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, seven-time All Star (1959-1962 2 all-star games a year), and a Gold Glove outfielder.
Maris won the Hickok Belt for Best Professional Athlete of the Year and was voted Man of the Year by Sport magazine, Sporting News Player of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year. Roger’s No. 9 uniform 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 one-season record of 60 home runs (set in 1927), a record that stood for 37 years. His achievement, which was much debated in its own time, returned 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 was 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 broke 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, earned her 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 and won his sole Golden 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 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 By the end of July, Maris had hit 40 home runs. The excitement was building because Roger was six ahead of Ruth’s overall record. He became the first player in history to reach 50 at the end of August.
The media continually published stories comparing Mantle and Maris, Maris and Ruth, Ruth and Mantle. I remember the newspapers and sports magazines trying to create an adversarial relationship between Roger and Mickey. However, the stories were not true. Mantle refuted these attempts to divide 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 convincing him. Roger to return to Yankee Stadium to be honored by the club in the early 1980s. And Mickey went to North Dakota for Roger’s funeral in 1985.
On August 26, in her 128th game, Maris reached number 51. She was now eight games ahead of Ruth’s pace and the anticipation of what could 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 she broke Babe’s record after game 154 of the season.
After 134 games, Maris stayed at 51 home runs and Mantle at 48. Meanwhile, in 1927, Babe Ruth hit his 48 and 49 home runs in his 134 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 of Ruth, whose 51st HR didn’t come until her 139th game.
Unfortunately for Maris, he wasn’t the people’s choice to break the 34-year-old record. Most Yankees fans supported his teammate, Mickey Mantle. But an infection forced Mick out of the race in September and he finished with 54 home runs. I admit I wanted Mickey to break the record, but after he was out of the race, I turned to Roger. At least he was a Yankee.
Maris had 58 home runs on Sept. 18 when the Yankees arrived in Baltimore for a four-game series. Maris had three games in which to “officially” beat Ruth’s record. It was games 152, 153 and 154. Achievements after that date, Frick’s ruling said, would be designated with an asterisk.
Maris was eliminated during a two-night doubleheader (games 152 and 153). On September 20, a night game, the 154th game of the season, the Yankees claim the American League pennant with a 4-2 win over the Orioles in Baltimore. Roger Maris goes deep in the third inning off Milt Pappas, a nearly 400-foot blast into the stands in right field that gives him 59 roundtrip crew for the season, passing Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, but two of breaking Babe Ruth’s one-season home run record. Maris had three more chances that night to tie Babe Ruth’s record. But he struck out, flipped, and missed.
Reporters from around the country had gathered at Yankee Stadium. There were almost as many reporters as there were fans. Only 21,032 attended the game. As an insult to Roger and what he was about to accomplish, the Yankees never promoted the game the way they should.
Number 60 arrived at Yankee Stadium against Baltimore’s Bill Fisher on September 26. Only 19,401 attended the game to see the second man in baseball history to hit 60 home runs in one season.
It came down to the last three games of the 1961 season. It was the Yankees against the Red Sox. It was Maris against Ruth. Boston pitchers shut out Maris in the first two games. It is now 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 fell silent. In the fourth inning, Maris hit again.
“They’re on their feet, waiting to see if Maris makes it to number sixty-one.” Phil Rizzuto’s voice carried the moment. “We only have a handful of people sitting in left field,” Rizzuto continued, “but in right field, man, it’s stuck out there. And they’re standing. Here’s the rope, the pitch for Roger. I walk.” Out, ball one … And the fans are starting to boo. Low, ball two. That was on the ground. And the boos get louder … Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris. Here is the rope. Fastball, hit deep to the right! This could be! Back there! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris!
The ball traveled only 360 feet and crashed into section 33’s l63D box on the sixth row of the bottom deck in right field. And a riot broke out as fans fought and battled for the ball and the $ 5,000 bounty. When trucker Sal Durante sought to give Maris the ball he had caught in the stands, the star declined, insisting that During should receive the reward. He would later say that Durante’s generosity meant more to him than media pressure and boos from pro-Ruth and pro-Mantle fans.
Roger Maris trotted the historic home run. A boy grabbed his hand when he passed first: Maris shook his hand and then did the same with third base coach Frank Crosetti as he passed third base and headed home. His fellow Yankees formed a human wall in front of the dugout, refusing to let him in. Four times he tried to no avail. Finally, Maris waved his cap to the crowd of 23,154 fans who cheered and applauded him standing up. His teammates finally let him into the dugout.
“He threw a pitch at me outside and I followed him,” Maris would later say. “If I never hit another home run, this is the one they can never take from me.”
“I hated seeing the record broken,” Phil Rizzuto said. “But it was another Yankee who did it. When he hit the 61st homer, I screamed so loud I had a headache for a week.” Yankees fans and baseball fans should be screaming loud now; Maybe the guys from the Veterans Committee will listen.
Roger Maris remains one of the most famous names in baseball; held the record for most revered games for 37 years and won back-to-back MVPs. Maris was a family man who played directly 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 should probably have given him what he needed; the call 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 games during his historic chase, and even decided to put the ridiculous asterisk in the record book. Even Yankees fans didn’t hug him; instead, they saw him as a threat to their hero, Mickey Mantle, as well as Ruth’s legacy. Rather than being his greatest achievement, the race to ’61 was a miserable, stressful, and ridiculous experience.
Now, almost 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 in the Hall. Mazeroski, like Maris, was a 260 career hitter, but he hit just 138 home runs in 17 seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. “Maz” was admitted primarily because of his eight Golden Gloves and the World Series hitting a home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
There have been others selected from the Veterans Committee who compare favorably to 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’s contribution to baseball far exceeds all of his combined. If Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer for the first time, Maris deserves the nod from the Veterans Committee.