During my experience of playing a reporter as an extra for the Billy Crystal produced HBO film *61 about the 1961 home run race between Yankee teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, I heard some very interesting stories on the set at Tiger Stadium ten years ago this summer.
However none was as moving as the story I heard from Andy Strasberg who was hired by Crystal as a consultant for the movie. Strasberg is considered THE authority and the all time number one fan of Roger Maris, the man I still consider to hold the legitimate single season record holder for most homers in a season. (61 in ’61) (No steroids for Roger)
While sitting in the home dugout during a lunch break, Strasberg shared with me his incredible story of the friendship he developed with Maris that began as a kid growing up near Yankee Stadium.
When Maris was traded to New York in 1960, Strasberg took an instant liking to Roger Maris and when he was old enough to go to Yankee Stadium himself he would always sit in rightfield and speak with Roger during pre-game practice. At one point Strasberg worked up the nerve to ask Maris if he could have one of his game used bats and Roger said he would give him the next bat he cracked.
While the Yankees were out on a west coast trip, Strasberg was listening to the game on his transistor radio while under the covers when the Yankee broadcaster announced that Maris had broken his bat and was going back to the dugout to get another one. Sure enough, on the next home stand Maris ran out to right field prior to the game and told Strasberg he had the broken bat waiting for him at the lockeroom. The bat would become the first of many Maris game used items that Strasberg would eventually acquire, but more than that, he had acquired a friend for life.
This is how Strasberg told the rest of his amazing story.
“In 1966 I went off to college at the University of Akron, in Ohio. My roommate had a picture of Raquel Welch on his wall and I had a picture of Roger Maris. Everyone in the school now knew that I was a big Maris fan. Some of my friends said, “You told us that you knew Roger Maris. Let’s just go see.” So one day six of us drove 2½ hours to Pittsburgh to see the Cardinals play the Pirates. It was May 9, 1967. We got to Forbes Field two hours before the game, and there was the red number 9. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen Roger Maris outside of Yankee Stadium, and I figured he wouldn’t know who I was because the setting was different. I was very, very nervous. Extremely nervous, because I had five guys with me. I went down to the edge of the fence, and my voice was quavering as I said, “Ah, Rog…Roger….”
He turned around and said, “Andy Strasberg, what the hell are you doing here in Pittsburgh?”
That was the first time I knew he knew my name. I looked at him and I looked at my friends and I said, “Well, Rog, I’m with some guys from college. They wanted to meet you and I just wanted to say hello.” The five of them paraded by and shook hands and they couldn’t believe it. I wished Rog the traditional good luck and he said, “Wait a minute. I want to give you an autograph on a National League ball.” And he went into the dugout and got a ball and signed it. I put it in my pocket and I felt like a million dollars.
I’m very superstitious when it comes to baseball. That day I sat in row 9, seat 9 out in rightfield. In the third inning Roger hit his first National League home run, off Woodie Fryman.
I caught the ball.
It’s the most amazing thing that will ever happen to me in my life. I caught the ball and tears were rolling down my face. I couldn’t believe it. He came running out at the end of the inning—you’ve got to remember that Rog knew where I was, and it wasn’t crowded that particular game—and he said, “I can’t believe it.” I said, “You can’t? I can’t!”
After all that, Strasberg and Maris became very close friends, so much so that one of Roger’s son’s named their child Andy after Andy Strasberg.
In the movie, Crystal had Strasberg play the fan who actually jumped out of the stands to shake Roger’s hand after hitting his 61st home run. Today Strasberg, a former San Diego executive owns a sports marketing company in San Diego. One of his current ventures is the website, //fantography.net — a site that posts photos taken by fans at major league ballparks.