Put Roger Maris into the Baseball Hall of Fame!

Harvey FrommerGuest ColumnistOctober 23, 2011

Warming up at Fenway
Warming up at Fenway

"I never wanted all this hoopla."—Roger Maris

The saga of Roger Eugene Maras started September 10, 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota. He began life as the son of first generation Croatian Americans, Rudy and Corrine Maras. Roger's grandfather Steve Maras had emigrated around 1910 to the United States from Croatia.

In 1939, the family moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota and then Fargo. The young Maras excelled in baseball, basketball and football in high school. Recruited to play football at Oklahoma, the young athlete instead signed with the Cleveland Indians. He played with Fargo-Moorhead of the Northern League.

In 1955, of the opinion that a spelling change would make it easier for baseball fans to pronounce his name, Roger Maras became Roger Maris. Another reason for the name change was the sting of growing up and the times when wiseguy kids called him "Mar-Ass."

In 1957, Maris joined the Indians who traded him in June 1958 to the Kansas City Athletics. He moved again in December 1959 to the New York Yankees in a trade along with two other players for four Yankees including Hank Bauer and Don Larsen. 

The six-foot, 197-pound outfielder looked at  himself as the odd man out in Yankee pinstripes. Nevertheless, he would fit right in as a powerful southpaw pull hitter in the friendly environment of the right field stands at Yankee Stadium.

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The 25-year-old Maris made his Yankee debut April 19, 1960, opening day at Fenway Park against Boston. He smashed two home runs. In all, he stroked 39 homers that season, one less than his teammate and league leader Mickey Mantle. Maris also won the first of two straight MVP awards.

In 1961, Maris did not homer in his first 10 games. At May’s end he had a dozen home runs. By the end of June he had pounded 27. At July’s end Maris had 40 home runs. He was now six ahead of Babe Ruth's record of 60 in a season set in 1927.

By the end of August, batting third in the powerful Yankee lineup, Maris had 50 round trippers. "My going off after the record started off such a dream," Maris said. "I was living a fairy tale for awhile. I never thought I'd get a chance to break such a record."

The dream turned into a nightmare. The pressure of chasing the immortal Babe Ruth’s record got to Maris. In 1956, Mickey Mantle had smashed 52 dingers for the Bronx Bombers and was looked upon as the one to break Babe Ruth's record. Maris was the outsider.

"When Roger was going for the home run record he would eat only bologna and eggs for breakfast," his friend Julie Isaacson recalled. "Every morning we would have breakfast together at the Stage Deli. We had the same waitress, and I'd leave her the same five-dollar tip every time. After, I would drive Roger up to the Stadium."

"Every day I went to the ballpark in Yankee Stadium as well as on the road people were on my back," Maris recalled.”

Reporters lined up by the Maris locker. "How does it feel to be hitting so many home runs? Do you ever think of what it means?"

"How the hell should I know?" a surly and annoyed Maris would push back.

Newspapers were filled with stories and charts comparing Mantle and Maris, Maris and Ruth, Ruth and Mantle, etc., ad nauseum. Journalists claimed that bickering and animosity existed between Mantle who earned $75,000 that season and Maris, who was paid $42,000.

"Roger," Mantle insisted," was one of my best friends. The two shared an apartment in Queens with Bob Cerv. 

Photographers insisted on pairing Mantle and Maris in all manner of posed shots. That irked Maris. That amused Mantle. "We've taken so many pictures together, “the Yankee center fielder said, “that I'm beginning to feel like a Siamese twin."

There was also the matter of the “asterisk.” Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had made it clear that an asterisk would be affixed to Maris' name in the records books if he broke the Ruth mark. Frick’s reasoning was that Ruth hit 60 in a 154-game season while Maris was performing in a 162-game season.

Against his former Kansas City teammates on August 26th in his 128th game of the 1961 season, Maris clubbed No. 51. He was eight ahead of the Ruth pace.

The "Mick" managed but one home run from September 10 on—No. 54. With Mantle hobbled and no longer a factor in the home run race, with the Yankees having wrapped up the pennant, all the pressure was totally on Roger Maris.

On September 18 it was Yankees vs.  Orioles in Baltimore, a four game series. Maris had 58 home runs. His chance to "officially" break Ruth's record was locked into the first three games by the Ford Frick ruling. They fell within the 154-game schedule.  

In a twi-night doubleheader, games 152 and 153, Maris was shut out. On September 20, a night game, reporters from all over the country converged on the scene. The game drew just 21,000 or so.

The man they called "Rajah" lined a pitch in the third inning off Milt Pappas almost 400 feet into the bleachers in right field—home run No. 59!  Now it was game 155—one game past the Ford Frick asterisk-proscribed time. Maris had three more chances that night to tie the Babe Ruth record. He struck out. He flied out. He grounded out.

Home run No. 60 came at Yankee Stadium off Baltimore's Bill Fisher on September 26.

The last three games of the season for Maris were Yankees-Red Sox. It was also Maris-Ruth. Boston hurlers shut down Maris in the first two games of the series.

October 1, 1961, before 23,154, a tired, bedraggled Maris faced 24-year-old Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard. It was the fourth inning. The powerfully built Yankee was coming to bat for the second time in the game.

In the Yankee bullpen in right field pitchers and catchers watched. A $5,000 reward had been promised to the one who caught the ball. Maris had told them if they got the ball, “Do not to give it to me. Take the $5,000 reward."

"They're standing, waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit No. 61."

Phil Rizzuto broadcast the moment:

"We've only got a handful of people sitting out in left field," Rizzuto continued, " but in right field, man, it's hogged out there. And they're standing up. Here's the windup, the pitch to Roger. Way outside, ball one...And the fans are starting to boo. Low, ball two. That one was in the dirt. And the boos get louder...Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris. Here's the windup. Fastball, hit deep to right! This could be it!  Way back there! Holy Cow, he did it! 61 for Maris!" 

The ball went about 360 feet over outfielder Lu Clinton's head. It slammed into box 163D, section 33, sixth row of the lower deck in right field. Scuffling,  scrambling, fans fought for the ball—and the $5,000 reward. 

Roger Maris trotted out the historic home run. A kid grabbed the excited star’s hand as he turned past first. Maris shook hands. He shook hands with coach Frank Crosetti as he reached third base.

Forming a human wall in front of the dugout, his Yankee teammates refused to let him enter. Four times he tried. Finally, Maris waved his cap to the cheering crowd that gave him a standing ovation. His teammates let him into the dugout.

Maris would say later. "If I never hit another home run—this is the one they can never take away from me."

The man from North Dakota had the glory, but he also had the hurt of being an unliked and unlikely hero. In 1962, he was named to the All Star team for the fourth straight year. With injuries limiting him to just 90 games in 1963, Maris managed just 23 homers. Nevertheless, he still helped the Yanks take a fourth straight pennant.

In December 1966, the Yankees traded him to the Cardinals. He helped St. Louis win two pennants.  

On December 14, 1985, Roger Maris, who had homered once every 18.5 at bats in his career and had a home run-to-hit ratio of 4.81, died of lymphatic cancer. He was only 51 years old.    

This season of 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the epic feat of Roger Maris—61 home runs in a single season—breaking the legendary record of Babe Ruth’s 60 in the 1927 season.

"People just remember the 61 home runs," said Bill Skowron. "They forget that Roger was an excellent base stealer and a superb right fielder. He was the best defensive right fielder in the majors. He was an all-around ball player, a humble guy, a real team player. History never gave him his due."

Support for Roger Maris becoming a Hall of Famer comes from such people as Henry Aaron, Whitey Herzog, Commissioner Bud Selig, yours truly and Bob Costas.

"The Veterans Committee needs to take a look at this," the famed sportscaster has said. "Maris is the legitimate single-season home run king...His record has stood now for 50 years and I don't see anybody approaching it without using steroids anytime soon."

In addition to breaking the home run record, Roger Maris was a two time American League MVP.  A   four-time All-Star and a two-time RBI leader, Maris was a key part of three world championship teams. His fielding percentage for his career (.982) tops that of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio and Brooks Robinson.

The slugger Maris recorded a career batting average of .260. Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio had .262 career batting averages, while Harmon Killebrew batted .256. All of these players are Hall of Famers.

Why not Roger Maris?

It’s about time.

**A noted oral historian and sports journalist, Harvey Frommer has written many sports books, including Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox.  His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, and of course Bleacher Report among other publications.Visit his website and purchase books here: http://harveyfrommersports.com/remembering_fenway/


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