Roger Maris played Major League Ball (MLB) for 12 seasons, from 1957-1968. He played for four different teams (Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals). He appeared in seven World Series, winning three of them. He was a two time (consecutive) American League MVP, a seven time All Star (1959-1962 2 All Star games a year), and a Gold Glove outfielder.
Maris won the Hickok Belt as the best professional athlete of the year and was voted Sport Magazine’s Man of the Year, The Sporting News Player of the Year, the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. Roger’s uniform number 9 was retired by the New York Yankees. During the 1961 season, Maris hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs (set in 1927), a record that stood for 37 years. His accomplishment which was debated greatly in its own time came back to the forefront in 1998 when his record was broken by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In 1999 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Roger Maris.
During the 1961 baseball season, I was a 17 year old enjoying my summer vacation before entering my senior year of high school. Mickey Mantle was my hero. It was a great time to be a baseball fan. In 1956, Mickey had hit 52 home runs for the Yankees and there were many, including me who saw him as the man to break Babe Ruth’s season record of 60. Mantle was the favorite; Maris who had come to the Yankees in a trade with Kansas City was the outsider.
Maris’ first year in pinstripes, in 1960, netted him the first of two consecutive MVP awards. The 6-foot, 197-pound outfielder belted 39 homers (one behind Mantle’s league-leading 40), led the AL with 112 RBI and a.581 slugging percentage, hit a career-high.283 and won his only Gold Glove. While the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to the Pirates, Maris hit two homers. His 1960 performance was quickly eclipsed, however, by the circus atmosphere surrounding his 1961 campaign. In 1961, Maris did not homer in his first ten games, but by the end of May he had hit 12. By the end of June he had hit 27 and by the end of July Maris had hit 40 home runs. The excitement was building because Roger was six ahead of Ruth’s record total. He became the first player in history to hit 50 by the end of August.
The media were continuously printing stories comparing Mantle and Maris, Maris and Ruth, Ruth and Mantle. I remember the newspapers and sports magazines were trying to create an adversary relationship between Roger and Mickey. However, the stories were not true. Mantle rebutted these attempts to divide the two. Mickey was quoted saying “Roger was one of my best friends. They shared an apartment with Bob Cerv. Mickey and Roger became friends and continued that friendship even after the both retired after the ’68 season. Mickey was instrumental in convincing Roger to come back to Yankee Stadium to be honored by the club in the early 80’s. And Mickey went to North Dakota for Roger’s funeral in 1985.
On August 26th in his 128th game Maris hit Number 51. He was now eight games ahead of the Ruth pace and the anticipation of what could happen was growing every day.
Around the same time, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that an asterisk would be placed next to Maris’ name in the record books if he broke the Babe’s record after the 154th game of the season.
After 134 games, Maris remained at 51 home runs and Mantle at 48. Meanwhile, in 1927, Babe Ruth hit his 48th and 49th homers in his 134th game. Ruth was on fire, hitting five HRs in his last three games and nine in his last 11. However, Roger was still five games ahead of the record pace by Ruth, whose 51st HR didn’t come until his 139th game.
Unfortunately for Maris he wasn’t the people’s choice to break the 34-year-old record. Most Yankees fans were rooting for his home-grown teammate, Mickey Mantle. But an infection forced the Mick out of the race in September, and he finished with 54 homers. I admit I wanted Mickey to break the record, but after he was out of the race I was routing for Roger. At least he was a Yankee.
Maris had 58 home runs on September 18 when the Yankees came to Baltimore for a four game series. Maris had three games in which to “officially” break Ruth’s record. They were games 152,153 and 154. Accomplishments after that date, the Frick ruling read, would be designated by an asterisk.
Maris was shut out during a twi-night doubleheader (games 152 and 153). On September 20, a night game, the 154th game of the season the Yankees clinch the American League pennant with a win over the Orioles in Baltimore 4-2. Roger Maris goes deep in the 3rd inning off Milt Pappas, a blast almost 400 feet into the bleachers in right field giving him 59 round trippers for the season, passing Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, but two short of breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Maris had three more chances that night to tie the Babe Ruth record. But he struck out, flied out and grounded out.
Reporters from all over the country had converged upon Yankee Stadium. There were almost as many reporters as fans. Only 21,032 attended the game. As an insult to Roger and what he was about to accomplish, the Yankees never hyped the game the way they should have.
Number 60 came at Yankee Stadium off Baltimore’s Bill Fisher on September 26. Only 19,401 attended the game to see only the second man in baseball history to hit 60 home runs in one season.
It came down to the final three games of the 1961 season. It was the Yankees versus the Red Sox. It was Maris versus Ruth. Boston pitchers shut out Maris in the first two games. Now it is October 1, 1961, the last game of the season. Roger Maris, who had to be drained both physically and emotionally faced 24-year-old Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard. Stallard got Maris out in his first at bat. The 23,154 roaring fans at Yankee Stadium were quieted. In the fourth inning, Maris came to bat again.
“They’re standing; waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit Number Sixty-one.” The voice of Phil Rizzuto broadcast the moment. “We’ve only got a handful of people sitting out in left field,” Rizzuto continued, ” but in right field, man, it’s hogged out there. And they’re standing up. Here’s the windup, the pitch to Roger. Way outside, ball one…And the fans are starting to boo. Low, ball two. That one was in the dirt. And the boos get louder…Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris. Here’s the windup. Fastball, hit deep to right! This could be it! Way back there! Holy Cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris!”
The ball traveled just 360 feet and slammed into box l63D of section 33 into the sixth row of the lower deck in right field. And a melee broke out as fans scuffled and scrambled, fighting for the ball and the $5,000 reward. When truck driver Sal Durante sought to give Maris the ball he had caught in the stands, the star declined, insisting that Durante should receive the bounty. He would say later that Durante’s generosity meant more to him than the media pressures and the catcalls from the pro-Ruth and pro-Mantle fans.
Roger Maris trotted out the historic home run. A kid grabbed his hand as he turned past first – Maris shook hands and then did the same thing with third base coach Frank Crosetti as he turned past third base and headed home. His Yankee teammates formed a human wall in front of the dugout, refusing to let him enter. Four times he tried to no avail. Finally, Maris waved his cap to the cheering crowd of 23,154 fans that gave him a standing ovation. His teammates finally let him into the dugout.
“He threw me a pitch outside and I just went with it,” Maris would say later. “If I never hit another home run – this is the one they can never take away from me.”
“I hated to see the record broken,” Phil Rizzuto said. “But it was another Yankee that did it. When he hit the 61st home run I screamed so loud I had a headache for about a week.” Yankee fans and baseball fans should be screaming loud now – perhaps the guys on the Veterans Committee will hear you.
Roger Maris remains one of the most celebrated names in baseball; he held the games most revered record for 37 years and won back-to-back MVPs. Maris was a family man who played it straight on and off the field and treated the game with respect. He held the home run crown for so many years and his contribution to baseball probably should have given him what he needed; the call to Cooperstown.
During his career Roger Maris never received the credit he deserved. Nobody, it seemed, wanted him to break Babe Ruth’s record. The commissioner, Ford Frick, refused to attend any of the games during his historic chase, and even decided to place the ridiculous asterisk in the record book. Even Yankee fans failed to embrace him; they instead saw him as a threat to their hero, Mickey Mantle, as well as to the legacy of Ruth. Instead of being his crowning achievement, the race to 61 was a miserable experience filled with stress and ridicule.
Now, nearly 26 years after his death, it is time to make amends and put Roger Maris where he belongs – in the Hall of Fame.
The Veteran’s Committee elected former Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski in to the Hall. Mazeroski, like Maris, was a.260 career hitter, but hit just 138 home runs in 17 seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. “Maz” was inducted mainly due to his eight Gold Gloves and World Series clinching home run in Game 7 of 1960 World Series.
There have been other Veteran’s Committee selectees that compare favorably to Maris. Players like Hack Wilson, Cardinal Red Schoendienst, Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, and Philly Richie Ashburn. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but in my opinion, Roger Maris’ contribution to baseball far exceeds all of theirs combined. If Kirby Puckett is a first ballot Hall of Famer, Maris deserves the nod from the Veteran’s Committee.