biased commissioner asked for an asterisk.

From 1962-64, Roger remained relevant. He averaged 27 homers and had an OPS during those three years of .846.

But in 1965, he broke his hand. The owners had him play through the injury, because they wanted “Mr. 61” in the lineup to sell tickets. His hand strength never fully recovered. Then, after the 1966 season, he told a team executive he planned on retiring … so the team proceeded to trade him.

The New York press was merciless.

Milton Richman, UPI: “Maris has about the same market value as a well-worn 1961 car without any air conditioning.”

Red Smith, the famed syndicated columnist from New York: “More surprising than yesterday’s deal and the modest price accepted was the fact that the Yankees found a club willing to accept their damaged goods.”

In the trade, the Yankees got Charley Smith.

The Cardinals got their right fielder for two pennant-winners.

In 1967, Maris hit .261 in red. With the beleaguered hand, he hit nine homers. His OPS was .751 in his 125 games, but for those who follow the fancy stats, his OPS+ was an above-average 116.

And in an era where you garnered respect by how you played, Maris earned more than Aretha could ever desire.

He also became lifelong friends with Mike Shannon, the St. Louis legend, who admirably moved to third base to make room for the new right fielder.

A Sports Illustrated article illustrated Roger’s role in the Cardinal clubhouse, where he would playfully sing a teammate’s name — and wait for the player to sing back his name. He seemed to touch everyone in some way.

“I’ll give you an example of how much he cared about us as a team,” said McCarver, in reference to a time the catcher was so mad, he tried to break his helmet after a brutal at-bat.

“But it wouldn't break — I wasn’t strong enough! So in those days, guys smoked. I go down deep in the tunnel in Pittsburgh. I needed the room — I took a fungo and started pounding on the thing. Roger is there smoking, and he said: ‘You know how many people you’re going to affect if you get hurt?’

“The light went on. It was the way he put it. ‘Do you know how many people you’re going to affect?’ I said, ‘I never thought of it like that.’ He said, ‘It’s your responsibility to think of it like that. That’s how important you are to this team.’ And he was right.”

For all of his regular-season success and rings, Maris had never actually fared well in the World Series. Played in five of them, hit .186. But in the 1967 World Series, he hit .385.

The following year was his last.

Maris, who turned 34 that September, batted .255 with an OPS of .681. Only swatted five homers, though his final homer (and No. 275 for his career) came on the day the Cards clinched the 1968 pennant.

And that same season, the path of a departing baseball legend crossed with the arrival of another.

“This is most memorable for me, and I will never forget it — ever — as long as I live,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said on opening day. “Red (Schoendienst) sent me to the on-deck circle. I'd never been in a major league game yet. There were two outs. Ducky Schofield was hitting with the bases loaded. The pitcher was coming up next, so if Schofield got on, I was going pinch hit. And as things worked out, it didn't happen.

“But I was so thrilled and so rushed with adrenaline, it stayed with me as I went back to my locker. I sat down in the clubhouse, just thinking about what almost happened. As I was contemplating all this, I felt a tap on my right shoulder. I turn around and look over up my right shoulder — and it was Roger Maris. And he said, ‘You almost got to hit today, didn't you, rook?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ And that will live with me until I take my last breath.

“I looked up into his face, and then he went away. I said — that was Roger Maris.”

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