To true American sports fans, October means only one thing:
Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.
The Debunker: Did Roger Maris’s Home Run Record Have an Official Asterisk?
It’s the punctuation mark so epic that Billy Crystal made an HBO movie about it. When the Yankees’ Roger Maris was on pace to best Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old single-season home run record, traditionalists sniffed that Maris was taking advantage of a modern 162-game season to do what Ruth had done in 154.
Commissioner Ford Frick called a press conference, announcing that “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books” to qualify the new 162-game record. “Maybe you should use an asterisk,” volunteered New York sportswriter Dick Young. This exchange has led to the urban legend that Maris’s record, which lasted almost forty years and eventually took prodigious amounts of performance-enhancing drugs to beat, was always tainted with that pesky official asterisk.
Maris beat the record in the last game of the season, needing five fewer plate appearances than Ruth had in 1927. But the commissioner’s fateful press conference, as it turned out, had no effect at all. Baseball had no official record book in 1961, so Frick’s edict had no binding power on America’s various sports publications, most of which happily credited Maris with the new home run record in their next edition. Some, like The Sporting News, provided two sets of records, in the spirit of Frick’s decision, but none used the fateful asterisk, and within a few years, Babe Ruth’s 60-home run season was gone from the record books entirely. (Baseball itself renounced the illusory asterisk in 1991.) Most of the stories of the adversity Maris faced that season—the death threats, the hair loss, the chain-smoking—are well attested. But the famous asterisk never existed.*
Quick Quiz:What asterisk code is used by phone providers in the U.S. and Canada to provide “last call return” service?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.