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Appreciating Roger Maris and his magical 1961 season

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As we celebrate Maris and his record setting season, it is hard to forget how treacherous and saddening his journey to 61 was

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Today, the Yankees took the time to honor the late Roger Maris for his record breaking season in 1961, which was capped off by his 61st home run 55 years ago today. Maris passed Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record on the final day of the 162-game season, when the Babe accomplished his feat during the old 154-game format.

Unfortunately for Maris, and his family that was in attendance today, the celebration is over a half a decade too late. It is well known that Maris was brutally criticized during his record chase, and was a villain even to Yankees fans, who were unable to let go of their adoration of the Bambino. For whatever reason, Yankees fans refused to accept a fellow Yankee as a rightful heir to the home run throne. What resulted was months of emotional turmoil for Maris, who somehow continued to thrive at the plate during those intense days that captured the country’s attention.

Why couldn’t Yankees fans be happy for their star player, and support him in his quest to not only make history, but to keep that history as a part of the Yankee name? It is certainly interesting to think about a fan base torturing their own player, while that player was a cornerstone in helping their team to the pennant and one of the best records in baseball history!

It is also important to remember that Maris had contributed right out of the gate when he was traded to the Yanks in 1960. In his first game in pinstripes, Maris recorded four hits, including two home runs. He would win the MVP that season, his first of two in a row. Still, fans seemed to gravitate toward Mickey Mantle in 1961, who was matching Maris homer for homer before an injury in September sidelined him the rest of the season. Mantle and Maris kept a good relationship throughout the summer of ‘61, yet the fans couldn’t share the same affection towards Maris, who was always described as the quiet type who went about his business.

Part of the fans’ discontent could be a favoritism towards bigger, more marketable personalities. We all know the stories and legends behind Babe Ruth. He was also outgoing and great with kids, and was responsible for the rise of the Yankees franchise. Meanwhile, Mantle was brought up through the Yankees system, unlike Maris. Of course, there were those around the league that supported him, but most were in the opposite corner. Even the commissioner of baseball, a known Ruth supporter, declared that any record set outside of the 154 game mark would be considered a separate record and would not be acknowledged alongside Ruth’s mark of 60. Other well known faces around baseball like Rogers Hornsby believed that Maris “had no right to break Ruth’s record.”

Looking at the difference in games per season was a big factor in the disapproval of fans, which is wrong. Numerous factors make Maris’s record legit, especially the fact that Maris needed fewer plate appearances than Ruth to reach 61. Maris hit one home run in April, and still set the new home run record. One. He turned on the jets in May when he launched 11 home runs, and 15 more in June, and was off to the races. That is an incredibly impressive streak given the slow start, and yet it was rejected around the country.

Fans of the time could say Maris was helped by the short porch in right field of Yankee Stadium. Not only did Ruth play in the same confines, but Maris actually hit more of his home runs on the road in 1961. Many remember fans saying that he reaped the benefits of hitting in front of Mickey Mantle. The Babe hit in front of Lou Gehrig, who slugged 47 home runs and drove in 173 in 1927 likely giving Ruth plenty of pitches to hit.

Perhaps the press was partly to blame, who documented feuds between Maris and Mantle, when in reality they were close friends, and even roommates. Mantle would say that the 1961 season brought them even closer together, while the press were releasing stories daily about a new argument between the M&M boys. The two sluggers embraced each other, while fans picked one and alienated the other.

I’m fascinated by the Roger Maris story. It is baffling to picture a player coming to New York and promptly winning an MVP, and following it with a record breaking season and being criticized for it. If you watch the footage of his 61st home run, the crowd finally warms up to the new home run king (which he wouldn’t officially be declared until 1991, six years after his death). How could fans push their star player to a point where he rejected the idea of attending Old Timer’s events after his retirement? We see players rejected by fans after slow starts or prolonged slumps, not after winning MVP's and setting records.

It is a shame Maris cannot be around to feel the love that will be shown for him this weekend. He should have been acknowledged for an incredible season a long time ago.