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Some Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of Maris's 61 in '61: The Acquisition

It took some special circumstances for Roger Maris to be available to the Yankees at all. Unlike many of the stars of the dynasty period, Maris was not home grown, but reached the majors as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Fortunately for Yankees general manager George Weiss, he had the advantage of "Trader" Frank Lane being hired to take over the Indians for the 1958 season.

Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Mrs. Babe Ruth. The Babe couldn't make it that day. (AP)

I haven’t made a systematic study of this, but it’s very possible that Lane was the worst general manager of all time, a compulsive dealer of players who was less interested in who he was giving away or who he got in return as much as he just wanted to load up the transactions columns. In 1958, Lane apparently looked at his roster, saw that he had Rocky Colavito, Minnie Minoso, and Larry Doby and wondered why he needed a 23-year-old outfielder who had hit .235 in his rookie year. Incredibly, by 1960 he had ditched all three of them, but Lane didn’t think more than 15 seconds ahead.

Maris was sent to the Kansas City A’s at the 1958 trading deadline. Maris, packaged with a fringe pitcher and a utility man, brought back two good-not-great players, both former Yankees properties, in power-hitting super-sub Woodie Held and Gold Glove first baseman Vic Power. Held had some very good seasons for the Indians, while Power’s bat was dying, and after 1959 he didn’t do much at the plate. Maris, of course, went on to greatness, however fleetingly.

Maris looked a lot like a platoon player with the Indians, and a moody one at that. Manager Bobby Bragan didn’t like him, and also thought him "the most wall-shy outfielder I ever saw" (Bragan lived long enough to see Bobby Abreu, but I don’t know if he revised his opinion). Bragan’s lack of interest no doubt fed Lane’s trading fetish. Maris played well enough with the A’s to be interesting despite his perceived flaws (in the long run, he would show consistent weakness against same-side pitchers). In 1959, the Yankees had turned up weak in the outfield. Mickey Mantle was Mickey Mantle, though he had, by his standards, an off year, but vets Hank Bauer and Enos Slaughter had hit the absolute end of the line, and Casey Stengel was seemingly not a fan of the 25-year-old Norm Siebern.

It was time to look outside the organization, and when the Yankees did that, the first place George Weiss’s eye fell was on Kansas City, an organization that was always willing to deal with New York in a way that is not too comfortable to think about, even today. Maris had made the All-Star team for the weak A’s, hitting .273/.359/.464, better numbers then than now, and in 1958 he had hit 28 home runs, good for seventh in the league, between the Indians and the A’s, though he had averaged only .240 and failed to post a .300 on-base percentage. The Yankees sent Siebern, Bauer, Don Larsen, and just one prospect, the future "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry, to the Athletics and received Maris, light-hitting shortstop Joe DeMaestri, and first base semi-prospect Kent Hadley.

It would be easy to write that the Yankees took advantage of the A’s and GM Parke Carroll with that deal, but (a) the Yankees-A’s relationship during that period renders such judgments irrelevant, and (b) they got good value in the deal in Siebern, a three-time All-Star who hit .289/.381/.463 in four seasons in A’s drag. At that point, the A’s moved him on to the Orioles for Jim Gentile and $25,000, not such a great move, but then, the Yankees would eventually give Maris away to the Cardinals for Charley Smith. Ironically, like Norm Cash, Gentile had been right with Maris as a hitter in 1961, but for all of these players, their moment of glory was fleeting.

As good as Yankees scouting was in those days, it seems unlikely they had any inkling they were getting a two-time MVP and not another platoon outfielder for Stengel’s system of interchangeable parts. Maris was a career .249/.329/.434 hitter in 388 games. In that first year with the Yankees, Maris hit just .194/.292/.313 against southpaws, but nonetheless, he was in the process of peaking. More than the 1961 expansion, more than the introduction of this left-handed hitter to lefty-loving Yankee Stadium, the blossoming of Maris with the Yankees was a combination of good luck, a power-hitter hitting his peak at just the right moment, and a couple of teams that were at that moment incapable of recognizing and holding on to talent. Ironically, the Yankees would pay back karma by failing to recognize the severity of Maris’s 1965 wrist injury, hastening his demise as a star player. Until that moment, though, the Maris acquisition was a triumph of clear-sightedness in a sea of myopia.