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.