Roger Eugene Maris (September 10, 1934 – December 14, 1985) was an American right fielder in Major League Baseball who is primarily remembered for breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60 home runs in the 1927 season, with 61 in 1961, a record that would stand for 37 years. In 12 Major League seasons, he played in seven World Series and won three championships.
The son of Croatian immigrants, he was born Roger Eugene Maras (he later changed his last name to Maris) in Hibbing, Minnesota. He grew up in Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota where he attended Shanley High School. A gifted athlete, Maris participated in many sports while in Fargo, and excelled at football. He still holds the official high school record for most kickoff return touchdowns in a game with four.
At an early age, Maris exhibited an independent, no-nonsense personality. Recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma, he arrived by bus in Norman and found no one from the university there to greet him. He turned around and went back to Fargo.
In 1952, Roger Maris was a member of the Reading Indians the AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. He played for 5 years in Reading.
Even in the minor leagues, Maris showed talent for both offense and defense. He tied for the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League lead in putouts by an outfielder with 305 while playing for Keokuk in 1954. Meanwhile, in four minor league seasons (1953–1956) Maris hit .303 with 78 home runs.
Maris made his major league debut in 1957 with the Cleveland Indians. The next year, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, whom he represented in the All-Star Game in 1959 in spite of missing 45 games due to an appendix operation.
Kansas City frequently traded its best players to the New York Yankees – which led them to be referred to as the Yankees' "major league farm team" – and Maris was no exception, going to New York in a seven-player trade in December 1959.
In 1960, his first season with the Yankees, despite the already-nagging media, he led the league in slugging percentage, runs batted in, and extra base hits and finished second in home runs (one behind teammate Mickey Mantle) and total bases (four behind Mantle). He was recognized as an outstanding defensive outfielder with a Gold Glove Award, and also won the American League's Most Valuable Player award. The Yankees won the American League pennant, but lost a seven-game World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates thanks to Bill Mazeroski's dramatic home run.
In 1961, the American League expanded from 8 to 10 teams, generally watering down the pitching as more teams meant that players who usually would've been still at AAA or lower were now in the majors, but leaving the Yankees pretty much intact. Also the season was extended from 154 games to 162 games. Yankee home runs began to come at a record pace. One famous photograph lined up six 1961 Yankee players, including Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra, and Bill Skowron, under the nickname "Murderers Row," because they hit a combined 165 home runs that year. The title "Murderers Row", originally coined in 1918, had most famously been used to refer to the Yankees side of the late 1920s. As mid-season approached, it seemed quite possible that either Maris or Mantle, or perhaps both, would break Babe Ruth's 34-year-old home run record. Unlike the home run race of 1998, where both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were given extensive positive media coverage in their pursuit of the home run record, sportswriters in 1961 began to play the "M & M Boys" against each other, inventing a rivalry where none existed, as Yogi Berra has testified in recent interviews.
Five years earlier, in 1956, Mantle had already challenged Ruth's record for most of the season and the New York press had been protective of Ruth on that occasion also. When Mantle finally fell short, finishing with 52, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief from the New York traditionalists. Nor had the New York press been all that kind to Mantle in his early years with the team: he struck out frequently, was injury prone, was a true "hick" from Oklahoma, and was perceived as being distinctly inferior to his predecessor in center field, Joe DiMaggio. Over the course of time, however, Mantle (with a little help from his teammate Whitey Ford, a native of New York's Borough of Queens) had gotten better at "schmoozing" with the New York media, and had gained the favor of the press. This was a talent that Maris, a blunt-spoken upper midwesterner, never attempted to cultivate; as a result, he wore the "surly" jacket for his duration with the Yankees.
So as 1961 progressed, the Yanks were now "Mickey Mantle's team" and Maris was ostracized as the "outsider", and "not a true Yankee." The press seemed to root for Mantle and to belittle Maris. But Mantle was felled by a hip infection late in the season, leaving Maris as the only player with a chance to break the record.
On top of his lack of popular press coverage, Maris' chase for 61 hit another roadblock totally out of his control: along with adding two teams to the league, Major League Baseball had added 8 games to the schedule. In the middle of the season, Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that unless Ruth's record was broken in the first 154 games of the season, the new record would be shown in the record books as having been set in 162 games while the previous record set in 154 games would also be shown. It is an urban legend, probably invented by New York sportswriter Dick Young, that an asterisk would be used to distinguish the new record. However, it was never taken into account that Maris had hit 61 in fewer at-bats than Ruth.
According to Nash and Zullo in The Baseball Hall of Shame, Frick made the ruling because, during his days as a newspaper reporter, he had been a close friend of Ruth's. Furthermore, Rogers Hornsby--himself a lifetime .358 batter--compared the averages (In Ruth's record year he hit .356; Maris, .269)--and said, "It would be a disappointment if Ruth's home run record were bested by a .270 hitter." (Hornsby's old-time bias was well-known. Scouting for the Mets, the best report he could muster for any current player was "Looks like a major-leaguer". That was his assessment of Mickey Mantle.) Maris couldn't understand such a perspective; he said, "I'm not trying to be Babe Ruth; I'm trying to hit sixty-one home runs and be Roger Maris." (This sentiment would be echoed in 1973–1974, when Henry Aaron, in pursuit of Ruth's career record, said, "I don't want people to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.")
Maris failed to reach 61 in 154 games (he had only 59 after 154 games). He hit his 61st on October 1, 1961, in the fourth inning of the last game of the season, a contest between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in front of 23,154 fans.
Tracy Stallard was the pitcher who gave up Maris's 61st home run. No asterisk was subsequently used in any record books—Major League baseball itself had no official record book, and Frick later acknowledged that there never was official qualification of Maris' accomplishment. However, Maris remained bitter about the experience. Speaking at the 1980 All-Star game, he said of that season, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing." Despite all the controversy, Maris was awarded the 1961 Hickok Belt for the top professional athlete of the year, as well as winning the American League's MVP Award for the second straight year. It is said, however, that the stress of pursuing the record was so great for Maris that his hair occasionally fell out in clumps during the season. Later, Maris even surmised that it might have been better all along had he not broken the record or even threatened it at all.
Maris' major league record would stand three years longer than Ruth's did, until National Leaguer Mark McGwire broke it by hitting 70 in 1998. The record is currently held by Barry Bonds (also a National Leaguer) who hit 73 home runs in 2001. Maris remains the American League record holder through the 2008 season.
In 1962, Maris made his fourth consecutive and final All-Star game appearance. His fine defensive skills were often overlooked. He made a game-saving play in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series against the San Francisco Giants. With the Yankees leading 1-0 and Matty Alou on first, Willie Mays doubled toward the right-field line. Maris cut off the ball and made a strong throw to prevent Alou from scoring the tying run; the play set up Willie McCovey's Series-ending line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson, capping what would prove to be the final World Series victory for the "old" Yankees.
Injuries slowed him the next four seasons, most notably in 1965, when he played most of the season with a misdiagnosed broken bone in his hand. Despite real injuries, he began to acquire yet another "jacket" by the New York Press - the tag of "malingerer". Now encumbered with an injured image as well as body, he was traded by the Yankees to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1966 season. The Yankees questioned Maris' courage and Maris left angry.
Maris was well-received by the St. Louis fans, who appreciated a man with a straightforward Midwestern style even if the New York press did not, while Maris himself felt much more at home in St. Louis. He played his final two seasons with the Cardinals, helping them to pennants in 1967 and 1968 with a World Series victory in 1967 (he hit .385 with one home run and seven RBIs in the post-season). Gussie Busch, head of the Cardinals and of Anheuser-Busch, set Maris up with a beer distributorship after he retired.
On the Indians, he wore uniform number 32 in 1957 and 5 in 1958; the Athletics first gave him uniform number 35, but in 1959 he wore number 3. On the Yankees and Cardinals, he wore number 9. The Yankees retired the number on Old-Timers' Day, July 21, 1984, and dedicated a plaque in Maris' honor to hang in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque calls him "A great player and author of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of major league baseball." Maris was on hand for the ceremony and wore a full Yankee uniform. His teammate Elston Howard, who had died in 1980, was also honored with the retirement of his number (32) and a Monument Park plaque that day. It is likely that the Yankees had waited to retire the number 9 until third baseman Graig Nettles, who had worn it since 1973, left the team following the 1983 season.
Maris owned the Budweiser distributorship in Gainesville, Florida in the 1970s and 1980s. He coached baseball at Oak Hall High School which named its baseball field for him. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1983. In response, he organized the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament to raise money for cancer research and treatment. Maris died in December 1985 at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas. A Roman Catholic, he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota. He remains a hero in his hometown of Fargo. Tributes include Roger Maris Drive, the free admission Roger Maris Museum, and The Roger Maris Cancer Center, the fund raising beneficiary of the annual golf tournament, and the 61 for 61 Home Walk & Run. There is also a movement to have Maris inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2001, the film 61 about Maris and Mantle's pursuit of the home run record was first broadcast. Many of the unpleasant aspects of Maris' season were addressed, including the hate mail, death threats, and his stress-induced hair loss. In addition, the film delved into the relationship between Maris and Mantle, portraying them as friends more than rivals. Mantle was depicted defending Maris to the New York media, and Maris was shown trying to influence the hard living Mantle to look after himself better. Maris was played by Barry Pepper, while Thomas Jane played Mantle.
In 2005, in light of accusations of steroid use against the three players who had, by then, hit more than 61 home runs in a season (Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds), the North Dakota Senate wrote to Major League Baseball and "urged" that Roger Maris' 61 home runs be recognized as the single season record.