It goes without saying that baseball’s history stretches to scarcely fathomable lengths. From Babe Ruth to Albert Pujols, from Ted Williams to Mike Trout, the game has seen countless legends from countless eras. But in all of its years, the man to strip Ruth of his single-season record for most home runs wasn’t a hulking slugger, but a 6-foot tall, 197-pound right-fielder, one who never made the Hall of Fame, and one whose most glorious season had him enduring all sorts of challenges from all directions.
At his peak, Roger Maris was one of the greats, and although he remained a solid contributor for many years, his pinnacle between 1960 and 1964 — which included his historic 61-homer season — was tremendous to enough to earn a spot on our Supernova Team playing right field.
Career NYY stats: .265/.356/.515, 203 HR, 547 RBI, 413 BB, 417 SO, 139 OPS+, 26.4 rWAR
Maris was born on September 10, 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota, and he grew up in North Dakota after his family moved there. Originally named Roger Maras, his family of Croatian descent changed their last name to Maris in 1955. Maris was a great high school football player in North Dakota, breaking the state record for most kickoffs returned for a TD with four in a single game.
Maris started his baseball career with the Cleveland organization, and was quickly traded to the Kansas City Athletics in the middle of his second season. Maris didn’t begin to hit his stride until his third year in the big leagues.
The Yankees, excited by Maris’ breakout campaign in 1959, sent a package of players for the left-handed hitter, and it didn’t take any time for him to prove what a great decision that was. Maris did nothing short of winning the MVP in each of his first two campaigns with the Yankees. Between 1960 and 1961, Maris hit .276/.372/.604 good for a 164 OPS+, and 14.4 combined rWAR.
During his 61-home run 1961 campaign, Maris led the league in both total bases in runs scored. Interestingly enough, though Maris was the one who ultimately prevailed in the chase to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, it was Mickey Mantle who led the league in slugging percentage in ‘61 with a whopping .687 mark in 52 fewer plate appearances. Also, because Maris spent most of the year batting in front of Mantle, he didn’t receive a single intentional walk during that season — the only one in Maris’ career in which he wasn’t intentionally walked at least once.
It is hard to truly appreciate now in 2022, but at the time, coming off an MVP campaign and in the middle of a chase to break the record of a beloved legend, Maris endured a ton of scrutiny. His hair reportedly fell out in clumps during the season, and the stress of the ordeal left Maris embittered, with many writers and fans questioning the legitimacy of his record, which came in a 162-game season, versus the 154 that Ruth played when the Babe hit 60 dingers. What could’ve been a celebrated situation — like the frenzy at the time between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire during the PED-fueled chase for the new record in 1998 —wasn’t nearly that for Maris.
We can’t change the past, but we can acknowledge Maris now for what he became and still is. He was the single-season home run king for over three decades, and in the eyes of some, still is. Following back-to-back MVP seasons, Maris remained one of the better hitters in baseball with a 130 OPS+ over the next four seasons, and overall, helped the Yankees win two World Series.
Much like his other teammates, Maris battled injuries and the effects of aging in the mid-’60s as the Yankees fell out of contention. His already-tenuous relationship with the fans and media worsened, and he was dealt to the Cardinals in December 1966. Maris rebounded a little in his final years and won a third championship in ‘67 before calling it a career at age 33 after a World Series loss to Detroit in ‘68.
In all of the years prior and every season since, for a sport with countless memorable hitters, few were ever able to match what Maris accomplished. He’s likely the only player to best Ruth’s single-season home run total without the use of steroids. Roger Maris was a great player for the majority of his career, and for two years, he dominated the sport. He is a shoo-in for the right fielder’s pot in our All-Supernova team.