The Hall of Fame Case for Roger Maris

It’s a blessing and a curse to have a signature accomplishment as an athlete or an artist. On the one hand, you’ll be remembered. On the other, that’s almost all you’ll be remembered for.

In 1961, the defending American League Most Valuable Player won a second straight MVP. He did it while being a teammate of the iconic Mickey Mantle and wearing the famed pinstripe uniform of the greatest team in sports. But all Roger Maris was known for was 61 swings that produced 61 homers in 1961.

His legacy remains those 61 homers, with or without an infamous asterisk imposed by the commissioner of baseball.*

This month, Maris is among ten players on the Golden Days Era Ballot for Baseball Hall of Fame consideration. It’s not the first time his name has been on a special committee ballot, but given the “advanced” analysis we have today for evaluating ballplayers, this time the former Yankee slugger has as good a chance as any to be elected.

About Roger Maris

Roger Maris had light-brown hair, a square jaw, fair-skin, and green eyes. His family was from Croatia, and his birth name was spelled MARAS before it was Americanized later to avoid the “ASS” jokes. Playing football for his high school team in North Dakota, Maris returned not one, not two, not three, but four kickoffs for touchdowns in a single game. He earned a football scholarship to Oklahoma, but didn’t like campus life and left in his freshman year to sign a contract with the Cleveland Indians.

Maris played seven years in professional baseball before he wore the Yankee pinstripes. The Indians had a glut of outfielders in their organization and inexplicably ignored the 69 homers Maris hit in three seasons in their system. They traded him to the Athletics, and in two seasons with the A’s, Maris stood out as a power threat from the left side. But it was only a matter of time before the Yankees would yank him (sorry) from Kansas City. As I’ve written elsewhere in this book, in the 1950s the Kansas City A’s were nothing more than a feeder team for the Yankees.

Roger’s swing was crafted by Zeus for the right field dimensions of Yankee Stadium, and in his first season in The Bronx, Maris hit 39 home runs and led the league in runs batted in. That was mostly because he batted behind Mickey Mantle, but Maris was named MVP in 1960. The next season the American League added two teams and expanded the schedule to 162 games. Maris hit 58 homers in the first 154 games (the length of the schedule when Babe Ruth set the single-season record), and finished with 61. Which was very considerate, since years later Billy Crystal made a movie titled “61*” about that season.

Maris was a two-time MVP saddled with the reputation of a slugger, and those 61 home runs hung around his neck like a bowling ball. He was a good right fielder, very strong, and he could run some too. He probably could have stolen 20 bases a year, but his managers wanted their runners to hug the bag. He won one Gold Glove, and in 1967 he drove in seven runs in the World Series. He was not a (61) one-hit wonder: Roger Maris was a very good ballplayer. 

Should Maris be a Hall of Famer?

For a brief period of time, about four seasons, Maris was one of the ten best outfielders in baseball. He won the two MVPs, which means something, but heck so did Juan Gonzalez. And in the early 1960s, if you drove in a lot of runs and played for the pennant-winning team, you basically won the MVP. Even if you weren’t as good as the man who played center field next to you.

Maris has 1.325 hits in his 12-year career, which by the way, would be one of the shorter careers for a position player in the Hall of Fame. The hit total would be the lowest of all position players who did not play in the negro leagues.

In our list of the Top 100 Right Fielders of All-Time, he ranks 47th, sandwiched between Kirk Gibson and Kiki Cuyler, both of whom were (like Maris) excellent athletes, but not all-time legends. At times, all three were superstars, and important in baseball history, but while Cuyler was selected to the Hall, he’s not among the all-time great outfielders.

He had a fine 822 OPS, which for that era was very good. But he actually only had five seasons where he qualified for the batting title. Because (1) early in his career he struggled to earn playing time against left-handed pitching, and (2) he was injured frequently. Maris also retired at a very early age (just 33) because of his nagging injuries and the opportunity to earn more money as a businessman. He really had little baseball left in him when he played his final games for the Cardinals in 1968.

Maris would be a very unusual selection for the Hall of Fame. He does not have the career milestones, and his short peak, while very good, was not excellent. He doesn’t really have a long peak either. His best argument comes from his two MVP awards and for breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.

It’s highly unlikely that Maris will be elected by this committee in December, but his career should be remembered for more than just his very high points.


*After Maris hit his 61 homers in 1961, MLB Commissioner Ford Frick, who was a personal friend of Babe Ruth, decided that two records would be listed: one for a 154-game season (Ruth’s), and the other for a 162-game season. 

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He formerly worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.

37 Comments

  1. Considering the constant crap Maris put up with from badgering sportswriters & Ford Frick, I’ll disagree with you! That 61 Hrs stood for decades & many other HOF inducted players had the chance to break it but didn’t. Maris was also a 7 time Allstar selection with Gold Gloves. There are players in the HOF that didn’t have anywhere near the impact on Baseball & the fan excitement that Roger did, I know b/c I was alive. No one broke that 61 HR record until the Steroid Era & sadly those cheaters will probably be inducted eventually!

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment, Bob. I stand by what I wrote about Maris: there isn’t enough of a career there to merit Hall of Fame election. Just 2-3 great seasons and a few more really good seasons isn’t enough.

      Another thing about his 61 homers, seeing as how you criticize the players who broke it because they used steroids: Maris hit 61 in an expansion year with two new teams in the league. I have no doubt that it if had been 1959, he would have hit 55 or 54 homers, or whatever. But in ’61 had 20 fresh, inexperienced, lesser pitchers to face in expansion teams and across the league. Maris hit 13 homers against the Senators and Angels.

      I like Maris, I appreciate the stress he was under, I am sure that was difficult. But he just misses the bar for me.

        1. Mick you have made absolutely fantastic observations.
          If I may point out,the collectors of baseball data are implying that all inductees do not need a special numeric threshold to be inducted.
          There were over 500 other baseball players during this expansion era and they did not hit 61 home runs.
          It was a special accomplishment. I believe he needs to be inducted

  2. I thnk Roger should b in the Hall. He went through Hell because no one wanted him to break Ruth’s record. Ford Fricks name should be Ford Prick.As far as I’m concerned he still owns the record at 61. The rest were cheaters and Roger wasn’t.

    1. Great points & I agree with you about the “Ford Prick” comment! Roger Maris was not the very personable Mickey Mantle type guy. He was a quiet family type guy that wanted little to do with the press & I think that hurt him! For me, Roger is still a HOFer because of the 61 in 61 & the impact of that 1961 year battle between Roger & Mickey. I’ll gladly disagree with the author, he was not alive to enjoy what that did for baseball!

      1. So, according to you only people who are alive at the time can comment on history? That’s a pretty unusual opinion. Let’s all return every book on Abraham Lincoln or new works on World War II, because the authors weren’t alive then.

  3. The only thing Roger Maris had going for him was a major record. Now, he doesn’t even have that.

    There are numerous right fielders more deserving. Dwight Evans and Frank Howard, to name just two.

  4. Excellent article. I enjoyed reading it. I was in my early teens in 61 and remember the home run race well. I have wavered on this myself. For years I thought that breaking Ruth’s record all by itself should qualify him for the Hall, but you make a good argument.

    By the way I have always thought of 1961 as the year of the home run. There were many others who hit 40 plus, that year. If I remember right, Killebrew, Cash and Gentile and perhaps others in the AL.

    In the NL my childhood hero, Orlando Cepeda hit .311 with 46 home runs and an astounding 142 RBIs. I think Mays and Aaron and others may also have hit 40 or more. Not sure without looking it up.

  5. Maris for hall is mainly sentiment. However, he had many skills that were hidden. His baserunning in some seasons was extraordinary. His defense was quite good. He was critical for 5 pennants and 2 world series for Yankees. In his final 2 years, he aided the cardimals to 2 pennants and 1 world series. He batted third in their lineup. A very valuable player indeed.

    1. All though looking at the teammates that Roger played with he was a key player on the Yankees and Cardinals. Unfortunately both Roger and Mickey had retired before I was born. I have read books and watched movies such as 61* and other’s like The Mick. I don’t claim to be an expert but I am a huge baseball fan. Yes the Yankees are my favorite team but I will watch just about any team that I can get on TV. In my opinion Roger Maris belongs in the Hall of fame. If you can consider players like Barry Bonds and other’s who are accused of cheating and using ped’s and other drugs to get an advantage than you should put players Roger Maris and Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame without hesitation.

  6. I hate that Golden Gloves are just throw away facts when considering the HOF. The guy was the best at his position for more than half his career. Maybe that doesn’t put him over the top, but it deserves more than a brief mention. Position players spend 1/18 of a game hitting and half of it holding down the field of play.

    1. I wouldn’t agree that Maris was the best right fielder in baseball for half his career. He played at the same time as Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, and Rocky Colavito, all of whom were better players.

  7. Im a huge yankee fan.. All my life. Im 46 and never got to see roger or mickey or any others play during that time of baseball. I have seen plenty of highlights and video footage. I have read alot about baseball and the greats of the game. Maybe roger never makes it to the Hall, thats ok. He was a great player for the few seasons he played. There is no doubt he is 1 of my favorite Yankees. Thanks for the article.

  8. I believe that Josh was referring to Right Field defensive play: Maris arrived a few years after Al.Kaline had already established himself as the American League’s RightField defensive” Gold Glove Champion”.They were both all- time greats, defensively, but you would have had to ” knock out ” Al Kaline for Roger Maris to win the Gold Glove Award.Maris was very fast, tracked very well and had a great arm. He saved the ’62 World Series with an unspectacular , yet great, play with 2 outs in the 7th game stopping the fast Giants’ Matty Alou, running on contact from.first base, at 3rd base on a righty hitting Willie Mays’ double down the right field line which Maris got to on one hop just before it reached the warning track; pivoted, hit 2nd Baseman.Bobby Richardson with a good,tough throw and Richsrdson was able to hold Alou to 3rd Base (Yankee Catcher, Elston Howard said that they would have gotten out Alou by a lot if he had continued to Home Plate.

    Aaron , Robinson , Clemente and Colavito were all great players but Maris was probably better as an overall defensive player, even than Clemente.Roger Maris, who won two Most Valuable Player Awards, primarily for his offense, was better at fielding, in my opinion than hitting.

    The whole subject is really sad…Roger Maris’ career got derailed.He got forced by the Yankees to pursue going for pulled home runs too much in ’61.Then, after my fellownYankee Fans started booing him in 1962 he , I believe, doubled down on the pulling8 rather than being more of a BillyWilliams (Cubs) type of hitter which was more natural for him.Then, the injuries, finally the disabling one to the wrist at the age of 30.
    Nevertheless, from 1959 -.1962 his fellow American League players (and coaches, I believe ) chose him as an American League All-Star.

    He was great, but was unfortunately held back by the front office, bitter sportwriters fickle fans and injuries.He would have had lots of seasons like 1960 ( not 1961).

    PS: Regarding the Right Field ” Porch” in Yankee Stadium , Roger Maris hit 31 of his 61 home runs on the road in 1961. He would have been.better off if he had played for the Red Sox; he hit well at Fenway.Too bad.

    Maybe, the HOF should create a gallery of MVP’S and longstanding major record holders( not to mention greatest defensive players and players who were chosen by their peers for All Star games or the current day Outstanding Player Award).Then, visitors.would better understand and appreciate great baseball, and Roger Maris would be well represented in the Hall.

    1. As soon as you said that Maris was a better defensive player than Roberto Clemente, any credibility you have is shot.

      You have every right to admire Maris, to be his fan, to argue for his Hall of Fame election. But claiming he is ANYWHERE near Kaline or Clemente with the glove is just silly.

      Maris is to Clemente, Kaline, Aaron, and Robinson as Kirk Gibson is to Reggie Jackson. He was a star for a short period of time, and ain impactful player, but not anywhere in the same class as the other.

  9. Roger was an outstanding outfielder if you remember the 1962 World Series against he made a play in the rightfield corner holding Willie Mays at third to preserve a Yankee World Championship. I remember the pressure he was under from Mantle fans and the sports writers who didn’t want him breaking the Babe’s record because he was not a hoeeme grown Yankee ( brutal treatment everyday in 1961) he’s a hall of fame human being if not a ballplayer but in my boo he’s both!!!

  10. I was too young to have see Maris play,but what I have heard an seen,he is not a H O F. If you put Maris in, Juan Gonzalez, Dave Parker and Frank Howard all need to get the H O F ! All 3 of these players are deserving!

  11. Roger was MVP in 1960 because Yankees finished 2nd in 1959 with Bauer and Woodling in RF and Roger helped Yankees win AL pennant again.

    1. I respectfully disagree. Maris was elected MVP in 1960 because he led the league in RBI. Back then, writers LOVED players who led the league in RBI.

      He WAS deserving. His Wins Above Replacement in 1960 was 7.5, the highest in the American League. But, sportswriters didn’t know that in 1960. No, for decades the RBI stat (and homers) were extremely important to MVP voters. Maris hit behind Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek, and he had Mickey Mantle hitting behind him. That was why he got so many RBI opportunities, and why pitchers challenged him even when runners were on base.

  12. What I would like to see is retired players vote for induction in to the Hall of Fame. The writer’s hold grudges against players they don’t like for instance look at Del Ennis he had the most RBI’s in the decade of the 50’e more than Stan Musial, Eddie Matthews,Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle Willie Mays and yet he’s not in the HoF. Then look at Larry Bowa when he retired he had the highest fielding percentage of all shortstops that ever played in MLB and set the record two times for fewest errors by shortstop in a season he also had the most hits by a shortstop in the history of MLB and the writers didn’t like him and you guessed it he’s not in the HoF

    1. That’s an interesting idea. But what makes you think Chet Lemon would know who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Or that Jose Molina or David Wells knows enough about baseball history to know who should get a plaque?

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