Roger Maris played Major League Ball (MLB) for 12 seasons, from 1957 to 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 Pro Athlete of the Year and was named Sport magazine’s Man of the Year, Sporting News Player of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsperson 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 achievement, which was hotly debated at the time, came back to the forefront in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke his record. In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Roger Maris.
During the 1961 baseball season, I was 17 years old and 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. By 1956, Mickey had hit 52 home runs for the Yankees and there were many, including me, who saw him as the man who would break Babe Ruth’s season record of 60. Mantle was the favourite; Maris, who had come to the Yankees in a trade with Kansas City, was the odd one out.
Maris’s first year in pinstripes, in 1960, earned him the first of two consecutive MVP awards. The 6-foot, 197-pound outfielder hit 39 home runs (one behind Mantle’s league-leading 40), led the American League with 112 RBIs and a .581 slugging percentage, hit a career-high .283. his career, and won his only Gold Glove. While the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to the Pirates, Maris hit two home runs. However, his 1960 performance was quickly overshadowed by the circus atmosphere that surrounded his 1961 campaign. In 1961, Maris did not hit any home runs 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 reach 50 in late August.
The media continually ran stories comparing Mantle and Maris, Maris and Ruth, Ruth and Mantle. I remember newspapers and sports magazines trying to create an adversarial relationship between Roger and Mickey. However, the stories were not true. Mantle dismissed these attempts to split the two. Mickey was quoted as 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 they both retired after the ’68 season. Mickey was instrumental in convince Roger to come back. to Yankee Stadium to be honored by the club in the early ’80s. And Mickey went to North Dakota for Roger’s funeral in 1985.
On August 26, in her 128th game, Maris scored number 51. She was now eight games ahead of Ruth’s pace and the anticipation of what might happen grew by the day.
Around the same time, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that an asterisk would be placed next to Maris’s name in the record books if he broke the Babe’s record after the 154th game of the season.
After 134 games, Maris stood at 51 home runs and Mantle at 48. Meanwhile, in 1927, Babe Ruth hit his 48th and 49th home runs in his 134th game. Ruth was on fire, hitting five home runs in his last three games and nine in his last 11. However, Roger was still five games ahead of the record pace of Ruth, whose 51st home run didn’t come until her 139th game.
Unfortunately for Maris, he was not the people’s choice to break the 34-year-old record. Most Yankees fans rooted for his homegrown teammate, Mickey Mantle. But an infection forced Mick out of the race in September and he finished with 54 home runs. I admitted that I wanted Mickey to break the record, but after he was out of the race, he was running 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 to “officially” break Ruth’s record. These were games 152, 153 and 154. Achievements after that date, Frick’s ruling said, would be marked with an asterisk.
Maris was shut out during a two-night doubleheader (games 152 and 153). On September 20, in a night game, the 154th game of the season, the Yankees capture the American League pennant with a 4-2 victory over the Orioles in Baltimore. Roger Maris dives deep in the third inning off Milt Pappas, a nearly 400-foot blast into the stands in right field that gives him 59 round trips for the season, passing Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, but two short of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run. Registration. Maris had three more chances that night to tie Babe Ruth’s record. But he struck out, ran away and rolled.
Reporters from around the country had gathered at Yankee Stadium. There were almost as many reporters as fans. Only 21,032 attended the match. As an insult to Roger and what he was about to accomplish, the Yankees never promoted the game the way they should have.
Number 60 came at Yankee Stadium against 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 a season.
It all came down to the last three games of the 1961 season. It was the Yankees against the Red Sox. It was Maris versus Ruth. Boston pitchers blanked Maris in the first two games. It is now October 1, 1961, the last game of the season. Roger Maris, who had to be exhausted both physically and emotionally, took on 24-year-old Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard. Stallard took out Maris in his first at-bat. The 23,154 cheering fans at Yankee Stadium were silent. In the fourth inning, Maris hit again.
“They’re standing around, waiting to see if Maris makes it to Number Sixty-One.” Phil Rizzuto’s voice conveys the moment. “We only have a handful of people sitting in left field,” Rizzuto continued, “but in right field, man, it’s hoarded. And they’re standing. Here’s the end, the pitch to Roger. Way out, ball one. … And the fans start booing. Go down, ball two. That one was on the ground. And the boos get louder… Two balls, no strike on Roger Maris. Here’s the rope. Fastball, hit deep! to the right! This could be it! Way back! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris!
The ball traveled only 360 feet and crashed into section 33 box l63D in the bottom deck sixth row in right field. And a melee broke out as fans fought and fought for the ball and the $5,000 reward. When trucker Sal Durante tried to give Maris the ball he had caught in the stands, the star refused, insisting that Durante should get the reward. He would later say that Durante’s generosity meant more to him than media pressures and catcalls from pro-Ruth and pro-Mantle fanatics.
Roger Maris brought up the historic home run. A kid grabbed his hand as he walked past first: Maris shook his hand and then did the same with third base coach Frank Crosetti as he walked past third base and headed home. His Yankees teammates formed a human wall in front of the dugout, refusing to let him in. He four times he tried in vain. Finally, Maris waved his cap at the crowd of 23,154 fans who cheered and gave him a standing ovation. His teammates finally let him on the bench.
“He threw me a pitch outside and I accepted 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 break,” said Phil Rizzuto. “But it was another Yankee that did it. When he hit home run 61, I screamed so loud I had a headache for about a week.” Yankee fans and baseball fans should be screaming loud now, maybe the guys at the Veterans Committee will hear it.
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 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; he called her to Cooperstown.
During his career, Roger Maris never received the credit he deserved. Apparently no one wanted him to break Babe Ruth’s record. The commissioner, Ford Frick, refused to attend any of the matches in the historic pursuit of him, even deciding to place the ridiculous asterisk in the record book. Even the Yankees fans didn’t embrace him; instead, they saw him as a threat to his hero, Mickey Mantle, as well as Ruth’s legacy. Rather than being his crowning achievement, the run to age 61 was a miserable experience filled with stress and ridicule.
Now, nearly 26 years after his death, it’s time to make amends and put Roger Maris where he belongs: in the Hall of Fame.
The Veterans Committee elected former Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski to the Hall. Mazeroski, like Maris, was a .260 hitter for his career, but he hit just 138 home runs in 17 seasons and never finished higher than eighth in MVP voting. “Maz” was inducted primarily because of his eight Gold Gloves and World Series home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
There have been other Veterans Committee selectees who compare favorably with Maris. Players like Hack Wilson, Cardinal Red Schoendienst, Yankees 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 outweighs all of them combined. If Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer on the first ballot, Maris deserves a nod from the Veterans Committee.