Maris, Roger Eugene

views updated May 23 2018

MARIS, Roger Eugene

(b. 10 September 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota; d. 14 December 1985 in Houston), one of the most talented baseball players of his era who held the major league record for home runs in a season from 1961 to 1998.

Maris was the younger of two sons of Rudy Maris, a railroad engineer, and Connie Sturbitz Maris, a homemaker. An outstanding high-school athlete in basketball, track, and football, he attended Bishop Shanley High School in Fargo, North Dakota, and played American Legion baseball. In 1953, after his graduation, he declined a football scholarship from the University of Oklahoma and instead signed a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Indians that included a $5,000 signing bonus. A left-handed batter, he became the Rookie of the Year for 1953 in the Class C Northern League. He played for four pennant-winning teams in his first four years of professional ball in Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota (1953); Keokuk, Iowa (1954); Reading, Pennsylvania (1955); and Indianapolis, Indiana (1956).

In 1957 Maris was promoted to the Cleveland club and batted a respectable .235 with 14 homers during his first major league season. On 15 June 1958 he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics and on 11 December 1959 to the New York Yankees, where he soon blossomed into a star. Although Maris stood six feet tall and weighed about 190 pounds for most of his career, he was hardly as large or as strong as most power hitters, and depended on his ability to pull pitches into right field. In 1960 he was selected as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the American League (edging out his teammate Mickey Mantle by a vote of 225 to 222), hitting 39 home runs (second in the league to Mantle), batting .283, and receiving a Golden Glove for his outfield play. As Casey Stengel, who managed Maris that year, later remarked, he "had the greatest first half of the season for us [in 1960] that you ever saw. In spite of getting hurt during the second half, he led the league for the year in runs batted in with 112.… And Maris could throw and make sensational catches in right field."

However, the 1960 season was a mere prelude to one of the most incredible summers in baseball history. For most of the 1961 season, Maris and Mantle chased the ghost of Babe Ruth as they stalked the major league single-season home run record of sixty, set by Ruth in 1927. Usually batting third in the Yankee lineup, Maris did not receive an intentional walk all year because Mantle batted behind him in the order. Midway through the season, the Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick ignited a controversy when he announced that, given the lengthened season of 162 games in 1961 compared to 154 games in 1927, Ruth's record had to be broken during the first 154 games of the season. Any home run record set after 154 games would be given a "distinctive mark" (the so-called asterisk) to distinguish it from Ruth's record. Maris hit 59 home runs in the first 154 games of the 1961 season—more than any other player except Ruth—and hit his 61st home run on the last day of the season, 1 October 1961. Although the press reported often on the ostensible "feud" between Maris and Mantle as they chased the home run record, the players in fact shared an apartment during the 1961 season. As Mantle later recalled, "There might have been better players [than Maris], but no one was a better man.… When Roger hit his sixty-first home run, I was the second happiest person in the world."

In addition to setting a single-season home run record in 1961, Maris scored 142 runs, knocked in 132 to lead the American League (AL), and batted .269. He was voted the AL MVP for the second consecutive year; was named the Sporting News Player of the Year, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, Sport magazine Man of the Year, and Associated Press Professional Athlete of the Year; and was awarded the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year. Maris and Mantle, known as the home-run twins "M and M," hit a combined 115 home runs, the highest total in baseball history for two players on the same team, surpassing the 107 home runs that Ruth and Lou Gehrig stroked for the 1927 Yankees. As Maris reminisced after the 1961 season, "Even if I never do another thing in baseball, at least I have had one year that put me in good company."

Although often described as sullen and taciturn, Maris was, according to those who knew him best, a shy and intensely private man with an inclination to speak his mind. "I have always tried to be completely frank and honest about everything, even if sometimes it might be easier to be the other way," he reflected in his autobiography. He earned about $40,000 for the 1961 season and, despite his successful year, his salary negotiations with the Yankees in the spring of 1962 were contentious; he went to spring training without a contract and finally settled for $72,500 to play the 1962 season. Yet he also became a marked man. As his teammate Ralph Terry remembered, "The trouble around Roger really started in the 1962 season, when a couple of bad articles were written about him.… The players didn't believe any of that stuff for one minute. To us Roger was a great guy, a real hero." Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American complained that Maris's "whining" was undermining the team and insisted that "Maris violates all the laws of protocol established by Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth." For the rest of his life, according to his biographer Maury Allen, Maris "never fully trusted any reporter."

As a result, Maris's career with the image-conscious Yankees began to suffer. He broke a bone in his hand during the 1965 season that prevented him from playing for most of the year and robbed him of much of his power for the rest of his career. He also believed the Yankees mis-handled his injury by failing to inform him of its severity in the hopes that he would simply return to the lineup. He was traded by New York to St. Louis on 8 December 1966, and played with the Cardinals in 1967 and 1968. In all, during his twelve-year major league career, Maris batted .260 with 275 home runs, scored 826 runs, and batted in 851. He played in seven All-Star games (1959–1962), and seven World Series, including five straight with the Yankees (1960–1964), and two with St. Louis (1967–1968).

After his retirement from baseball following the 1968 season, Maris lived in Gainesville, Florida, with his wife, the former Patricia Carville, who he had married on 13 October 1956, and their six children. In partnership with his older brother Rudy Maris, Jr., he owned and managed a beer distributorship. Maris finally reconciled with the Yankees after the team was sold to George Steinbrenner in 1973, and returned to Yankee Stadium to be honored in April 1978. His number 9 was retired at Old Timers' Day there in 1984. Maris died of lymphatic cancer and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota.

Although Maris enjoyed only a few stellar seasons as a player, his pursuit of the single-season home-run record in 1961 was one of the most memorable events in Major League Baseball history. He is the only two-time MVP in either league eligible for, but not elected to, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

After his remarkable 1961 season, Maris collaborated with Jim Ogle on a near-daily account of the year, Roger Maris at Bat (1962). See also Maury Allen, Roger Maris: A Man for All Seasons (1986), and Harvey Rosenfeld, Roger Maris: A Title to Fame (1991). Tony Kubek and Terry Pluto, Sixty-one: The Team, the Record, the Men (1987), devote more than fifty pages to Maris. Ralph Houk and Robert W. Creamer, Season of Glory: The Amazing Saga of the 1961 New York Yankees (1988), and David Halberstam, October 1964 (1994), are less sympathetic to Maris and discuss his personality and aloofness in public. An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Dec. 1985).

Gary Scharnhorst

Maris, Roger Eugene

views updated May 14 2018

MARIS, Roger Eugene

(b. 10 September 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota; d. 14 December 1985 in Houston, Texas), record-setting baseball slugger of the 1960s and businessman.

Maris, the younger of two sons, had his name changed officially when he began to play professional baseball. His name was originally "Maras," and as a young man he was taunted with plays on his name. The entire family, of Austrian ethnicity, changed their name as well. His father, Rudolph, was a foreman for the Great Northern Railroad and an avid hockey player well into his middle age. His mother was Anne Corinne (Connie) Sturbitz, a housewife. The family moved from Hibbing to Grand Forks, North Dakota, and then to Fargo, where Maris attended Fargo High School and then Bishop Shanley Catholic High School. He set a national high school football record by running back four kicks for touchdowns in 1951.

There was no baseball team at the Catholic high school, so Maris played on the American Legion teams, which went on to win state titles. Upon his high school graduation, the University of Oklahoma offered Maris an athletic scholarship, but he decided against it. Instead, he entertained offers from both the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Cubs felt he was too small, but Cleveland offered him $5,000 with an extra $10,000 incentive if he made the majors in five years. He insisted that he be assigned no lower than a C league, so that he could play with the Fargo/Moorhead team close to his hometown. He got his wish and became rookie of the year his first year of professional baseball. On 13 October 1956 Marris married his high school sweetheart, Patricia Ann Carvell; they had seven children.

Maris made it to the majors within five years but was traded to Kansas City (Missouri) in 1958 and then to the New York Yankees in 1959. New York was a team bent on winning; after all, they had the great Mickey Mantle at center field. Maris fit perfectly with his five-tool abilities of speed, defense, throwing arm, hitting ability, and power. He was central to the Yankees' winning five straight pennants and was center stage in baseball in the 1960s. He won the Most Valuable Player award in the American League in 1960 and led the Yankees to the World Series.

After the first eleven games of the 1961 season, Mantle and Maris broke out, with home run matching home run, the one hitting after the other in the batting order. Except for their talents, the two men could not have been more different. Mantle, the darling of the Yankees, was a funloving playboy always willing to test the nightlife of the big city, while Maris was stolid, sensitive, quiet, and even surly. Although the two were close friends, the media pitted them against each other. Maris and Mantle went deep into September 1961, chasing Babe Ruth's elusive 1934 record of sixty home runs, but Mantle went on the disabled list in the last three weeks owing to bad treatment of a bruised hip, and Maris continued the quest alone. The baseball commissioner was implored not to recognize the breaking of Ruth's record if it was not accomplished within 154 games. (In 1961 the American League had expanded the number of teams to ten and the length of the season from 154 to 162 games.)

Maris had sixty home runs after 159 games and almost broke the record in Baltimore, but it was not until the 162nd game that he hit his sixty-first and thus earned an asterisk designating that the record was not achieved in the same number of games as those of Ruth. It was a humiliating gaffe on the part of baseball and an insult to Maris. His season was filled with grief, however, as fans hurled taunts and threw objects at him from the stands. The press was of no help. To them, if anyone were to challenge Ruth, then it must be Mantle, the golden boy. Maris lost weight, and clumps of his hair fell out as he internalized his frustrations. Even winning a second consecutive Most Valuable Player award did nothing to salve his wounded pride. He again led the Yankees to a World Series, but it appeared that New York wanted no more of Maris.

The following year was worse, for now everyone wanted to see if he was a fluke. They insisted on more, despite his respectable thirty-three home runs that year. The Yankees went to the World Series for a third time, while Maris retreated within himself. Suffering back and leg pains, he played only ninety games in 1963 and hit twenty-three home runs. He followed with twenty-nine home runs in 1964. That was the end of the Yankees' run of pennants. Maris suffered a hand injury in a slide at home plate, but the Yankees demanded that he play. He went to a private physician, who discovered a chipped bone in his hand. The Yankee management was furious that he had gone outside the system for treatment. His play diminished, as did the Yankees', and in the winter of 1966, he learned that he had been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

For Maris, who had kept a home in Raytown, Missouri, and later had bought one in Independence, it was like going home, and the Cardinals were delighted to have him. They needed another left-hander at bat, and Maris fit perfectly. He helped the Cardinals to two World Series, and St. Louis fans embraced Maris's instinctive grasp of the game. He wanted to retire after 1967, but August Busch, the Cardinals' owner, offered him a beer distributorship in an area of his choosing if he played a second year. Maris and the Cardinals went to the World Series again in 1968. He retired and chose Gainesville, Florida, a university town, for his business. He was successful beyond expectations, and he brought his entire family into the operation.

In 1983, after he had come down with lymphatic cancer, the Yankees held a Roger Maris day on which they retired his number 9 and put a bronze plaque in the memorial section of center field alongside Ruth and the other Yankee greats. Redemption had come at last for Maris, but cancer would take his life. He volunteered for radical experimental treatments, but they were not effective. He died in a Houston hospital. The death of Maris, who was a defining baseball personality of the 1960s, brought the baseball world to Fargo, North Dakota, where Maris was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. "This is our home and these are our people," said his wife. "We moved away in 1957, but our hearts were always here." Five days later in New York, a funeral mass for Maris, conducted by John Cardinal O'Connor, was held in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The dignitaries of the city, including former president Richard Nixon, George Steinbrenner, and his old Yankee teammates, were in attendance.

Maris was both a hero and antihero of baseball. He harbored all the virtues of traditional middle America at a time when society was undergoing social upheaval and liberation from the constraints of the past. Maris adhered to the independent thinking that allowed him to challenge authority while pursuing excellence as a baseball player. His record of sixty-one home runs was to last thirty-seven years, until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998 with the Maris family in attendance. Maris's bat is in the Hall of Fame, but he is not.

Maris's own story told to Jim Ogle, Roger Maris at Bat (1962), gives personal insight into Maris's 1961 year. Maury Allen, Roger Maris: A Man for All Seasons (1986), is a laudatory biography. Harvey Rosenfeld, Roger Maris: A Tale of Fame (1991), is an uncritical study. David Halberstam, October 1964 (1994), assesses the Maris era with the Yankees and Cardinals and the decline of Yankee dominance. Ron Smith, 1961 (2001), dissects that pivotal year and was developed into a made-for-cable motion picture of the same title. The Sporting News (23 Dec. 1985) reviews Maris's career. An obituary and a tribute to Maris highlighting his career in the 1960s are in the New York Times (15 Dec. 1985).

Jack J. Cardoso

Maris, Roger Eugene

views updated May 18 2018

Maris, Roger Eugene (1934–85) US baseball player. Playing for the New York Yankees, Maris set a season home-run record (61) in 1961, eclipsing Babe Ruth's mark (60) of 1927. Maris hit a total of 275 home runs during his major-league career (1957–68).