It started innocently enough and wasn't even reported in the newspapers. In the second game of a twin bill against the Minnesota Twins, on Sunday, June 20, 1965, Roger Maris, sliding into home plate, jammed his right hand against the home plate umpire's shin guard.
Roger was in the Yankees' lineup the next few games, but in the nightcap of a double header against the Kansas City Athletics, he was forced to leave. Maris did not return until August 18 as a pinch-hitter after missing 49 games.
Roger Maris started only 40 games in 1965. During the third week of the season, he pulled a hamstring and missed 26 games. Then came the wrist injury sliding into home plate on June 20.
He didn't start another game after June 28.
Rest didn't help the hand injury, which resulted in Maris having surgery. The doctors discovered that a bone chip was the problem.
In 1960, Maris' first year with the Yankees, he slid hard into second base in a game near the end of the season, bruising his ribs. It cost him 15 games. The next two seasons, 1961 and 1962, were Roger's only healthy ones as a Yankee.
In 1963, he missed almost the entire second half of the season with back problems, playing in only 90 games. He missed 20 games in 1964 with leg injuries.
In 1966, Roger complained that his hand was sore as he struggled at the plate, batting only .233 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs. The Yankees questioned Roger for complaining.
In Dec.1966 the Yankees traded the player who still holds the American League single season home run record to the St. Louis Cardinals for a nondescript third baseman with the equally nondescript name of Charlie Smith. It was an insult to Roger, who left New York a very angry individual.
After the trade to the Cardinals, it was discovered that Roger had played most of 1966 with a broken hand that the members of the medical community responsible for his well being had not properly diagnosed.
Roger Maris was a solid, but not a great player. He could run, throw, field and hit, but for one season, he was a great player. Talking about 1961, he said,
"Everything clicked for me. My swing was in a perfect groove. If I had hit under the ball a fraction of an inch more, a lot of those homers would have been pop ups. If I'd hit a fraction of an inch higher, a lot would have been grounders or gone into fielders gloves. Instead, I was hitting the ball perfectly."
Roger's good friend Mickey Mantle is synonymous with injuries and what might have been. Roger Maris and 61 home runs have also become synonymous, but fans and the media rarely remember how often Roger was injured.
Mention 1963 and Mickey Mantle to baseball fans. The response is usually, "Oh, yes, Mickey caught his foot in the outfield fence in Baltimore and missed most of the season."
But bring up 1963 and Roger Maris and invariably, the response is that Roger had a bad season, which he did. He hit the same .269 in 1963 that he hit in 1961, but with only 23 home runs. Why? Because he played in only 90 games due to injuries.
Maris did not have a Hall of Fame career, but he is one of the most underrated of all the great all-around outfielders who ever played for the Yankees.
He was an outstanding fielder, probably better defensively than Mantle. Maris got an excellent jump on the ball, which Mantle rarely did. Maris was fast, had a great arm and would not hesitate to go into the stands after a fly ball. We will never know what he might have achieved if he were healthy and never played in New York.
Daley, Arthur. "Sports of the Times: Man With an Asterisk." New York Times. 12 December 1966. p.73.
Durso, Joseph. "Angels' 4 in 8th Down Yanks, 7-3; Maris Pinch-Hits in Return." New York Times. 19 August 1965. p.25.
Koppett, Leonard. "Maris, Starter in Only 40 Games Last Year, Retains $75,000 Yankee Salary." New York Times. 7 January 1966. p.22.