- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Everybody knows that sports memorabilia often is bought and sold for ridiculous amounts. Yet several items at a Sotheby’s auction this weekend in New York might help unravel an intriguing baseball question: Why, after Roger Maris’ historic 61 home runs for the Yankees in 1961, did his power numbers head south faster than Confederate army survivors a century earlier?

First the facts: Following his non-steroidal power surge that broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers in 1927, Maris declined to 33 in 1962. In fact, he went deep just 117 times over his final seven seasons, a meager annual average of 17.7 reduced by several serious injuries. By the time he retired from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 at the age of 34, the one-time slugger was respected more for his fielding and throwing arm than his batting exploits.

Probably, the reasons are multiple and complex. But a partial answer might lie in an unusual experiment conducted with Maris in the spring of ‘62 by Leslie Lieber, a writer for the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week.

Learning Maris had used a bat 11 ounces lighter than the Babe’s, Lieber theorized that home runs were harder to hit with the thick, heavy clubs wielded by old-time sluggers. Somehow he convinced the usually moody Maris to take batting practice with replicas of four such heavier weapons as well as his own to see what would happen.

Maris did so using bats like those of Ruth (44 ounces), Ty Cobb (42), Frank “Home Run” Baker (47) and 19th-century star Pete Browning (46). According to Arlington’s Frank Ceresi, director of East Coast acquisitions for Sotheby’s, Lieber described Browning’s lumber as “a bologna-shaped bludgeon with a handle as thick as a tree trunk.”

The great experiment was conducted at the Yankees’ spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., possibly on a day when manager Ralph Houk was otherwise occupied. It’s hard to imagine rock-rumped Houk approving such tomfoolery with the swing of a man who had won back-to-back MVP awards while powering the Yankees to a pair of pennants.

Using the bats in turn, Maris swatted five balls with each against Yankees BP pitcher Spud Murray. Nothing much was proved. For the record, the balls he hit with Cobb’s bat went the farthest while ones propelled with Roger’s relatively tiny 33-ounce stick carried the shortest distance. So much for the theory.

The results meant nothing, but the strange test might have had a lasting effect. Did the use of the heavier bats somehow affect Maris’ swing and play a role in his transformation from mighty slugger to big disappointment? Granted, it seems unlikely, but no better explanation has surfaced.

That’s the fascinating thing about baseball: We can speculate and debate all day and all night about such matters. Would Barry Bonds have surpassed Ruth in career home runs without presumed chemical aid? Would Sandy Koufax have finished his career as the greatest pitcher of all time if his left elbow hadn’t given out at age 31? Will Ryan Zimmerman truly become the star his rookie performance suggests?

Everybody loves a mystery, past and present.

Back to Sotheby’s and this weekend’s auction of what it calls “300 lots of important sports memorabilia.” It’s questionable whether any of this stuff is “important” in the overall scheme of things, but as long as buyers are willing to spend, sellers will ask big bucks.

For instance, you can nab the bats used in those Maris shenanigans for $15,000 to $20,000. Now, this might sound a little exorbitant, but the folks at Sotheby’s believe in giving you your money’s worth — so they’ll toss in a copy of This Week from May 20, 1962, containing Lieber’s article.

Many game-worn jerseys are up for grabs, too. Washington baseball fans might want to snatch a Walter Johnson road uniform shirt “circa 1919-22,” a prize so expensive that Sotheby’s doesn’t even mention the price in the auction catalogue. And the pinstriped shirt doesn’t even have a “W” on the front.

Or if your funds are somewhat limited, how about going for Henry Aaron’s 1954 Milwaukee Braves rookie uniform? It’s is available for a piddling $150,000 to $200,000.

If horsehides are your thing, there’s a Spalding “base ball” signed by the unlikely duo of Cobb and Bing Crosby, aka the Georgia Peach and the Groaner, for just $15,000 to $20,000. On the cheaper side, there’s Jim Palmer’s Baltimore Orioles home jersey from 1967. It’s a mere $7,000 to $10,000, probably because Jimbo won only three games in that injury-plagued season.

As we know, Palmer gained subsequent renown, if that’s the word, as a TV pitchman for Jockey shorts. Which reminds me that Sotheby’s also is offering Babe Ruth underwear for $800 to $1,200. We can only hope this is Babe Ruth brand underwear rather than skivvies he wore, more on less, on some of his legendary amorous adventures.

There’s much, much more to be had at Sotheby’s this weekend, so get those checkbooks and credit cards out, folks. Actually, though, I’m a little disappointed, because nowhere did I see samples of “the clear and the cream” used by Bonds. Undoubtedly, such evidence would be priceless.

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