American baseball player
Sixty-one must have been Roger Maris' lucky number. In the last game of 1961, the New York Yankee hit his 61st home run of the season, entering Maris permanently into the baseball record books. With that 61st homer, Maris broke professional baseball's single-season home run record, previously set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Maris' record remained unbroken for twenty-seven years, until the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire bested it in 1998. Although qualified by the infamous, and invisible, asterisk—a verbal mark on the record added by then-Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick to note that Maris had played a longer season than Ruth—the feat instantly rendered Maris a baseball legend.
Just a Summer Sport
Baseball was not Maris' only sport. Growing up in North Dakota, it was never warm enough in spring to play baseball during the school year. At Fargo's Bishop Shanley High School Maris excelled in football, basketball and track. During his senior year he set a national high school record in football when he scored four touchdowns on returns in one game.
Maris was able to pick up a bat in the summer, though, when the American Legion ran a summer league. He was named league Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1950. Upon graduation from high school in 1952 he considered playing football for the University of Oklahoma, but left the school during his entrance exam. He then opted to sign with a Cleveland Indians farm team.
Playing in the Class C Northern League in 1953, Maris was named the league's Rookie of the Year and the following season was promoted to the Class B Three-eye League. By 1956 he had been promoted to the Class AA farm team in Indianapolis and helped carry the team to the Little World Series Championship. During his time in the minors, Maris changed the spelling of his name from "Maras" to avoid the taunts of opposing fans.
Moves to Majors
In 1957 Maris was promoted to the major leagues, although he played only one season with the Indians. He was traded to the Kansas City Athletics during the 1958 season and, in 1960, he was traded to the Yankees. Maris made a mark on the team even before it appeared he would break Ruth's long-standing record. In his first year with the Yankees he hit thirty-nine home runs, was named the American League's Most Valuable Player and received a Gold Glove award.
For most of the 1961 season, Maris ran neck-and-neck with teammate and friend Mickey Mantle for the new home run record. While the media played up stories of a rivalry between the competing Yankees, the "M & Boys" laughed at the hoopla. "When they'd read the morning newspaper, one would say to the other, 'Hey, did you know we were fighting again?'" Maris' wife Pat told People.
When Mantle suffered an injury after his 54th home-run it became clear that Maris would be the one to break Ruth's record. Maris did not receive the same unwavering adoration the Babe enjoyed thirty-four years earlier, however, in his race toward number sixty-one. His typically blunt responses to reporters led them to portray him as gruff and unlikable, whereas Mantle was a perennial favorite with fans and the press alike.
|1934||Born September 10 in Hibbing, Minnesota|
|1938||Family moves to Grand Forks, North Dakota|
|1944||Family moves to Fargo, North Dakota|
|1948||Enters Fargo High School|
|1949||Joins American Legion summer baseball team as outfielder and pitcher|
|1950||Named summer baseball league's MVP|
|1950||Transfers to Bishop Shanley High School and competes in football, basketball and track|
|1952||Graduates Shanley High|
|1953||Begins professional baseball career Cleveland Indians system in Class C Northern League and named Rookie of the Year|
|1954||Moves to Class B Three-Eye League|
|1955||Changes spelling of last name from "Maras" to "Maris"|
|1956||Helps carry Class AA Indianapolis farm team to Little World Series Championship|
|1956||Marries Pat Carvell|
|1957||Promoted to major leagues with Cleveland Indians|
|1957||Traded to Kansas City Athletics at end of season|
|1960||Traded to New York Yankees|
|1961||Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announces home run record will be qualified, due to increased number of games in season|
|1961||Hits 61 home runs, beating Babe Ruth's record|
|1966||Traded to St. Louis Cardinals|
|1968||Retires at end of season|
|1984||Yankees retire Maris' number|
|1985||Dies of lymphoma on December 14|
|1991||Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent removes asterisk from Maris' home run record|
There was little support from above, either. In July of 1961 Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had announced that the home run record would be qualified since the season had been expanded from 154 games in Ruth's day to 162. It has been alleged by some that Frick, as ghostwriter of Ruth's autobiography, issued the qualification more as a vendetta than as a statistical necessity. Indeed, both players had gone to bat nearly the same number of times. Maris believed Yankee management, like many fans, was rooting for Mantle. "Let's not kid anybody," he said. "They wanted Mantle, not me, to break the record. Some of them even tried to rig the lineup so he would get a better opportunity than me."
Still, the crowd cheered Maris on October 1, 1961 when, in the Yankees' last game of the season, he hit that 61st homer. Always modest and shy, Maris headed straight for the dugout after rounding the bases and only returned for a bow at his teammates' urging. The sizable number of Ruth devotees among the Yankees fans, however, only stepped up their taunting of Maris following his accomplishment. His subsequent, less stellar seasons with the Yankees (he never hit more than thirty-three home runs in one season again) became increasingly unbearable and, in 1966, he asked to be traded.
Heads to St. Louis
Maris spent his last two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and, although he never came near his own record, he did help his new team reach the World Series for both seasons he was with them. Maris retired after the 1967 season, although his poor treatment at the hands of fans and baseball officials haunted him for many years after that. "My going after the record started off as such a dream," he recalled much later. "Too bad it ended so badly."
After retiring from baseball, Maris ran a beer distributorship given to him by Anheuser-Busch, then-owners of the Cardinals. Although he had vowed never to step foot in Yankee Stadium after he left for St. Louis, he and Mantle both returned in 1978 to raise the 1977 pennant. He returned again for Old Timers' Day and once more in 1984 when the Yankees retired his number. By that time, Maris was enduring bouts of chemotherapy to treat lymphatic cancer. He died from the disease on December 14, 1985 at the age of 51.
In 1991 Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent announced that the asterisk next to Maris' record would be removed. Maris' accomplishments were commemorated on a 1999 postage stamp, and his race to break Babe Ruth's record, and the accompanying controversy, was chronicled in the 2001 Billy Crystal film 61*.
Maris' record stood until September 8, 1998, when the Cardinals' Mark McGwire hit homerun number 62 with five of Maris' six children in attendance. After his ball cleared the fence, McGwire hugged all of the Marises and told them he had rubbed their father's bat for good luck that day.
|CLE: Cleveland Indians; KCA: Kansas City Athletics; NYY: New York Yankees; STL: St. Louis Cardinals.|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1952||Set national high school record for scoring four touchdowns on returns in one game|
|1953||Class C Northern League Rookie of the Year|
|1960||Gold Glove Award|
|1960-61||American League MVP|
|1961||Hit 61 homeruns, beating Babe Ruth's record|
|1961||Awarded Hickok Belt|
|1961||Sultan of Swat Award|
|1984||Number retired by Yankees|
Today, McGwire is not the only one remembering Maris in a much fonder light. Although Maris' record has been broken several times, most recently by the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds , the Yankee great's place in the annals of baseball history is both secure and, finally, unqualified. Still, one honor remains to be bestowed: induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Editor Steve Forbes has called for such an action in his influential financial magazine Forbes and a Web site,
The race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle for Babe Ruth's home run record was chronicled in the 2001 HBO film 61*. The asterisk in the title refers to the qualification then-Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who also was the ghostwriter of Ruth's autobiography, attached to the record. Produced and directed by comedian and die-hard New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal and filmed at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, 61* is not so much a story of an athletic rivalry as it is an attempt to dispel the media-driven myth that Maris and Mantle were enemies, and to portray the intense public pressure placed on Maris by both the press and fans of Mantle and Ruth. "Why does everybody only have room in their hearts for one guy?" Maris, played by Barry Pepper, asks at one point in the film. Playing Maris took its toll on Pepper, who gained a deep appreciation of the stress the legendary Yankee suffered. "When I first read the script, I had nightmares," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "It was hard not to feel for all that Maris went through that year. He was just a farm boy … stuck in the middle of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle's legacy."
www.ndrogermaris.com, has been dedicated to influencing the officials at Cooperstown. Two books, Maris, Missing from the Hall of Fame and Roger Maris: Title to Fame also make the case for induction.
Edwards, C.W. Maris, Missing from the Hall of Fame. Fargo, ND: Prairie House Publishers, 1993.
Robinson, E. Roger Maris: Title to Fame. Fargo, ND: Prairie House Publishers, 1992
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000
"Chasing History." Sports Illustrated (October 7, 1998): 12.
Forbes, Steve. "At Last, Justice." Forbes (September 30, 1991): 26.
Loizeaux, William. "Getting to Roger." American Scholar (autumn, 2001): 113.
"Spirit of '61." People (October 5, 1998): 130.
Elect Roger Maris to the Hall of Fame. http://www.ndrogermaris.com/ (February 14, 2003).
Sketch by Kristin Palm