Do you remember when you were 13 years old and revered your favorite ballplayer?
Andy Strasberg does. Andy’s story, once you hear it, you will never forget.
It was the summer of ’61 and all of Andy’s friends loved Mickey Mantle. Who didn’t? Count me in with the Mantle crowd. I was eight years old that summer and The Mick was the top of the heap for me and millions of other kids.
Andy went in another Yankees direction. Let him explain.
“Everybody else was following Mantle and I wanted my own guy,” Strasberg told BallNine. “As you know, Rog won the MVP in 1960. Then Sport Magazine wrote this great article Roger Maris Rejuvenates the Yankees. I read that and I was embarrassed to tell you I had no idea what the word rejuvenates meant at that age, so I was even more intrigued.
“There was one day, a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium and Rog hit four home runs, two in each game and that was it. I just said, ‘This is my guy.’”
In 1961 Maris blasted 61 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 set in 1927. Maris was again named the AL MVP and also named the Major League Player of the Year.
“I turned 13 on July 17, 1961, which was also a significant date that year because that was the day Ford Frick came out and said Maris had to do it in 154 games and that was also the day Ty Cobb died,” said Strasberg, who went to only three games that season because his parents insisted he have an adult chaperone.
“In my non-objective thinking, he is the single season home run king,” Strasberg said. “But he is still the American League home run king and I think as time goes on I am convinced that his accomplishment gets more and more appreciated with each passing season.”
The next summer, 1962, Strasberg, whose family moved out of the Bronx when he was in third grade to live in White Plains, N.Y., went to Yankee Stadium 40 times because he could go on his own or with friends.
Each time he would wait by the players’ parking lot to see his idol.
“I got to Yankee Stadium at 9 to 10 am so I could meet Maris and get autographs,” Strasberg said. “He’d get out of his car, walk across 157th Street and I would hand him a note. I’d always sign the note: ‘Your No. 1 fan,’ It got to the point where he’d get out of his car and all the kids would run over and he’d reach over the kids looking for my note. The notes always had to do with the previous game or the upcoming game and the notes were obviously supportive.
“As soon as the gates went up at 11 I would run out and see if I could catch some batting practice baseballs in right field. I got to know the right field cop, his name was Larry and Larry said to me, don’t keep buying the $3.50 ticket, just buy the general admission ticket and come over here.”
In right field during batting practice, Strasberg would talk to Maris.
A few years later Andy hit the jackpot. Maris had promised him a bat, the next time Maris broke a bat. That happened on a trip to Anaheim and Strasberg got the bat from Maris when the Yankees returned home. “This was the greatest day of my youth,” Strasberg said.
He named the bat Woody, and still has it to this day.
Here is where the story goes to another level. Andy still has to pinch himself to believe it’s all true.
It was time to go off to college so Andy headed to University of Akron in Ohio. His roommate had a Raquel Welch poster over his bed from 1 Million Years B.C.
“I don’t know what was going on in his head,” joked Andy, who had a poster of Roger Maris over his bed. “That was the winter Rog was traded from the Yankees to the Cardinals and the 1967 season starts and I was devastated. One of my buddies noticed the Cardinals were playing the Pirates in Pittsburgh and said why don’t we go to a game and you can introduce us to Maris. I said, ‘Sure.’
“I got my four buddies behind me and we go to the visiting dugout area and I see Rog warming up and I call out his name and he turns around and says, ‘Andy Strasberg, what the hell are you doing here in Pittsburgh.’”
The superstitious type, Andy purchased a special seat. “It’s the number 9 because it is Maris’ number. He plays right field, the No. 9 position keeping score. I sat in Row 9, Seat 9 and it was May 9th. In the sixth inning, Roger hit his first National League home run. I caught the ball. It is unbelievable. But fortunately for me I had four guys from college with me. I caught it on the fly and just froze with tears of joy streaming down my face.”
When Maris came out the next inning to right field he told Strasberg, “I can’t believe you caught it.” Strasberg said, “You can’t, I can’t.”
With all those nines, it’s only fitting Strasberg told this story to BallNine.
The home run came off Woodie Fryman and there were only 4,951 fans at Forbes Field that day. He named the ball Homer, and still has it to this day.
Andy graduated college, followed his baseball dream and the New York kid wound up in San Diego in 1975, playing the marketing game for the Padres. He excelled at his job, noting he learned from the best out there with the Padres.
Andy worked 22 years for the Padres and was the Vice President of Marketing. He had not seen Maris face to face since 1968 but kept in touch through letters and phone calls. In 1978 at the Winter Meetings in Florida Strasburg was sitting in a room when he got a tap on the shoulder and was told “There is a guy in the hallway who wants to see you and he has a crew cut.”
It was Roger. Andy wanted his wife to meet him so Maris said he would be sitting at a table with Whitey Herzog, Moe Drabowsky and Dick Young. Andy finds his wife who was at the pool. She needs to go up to the room and change so Andy goes back to Maris and the table.
“I stand behind Roger so he doesn’t know I’m there and he’s telling these guys who was his most loyal fan when he played for the Yankees and how they became friends and now this kid is working for the Padres and how proud he is of this kid. I’m thinking to myself, not only did I get to meet my childhood hero, not only we became friends, but he is proud of me… That night we all went out to dinner.”
In 1980, the night before the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, Maris and his wife is again out to dinner with Strasberg and his wife and Padres executive Jim Weigle and his wife. “With no prompting from me,” Roger tells the story of his first National League home run and me catching it and after dinner Jim Weigle came up to me and said, “Up to that point, I didn’t believe you.’ “
In San Diego Andy came up with some creative marketing ideas because he used his own experiences as a fan to make it a better experience and management allowed him to attempt different promotions. No. 1 was postgame concerts. He came up with that and it was a terrific promotion.
Strasberg budgeted $75,000 to get The Beach Boys to play after a Padres game.
“I called their manager and he laughed at me and said ‘You want The Beach Boys to play after a Padres game. You don’t have enough money.’ I said how much and he said, $50,000 and so it worked and it became a tradition,” Strasberg said. “We’d have The Beach Boys play on Mother’s Day and we had other groups like the Monkees. That was the No. 1 marketing idea that worked.”
Good Vibrations all around.
Then there was the Chicken, Ted Giannoulas.
Andy hatched a wonderful idea to re-hatch the Chicken with the Grand Hatch in 1979. The Chicken got fired by radio station KGB and came out with his own design of his costume and we did the grand hatching,” Strasberg said.
“I got the armored truck to bring it in and CHP,” Strasberg said of the grand entrance. “The players carried him off the truck. We had practiced everything except him hatching. We had sealed him in this styrofoam egg and the egg was about 10 feet tall and it’s thickness was about a foot. So once we sealed Ted in there and then the egg was put at third base and I was screaming ‘come out Ted’ and they were playing 2001: A Space Odyssey and I’m thinking he’s going to suffocate. It was the one thing we couldn’t rehearse. I was petrified he was going to suffocate. But he kicked loose and came out in front of 47,000 fans.”
There were other promotions like the time they gave away a baseball glove to any fan that caught a foul ball.
On December 4, 1985 Maris died at the age of 51. Andy jumped on a plane and flew to Fargo, N.D. for the funeral.
“It was 78 degrees when I left San Diego,” Strasberg said. “I land in Fargo, it was 10 degrees. I went to the funeral service and waited. I wanted to be the very last person to pay their condolences to Pat Maris. So I waited off to the side and when the last person left I went up to Pat. She hugged me and thanked me for coming and then she said to me, ‘Have you ever met the kids?’ And I hadn’t. There are six children all adults at this time, four sons, two daughters.
“Pat says to the kids, ‘I want to introduce you to Andy Strasberg.’ And Roger Maris Jr. says ‘I know you. You’re dad’s No. 1 fan.’ I said, ‘You’ll never know how much your dad meant to me growing up.
“Roger Maris Jr. didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘You’ll never know how much you meant to my dad.’”
Strasberg became friends with the family and kept in touch and attended the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament every year that benefits the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center. Strasberg became close with Randy Maris. “‘Randy was born in 1961 in-between home runs 49 and 50,” Strasberg said.
Randy Maris and his wife Fran called Andy on August 3, 1990 from Florida. “They had called me from a hospital to tell me Fran had just given birth to a baby boy and they were going to name him Andrew and wanted to know if I would be his godfather,” Andy said, recalling the emotional day. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that my childhood hero’s grandson would be my godson and my namesake.
In 2003 Andy took his godson to his first game at Yankee Stadium, and I was there. Andrew got to see his grandfather’s plaque in Monument Park embossed with the words Against All Odds.
At the time, Randy told me of his son, “This is like a circle. Andrew never got to meet my father, but after today it was like he was there with us. I feel Andrew knows him that much better. Dad would be so proud.”
Did I mention Andrew was 13?
The same age Andy Strasberg was when he began the journey of becoming Roger Maris’ greatest fan.
Andy on the set of ‘61 with Barry Pepper and Billy Crystal
Strasberg remains close to the family and about 10 years ago, he attended umpire Phil Cuzzi’s charity dinner in New Jersey to talk about Roger. Andy brought along two guests. Sal Durante, who caught Maris’ famous ’61 home run ball, and Andrew Maris, Roger’s grandson, Andy’s godson.
“I never heard applause like that,” Strasberg said after he introduced Andrew.
Strasberg started his own sports marketing company after leaving the Padres and would help clients like the Wizard of Oz, Ozzie Smith, who don’t forget, started his Hall of Fame career in San Diego. He also represented ex-Yankee Jerry Coleman, who is still adored in San Diego for his long Padres broadcasting career, six years after his death.
Strasberg even appeared in the movie ’61 as the fan who jumped out of the stands and shook Maris’ hand on the field after home run No. 61. Strasberg was a consultant for the film.
There is no level of Maris fandom that has not been reached by Strasberg.
Andy has a deal with a publisher for a book that will be released next year, the 60th anniversary of Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs and beating Babe Ruth’s record.
“The name of the book is My 1961,” Strasberg said.
The book will tell a story about being 13 years old and growing up in 1961 and it is going to be more than baseball,” Strasburg explained.
“It’s 90 percent baseball, but it’s 10 percent television shows, Cousin Brucie, Murray the K, rock & roll, girls, all the things that were important to me,” Strasberg said. “The publisher, August Publications out of Wisconsin understood, saying there have been a lot of books about Maris and 1961 but there has never been a book about a fan and 1961. So the book is written in my voice when I was 13. It’s not a 72-year-old guy reflecting back.”
Thirteen can be a most special age.