Monday, February 8, 2010

9 Days Until Spring Training: Roger Maris

In a perfect world, Mantle would have been the one to break Babe Ruth's single season home run record. Instead it was an aloof North Dakota native named Roger Maris who didn't come up with the Yankees, wasn't comfortable in New York, didn't get along with the media, and was never fully embraced by the fans.

Maris was signed by the Indians in 1953 for $5,000 and chose the path of professional baseball over a standing offer for a scholarship to Oklahoma State. In his first full season as a minor leaguer, Maris was assigned to the B-level Keokuk Kernels of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa league. It was there that manager Jo Jo White taught him how to pull the ball and transformed from a solid hitter for average to a bona fide home run threat. That year, Maris hit 32 round trippers in 134 games and made his first significant strides towards becoming a Big Leaguer.

He made his debut on Opening Day 1957 for the Indians and hit the ground running with a 3 for 5 effort against the White Sox. The following day, he hit his first Major League home run, a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the 11th inning.

Maris was the starting center fielder for Indians in '57 but played all three OF positions, appearing in 116 games in total. He left his high batting averages in the minor leagues, hitting only .235 but his 14 home runs helped him to be a better than league average hitter (105 OPS+).

During the 1958 season, Maris was dealt to the A's for, among others, the immortal Woodie Held. Maris doubled his home run output from the previous year to 28 but hit only 19 doubles, saw his on base percentage dip below .300 and his OPS+ drop to 97. In 1959 he was transitioned to right field and began to put it all together at the plate, hitting .273/.359/.464 (123 OPS+) and was rewarded with a selection to the All-Star team.

The Yankees were tantalized by Maris' left handed power and were looking to give their team a boost after a third place finish in '59. They sent World Series hero Don Larsen, their two starting corner outfielders from the previous season, Hank Bauer and Norm Siebern along with 25 year old first baseman Marv Thornberry to Kansas City in exchange for Maris, Joe DeMaestri and Ken Hadley.

As he did in his first game in Cleveland, Maris made a great first impression as a Yankee, smacking two homers and a double in his debut against the Red Sox. He went on to win the AL MVP that season, nudging out Mickey Mantle by a scant 3 points in the voting. They had similar years at the plate but Maris, batting behind Mantle, drove in 18 more runs in 66 fewer plate appearances.

While the writers were willing to recognize Maris' accomplishments, many fans refused to embrace him as a True Yankee®. The Bombers were still very much Mickey Mantle's team and Maris' icy relationship with the New York media only served to further extend that perception.

While some still hold Maris' single season record up as the all-time mark, 1961 was far from a normal year in baseball and comes with it's own share of caveats.

Before 'the 61 season began, 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 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 Ruth during his time with the New York Evening Journal.

Regardless of his perceived bias, Frick was making a logical choice. The tag of single season is rather arbitrary and it was clearly easier to reach 60 home runs given 8 extra games to say nothing of the substantially thinner pitching that resulted from expansion. Frick was stuck with two difficult choices: keep two separate rule books for each season length or give all players who came after 1961 an unfair advantage in breaking counting stat records. It was popular at the time, but his choice of the latter allowed one of the most hallowed records in sports to fall under dubious circumstances.

Maris' pursuit of the record wasn't especially popular with some living legends of the game either. 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."

Partially because of the controversy surrounding his quest for 61, Maris was heckled and even had objects thrown at him on the field. He received hate mail, death threats and claimed his hair fell out "in clumps" as the season progressed. He 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.

Maris spent five more seasons with the Yankees but his peak had decidedly past. While he was an above average hitter each of those five years, Maris never hit more than 33 home runs in a season and missed large chunks of 1963 and 1965 with injuries. He was ultimately traded after the 1966 season to the Cardinals in exchange for Charley Smith.

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.

He passed away 5 years later from Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of 51.

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. He was supposed to be the one to break Babe Ruth's record. Maris was the ostracized Kansas City transplant, who should have came up short. But that's not the way life works and while Maris' peak was far too short to earn him a spot in Cooperstown, he has a place in Monument Park.


  1. If you guys were around back then during the home run chase you would have been right there with all those other Yankee bandwagoners throwing stuff at him and giving him death threats. This blog is a disgrace.

  2. I'm not sure what has ever been posted here to cause you to jump to that conclusion. Nor am I sure that this post has any sort of subjective judgment about Maris' treatment rather than just recounting the story as baseball history remembers it.

    Either way, a new contender has emerged for dumbest comment of the year.

  3. Roger Maris was a clean and decent man, a good husband and a good father. He went to work every day and did his job. He never asked to be famous, never wanted attention and never sought the limelight. Compared to the ballplayers of today, Roger Maris would be an outstanding example of how to conduct yourself on and off the field. The fans and especially, the media, should be ashamed of themselves for treating him the way they did!!

  4. Roger Maris is still the standard by which I measure single season greatness. I was 9 years old, an Indians fan, but followed Roger Maris in the paper daily hoping ne would break Ruth's record. Of course I had no knowledge of the drama off the field, and I agree with Bill's coment above. I salute Roger Maris and cherish his part of baseball history.