I had just been discharged from active duty in the fall of 1967 when the St. Louis Cardinals met the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
I’d spent the previous four months at Fort Ord, Calif., working my way through six weeks of basic training and another six of AIT (advanced infantry training).
I was told that it was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, a mere 112 miles north, but you couldn’t prove it by me. As newly minted member of the U.S. Army Reserve, I was just doing my best to avoid a trip to Vietnam.
On the day I was set free on the Monterey Peninsula, some fellow soldiers and I rented a car and sped to San Francisco International Airport where we went our separate ways.
It was Roundup Weekend in Pendleton, and that was my immediate destination, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there.
I booked a flight from San Fran to Portland, where I hoped to catch a connecting flight to Pendleton. There were none, but a helpful ticket agent found a seat for me on a plane bound for Walla Walla and I climbed on board just before it taxied down the runway.
Once on the ground in Walla Walla it was a simple matter to hitchhike the 39 miles to Pendleton — the uniform helped — where I stowed my duffel bag behind a row of shrubs in someone’s front yard and hooked up with old friends at the Happy Canyon Dance.
But my stay in Pendleton was brief. I was under orders to check in with the reserve unit in Fergus Falls, Minn., where I had enlisted, so after a couple of days in the Pacific Northwest I was airborne again.
Little did I know at the time that I would be back in the Pendleton Armory — right there where the dance had been held — in less than a year after transferring from Fergus Falls to a tank unit in the Roundup City.
But first I needed to find gainful employment to grubstake my return west.
I had attended Moorhead State College and knew my way around Fargo-Moorhead — the Twin Towns in deference to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul – and that’s where I started looking.
The potato harvest was in full swing and I took a nightshift truck-driving job hauling spuds north of Moorhead.
Although it only lasted a few days, I was lucky enough to find a second job delivering meat products for a company in Fargo that sold to restaurants and college campus cafeterias.
And that’s where the Cardinals and Red Sox entered the picture.
As I buzzed around town making deliveries, crisscrossing the Red River that is the state line that separates Minnesota and North Dakota, I had the radio in the company van tuned to the World Series.
I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to follow baseball during the summer of 1967.
And it was cathartic listening to Harry Carey and Pee Wee Reese call the games.
What surprised me was finding Roger Maris batting third in the Cardinals’ lineup.
Maris, of course, had set baseball on its ear when he broke Babe Ruth’s record by blasting 61 home runs in 1961, and I had always thought of him as a New York Yankee.
But despite breaking Ruth’s record (or maybe it was because he did), and despite winning back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player Awards in 1960-61 and helping New York win World Series championships in 1961 and ’62, the Yanks had traded Maris to the Cards during the previous offseason for somebody named Charley Smith.
If the Yankees thought Maris was all used up by the end of the 1966 season, a year in which he hit just .233 with 13 homers in 119 games, they thought wrong.
Maris played in 125 games for the Cards in 1967.
Although he slugged just nine home runs, he batted .261, drove in 55 runs, scored 64 and was, as always, stellar in right field for the eventual world champs.
He was even better in the seven-game World Series, hitting .385 and driving in 10 runs.
He homered once in the Series and might well have been the MVP had it not been for Bob Gibson, the Cardinals ace right-hander who pitched three complete-game victories and notched a 1.00 earned run average while striking out 26 Red Sox in 27 innings.
For the record, Maris came back in 1968, batted .255 in 100 games and helped St. Louis to a second straight National League pennant.
The Cards lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and Maris retired after 12 big league seasons.
Despite his monster year in 1961, in which he also drove in 141 runs and scored 132, Maris was always more of an all-around ballplayer than he was a slugger. He never hit more than 39 home runs in any other season and finished his career with 275.
But he batted a solid .260 for his career – his .283 average in 1960 was his high-water mark – and drove in 850 runs and scored 826. He was a seven-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion, two-time MVP and a Gold Glove winner in 1960.
Maris was still waiting for the Hall of Fame to call when he died of cancer in 1985 at the age of 51. His fans are still waiting to this day.
What made that World Series most memorable to me was that I was right there in Roger Maris’ hometown as it happened. Maris grew up in Fargo and was a star athlete at Shanley High School.
He’s interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo.
And to this day he is one of that city’s most beloved figures.
Maris was signed by the Cleveland as a free agent amateur in 1953 and made it to the big leagues with the Indians in 1957.
He was traded to the Kansas City Athletics midway through the 1958 season and traded again, this time to the Yankees, after the 1959 campaign.
Most baseball fans in those days either loved or hated the Yankees, and I fell into the latter group.
But in late August of 1961 I had the chance to watch Maris and the Yankees play the Twins in a three-game series at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.
Maris managed just one single and an RBI in the series, but I did get to see Mickey Mantle go deep.
Mantle hit 54 homers in 1961 as both he and Maris chased Ruth’s record.
And Mantle was always the favored son in New York during his 18-year career in a Yankees uniform.
But as the years went by, I learned to appreciate Maris more and more.
Especially considering all that he went through as he broke a record that most in baseball didn’t want to see him break.
Maris was hated by some Yankee fans, and he was maligned by members of the New York press.
All for the audacity of outslugging Mantle and surpassing a record that had been held since 1927 by Ruth, the greatest Yankee of them all.
I guess that’s why I liked Roger a whole lot more during his two seasons in St. Louis than I ever did as a Yankee.