I’ve been thinking a lot about asterisks. You know, the little symbol that can be tacked onto a word or piece of text to indicate there’s more to the story.
To my mind, the most famous asterisk of all-time is one widely believed to have appeared in baseball’s record books, but never really did.
In 1961, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees hit 61 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season mark of 60. But it wasn’t until three decades later, after Maris had died, that he was officially recognized as the record-holder.
Why the hold up? Here’s how Murray Chass summed it up in The New York Times in 1991:
“When Maris was en route to hitting 61 homers in 1961, Ford Frick, then the commissioner, ruled that he had to break Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers in no more than 154 games, the length of the schedule in Ruth’s era, for Maris to be recognized as the new record holder. The season grew to 162 games in 1961. Because Maris didn’t make it within the designated game limit, his name was listed in the various record books with the notation that he hit 61 home runs in a 162-game season.”
In case you don’t give a flying fig about baseball, all you really need to know is that Maris’s accomplishment had a giant cloud hanging over it — or, more precisely, a mythological asterisk attached to it.
There was no actual asterisk in the record books denoting — many would say delegitimizing — Maris’s feat. There was, as Chass put it, a notation. A separation. The records were listed discretely in an effort to preserve Ruth’s reign as the “real” home run king and bump Maris down to “B-list” status. Here’s how it appeared in the 1962 Little Red Book of Baseball:
I don’t own a Little Red Book of Baseball. I found on that photo in a story by Joe Posnanski on his site JoeBlogs. (Thanks, Joe.) I do, however, own a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, eighth edition, published in 1990. This morning I got it down from a high shelf, and after suffering six hernias flipped to page 33 of 2,781 and found the updated listing:
The annals have been amended. But I still see that asterisk, the one that isn’t really there.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad they did away with that splitting it up business and put Maris alone on top. I just can’t unknow what I know. That 61 in ’61 will always have a shadow over it, always induce a little sinking feeling in my heart knowing how much Maris must’ve suffered from never fully being able to bask in his achievement.
I was working at Sports Illustrated during the great home run chase of 1998 — when Mark McGwire edged out Sammy Sosa with 70 homers to become the new single-season record-holder — and three years later when Barry Bonds passed him, hitting 73.
Years later, in just about the biggest “duh” ever, McGwire admitted he’d used steroids when he broke the record. Bonds copped to juicing as well, but claimed his personal trainer misled him into believing he was taking flax seed oil and arthritis cream. Um, okay. Flax seeds or not, a lot of baseball fans would like to see an asterisk in the books next to Bonds’s name.
Asterisks in record books can connote special circumstances — often bad ones. A scandal, a crisis, a war. It makes me wonder: Will the record books for the year 2020 be littered with asterisks?
Think of all that’s been cancelled or postponed. Professional baseball, basketball, and hockey games. College sports. Golf. Tennis. Soccer. Boxing. Auto racing. The Olympics. Major marathons. Horse racing. The Tour de France. The World Series of Poker. The National Spelling Bee.
And that’s just sports. Countless conferences, concerts, and fundraisers have also been nixed or put on hold. I’m not sure if there are record books for South by Southwest or the Met Gala, but if there are I’d imagine they’ll have asterisks in them, too. Or some sort of side note to explain why no one gathered. To tell the story of the invisible virus that stole an entire year.
The asterisks of 2020 will and should forever remind us of this trying period in our history. For a while, seeing them will probably do nothing but sting. Ultimately, though, after time has had a chance to heal, I hope we will come to associate them with triumph.
I hope we’ll look back at this terrible time out of time when we were all disoriented and disrupted, stuck at home, nothing to do, nowhere to go — and take pride in having had the fortitude not simply to get through it but to emerge from it wiser and stronger and better.
We’re not there yet, but I think we will be. I have to think that because the alternative — that we’ll be dumber and weaker and worse is too much to bear. Let’s not make our asterisks akin to the blemish Maris’s was intended to be. Let’s make them each a rising star.*