Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Roger Maris (#9)

It wasn't supposed to be Roger Maris. He didn't come up through the Yankees system, as he was acquired in the trade that sent Don Larsen to the Kansas City A's in 1959. He didn't get along with the New York media, and was considered surly.

Even though Maris won the AL MVP in his first year with the Yankees, they were still considered Mickey Mantle's team in 1961. Maris was an outsider and not considered a True Yankee(TM). In a perfect world, Mantle would have been the one to break Babe Ruth's single season home run record. Fate did not agree and Mantle suffered a leg infection late in the season that hindered him from topping the mark. He ended up with 54HR.

Before the 1961 season, the AL expanded from eight to ten teams, adding the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators by way of an expansion draft. Both teams selected Yankees with their first picks; the Angels took Eli Grba and the Senators claimed Bobby Shantz. The Yanks also lost Duke Maas, Dale Long, Bob Cerv, Ken Hunt, Bud Zipfel. The expansion draft weakened the overall talent pool in the league fairly significantly, but despite the pillaging, the Yankees were among the teams least affected.

That same season, the schedule was lengthened from 154 to 162 games. Commissioner Ford C. Frick, initially announced that in order to break Babe Ruth's record, it would have to be done in 154 games. He said:

Any player who hit more than sixty home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than sixty until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154 game schedule and the total of more than sixty was compiled while a 162 game schedule was in effect.
This was met with strong media backlash. The Sporting News placed it at #15 of the most shameful acts in baseball history and columnist Leonard Koppett called the decision "a remarkably foolish thing". The negative reaction was certainly magnified by the fact that this was occurring in the first year of the extended schedule and the first year after the expansion.

The prevailing wisdom at the time said the decision was prompted by Frick's loyalty to Ruth which could be traced back to Frick's days as a newspaper man. Frick had ghostwritten for Ruth in the past, allowing Ruth to "cover" every world series from 1921-1936 and wrote glowing columns about him in the New York Evening Journal.

[Ed. Note: I leaned pretty heavily on an artcile by John Carvalho called "Haunted by the Babe: Frick's Columns About Ruth". The above links don't do it justice, so you can access the PDF here.]

Personally, I can't understand why this was such a big deal. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 154 games. The tag of "single season" is arbitrary. It should have to be broken in the same amount of games. I guess people at the time felt like by keeping two separate sets of records, baseball was divorcing itself from it's storied past.

The alternative they chose, however, diluted the Babe's most prized record, and allowed for it to be broken during a longer season against weaker competition.

Aside from his boorish persona, Maris just wasn't a truly great player (see to the right). He had an extremely sharp career peak, winning back to back AL MVPs with the Yankees, but only made two All-Star games outside of those two seasons. Legendary second baseman Rogers Hornsby said at the time, "It would be a disappointment if Ruth's home run record were bested by a .270 hitter."

Maris had 59 HR after 154 games and hit his 61st on the last day of the season in the home half of the fourth inning against the Red Sox.

Due in no small way to the controversey surrounding his quest for 61, Maris was heckled and even had objects thrown at hit on the field. He said he received hate mail, death threats and claimed his hair fell out "in clumps" as the season progressed.

Despite breaking one of the most hallowed sports records of all time, Maris remained sour about the experience. During an interview at the 1980 All-Star game, he said:

They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.

Maris was a victim of our casting. Despite the fact that sports are unscripted, we still expect the right characters to come out on top. Mickey Mantle was the former farmhand, Yankee legend, the Hall of Famer, the rags to riches story from Oklahoma. He partied with the rat pack, Joe D. and Marylin Monroe, and had the key to the city. Maris was the ostracized Kansas City transplant, but primarily on the strength on his 1961 season, Maris has his spot in Monument Park as well.

[Ed Note: 61* is a pretty good movie despite having Billy Crystal's annoying fingerprints all over it.]


  1. Ruth is still the record holder.

  2. Agreed. Not Maris, McGwire, Sosa, or Bonds. They've all got their own asterisks.

  3. Maris is the most under-rated player to ever play.. he was better than ruth ever was and took way more shit but never got the respect he deserved. Roger Maris is the man.