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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #29 Roger Maris

The two-time MVP was so much more than just a man with one magical season in the shadow of greats.

Roger Maris Hitting 53rd Home Run

Full Name: Roger Eugene Maris
Position: Right fielder
Born: September 10, 1934 (Hibbing, MN)
Died: December 14, 1985 (Houston, TX)
Yankee Years: 1960-66
Primary number: 9
Yankee statistics: 850 games, 3,475 PA, .265/.356/.515, 203 HR, 620 R, 547 RBI, 139 wRC+, 26.4 rWAR, 26.4 fWAR

Biography

The owner of one of baseball’s sacred records for more than three decades, Roger Maris wasn’t the most popular Yankee. Whether some people like it or not, however, he made history in the Bronx and was a talented, all-around star in the late fifties and sixties.

The Early Years

Maris was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, on September 10, 1934. He lived the first few years of his life there, but his father Rudolph and his mother Corrine (née Perkovich), both of Croatian heritage, moved the family to North Dakota in 1942. That’s the place were Roger and his brother Rudy grew up.

Both Rudy and Roger loved sports since they were little, and were very good football and basketball players at the Shanley High School in Fargo, North Dakota. There, Maris met the love of his life and his future wife, Patricia, in tenth grade.

He also played baseball, but since North Dakota high schools didn’t have baseball programs, he did it in the American Legion program. There, he led his team to a state championship and took home MVP honors.

He was a multi-sport star, but at one point, his future appeared tied to football. In fact, he had a scholarship to play football for the University of Oklahoma. However, by this point he was also nearing professionalism in baseball, and ended up signing a $15,000 contract with Cleveland.

Roger Maris Standing in the Batting Circle

Maris played his entire minor league career (from 1953 to 1956) plus his first MLB season and a half in the Cleveland organization. Before reaching the majors, his journey in the minors included Fargo-Moorhead, Keokuk, Tulsa, Reading and Indianapolis.

After winning the Junior World Series in 1956, Maris went on to marry Patricia Carvell, his high school sweetheart, in October. They built a big family with four boys and two girls. As you probably recall, Roger Jr. was present in 2022 when Aaron Judge hit home run number 62, surpassing Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Crashing In With Cleveland

The powerful lefty hitter made his MLB debut on April 16, 1957, with Cleveland. It only took him a couple of days to hit his first home run, a grand slam against the Detroit Tigers. It would be the first of 14 dingers he had that year, with a .235/.344/.405 line, a .749 OPS, 61 runs and 51 RBI. That line was better than the league average around those days, evidenced by his 107 wRC+.

Cleveland traded Maris to the Kansas City Athletics in June, 1958. He would go on to hit 28 homers between the two teams, but since his walk rate went from 14.2 percent to 7.1 percent, his wRC+ decreased to 95.

Maris would play the entire 1959 campaign in Kansas City, with 16 homers and a much better 121 wRC+. He hit .273/.359/.464 and walked more than he struck out: the young thumper was cementing his place as a solid everyday outfielder in the American League in those late-fifties days.

A Dream And A Nightmare: Joining The Yankees

Fate, however, would have something bigger for him. At one point, it got so big (the media, the attention, the constant pressure and the never-ending comparisons) that the gentle, introvert Maris couldn’t always manage it.

In December 1959, the outfielder was sent to the Yankees alongside Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri in a trade for Marv Throneberry, Norm Siebern, Hank Bauer, and Don Larsen. The Yankees’ front office knew that Maris’ lefty swing was perfect for the Bronx, and it’s an understatement to say that they would be proven right.

Most people remember his 1961 season the most for obvious reasons, but what Maris did in 1960 was nothing short of amazing. Even though he had already been an All-Star in 1959, 1960 marked the first time in his career that he was truly elite.

That year, Maris finished with 39 home runs (one behind the American League leader, his teammate and friend Mickey Mantle), a solid .283/.371/.581 line, and led his league in RBI (112), slugging percentage, and extra-base hits. Even though the Yankees lost that year’s World Series in dramatic fashion due to Bill Mazeroski’s famous walk-off home run in Game 7, Maris performed very well with two round-trippers and a .813 OPS. He also won the Gold Glove award and, most importantly, his first AL MVP.

61 in ‘61

Up next, Maris would give us one of the most historic seasons of all time. He did the unthinkable, breaking Babe Ruth’s old record for most home runs in a single season by hitting number 61 on October 1st.

Many Yankees fans disliked Maris thanks to some rough treatment by the press, and preferred Mantle to break the sacred record: after all, he was much more popular, outspoken, and had charisma. Lots of it. Maris, on the other hand, didn’t. That doesn’t take anything away from him as a player or as a man. He was just a private person and there is nothing wrong with that.

A hip infection knocked out Mantle from the race as he finished with 54 dingers. Maris was now the sole representative of the “M&M Boys,” but he didn’t disappoint and wrote his name on the record books.

Chicago White Sox V New York Yankees Photo by TPLP/Getty Images

MLB Commissioner Ford Frick had suggested, in the middle of the season, that a hitter must break the record (60 home runs) within 154 games – the schedule had been recently expanded to 162 – because that was the season length when Ruth did it. If it happened after game 154, the record would be shown separately and with a distinctive mark.

Since Maris had 59 in his first 154 games, his achievement carried an “asterisk” in the minds of many until it was recognized as the official record in 1991. Mark McGwire (and Sammy Sosa) would break it in 1998, with Maris’ family in presence.

An old Baltimore Sun article from 1998, around the home run chase that year, detailed a disturbing fact about Maris’ stress levels in 1961:

“During the final weeks of the 1961 season, New York Yankees outfielder Roger Maris visited a doctor in Baltimore, convinced that he had contracted a serious illness because his hair had begun to fall out in small clumps. It was not a happy time. The doctor reassured him that the hair loss was merely the result of the stress that accompanied Maris’ quest to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.”

That 1961 campaign might have been difficult to bear and even painful for Maris, but on the field, it was a major success. Besides the 61 homers, he hit .269/.372/.620 (.993 OPS, 162 wRC+), scored 132 runs and drove in 142. New York would win the Fall Classic that year, too, which would be Maris’ second ring.

Post-1961 Career

Maris maintained an elite level of performance in 1962, with 33 home runs, 100 RBI and a 126 wRC+. The Yankees would go on to win their last World Series title until 1977, in large part thanks to a phenomenal defensive play by Maris.

With the Yankees leading 1-0 and the San Francisco Giants batting in the bottom of the ninth with a man on first, Willie Mays hit a double down the line. It looked like Matty Alou, the runner on first, would have plenty of time to score but Maris was so quick to cut off the ball and throw it to the cutoff man that Alou had to stay at third. The Gold Glove winner had saved the Yankees’ bacon.

Willie McCovey would line out to second base to end the World Series in favor of the Bombers.

Maris and the Yankees would return to the Fall Classic in 1963, but this time they would be swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Another World Series loss in 1964 would mark the end of an era for New York: they wouldn’t return to the last series of the season until 1976.

Maris would stay in the Bronx until 1966, and he had to endure his fair share of injuries over that frame. After that season, he was weary of New York and considered retirement. Instead, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Charley Smith; the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame wrote about how fans gave Maris a warm welcome:

“Maris was well received by the St. Louis fans in 1967 who appreciated a player with a straightforward Midwestern style. The slugger played his final two seasons with the Cardinals, helping to win the 1967 and 1968 pennants and the 1967 World Series, hitting .385 with one home run and seven RBIs. He retired after the 1968 campaign.”

Until the very end of his career, Maris was competitive and useful, helping the Cardinals to consecutive World Series berths while he was there. He finally did call it a career after 1968, when St. Louis came one win shy of back-to-back championships.

An Underrated Career

Even though he did not make it to the Hall of Fame, Maris had an amazing career marked by two incredible seasons at peak: 1960 and 1961 (7.2 and 7.1 fWAR, respectively, plus 100 home runs combined). He entered retirement after hitting 275 home runs, driving in 851 runs, and posting a 126 wRC+ and 36.9 fWAR. He won three World Series: two with the Yanks, and one with the Cardinals, and was a two-time AL MVP.

Since the league held two All-Star games per year from 1959 to 1962, Maris went to seven. He also won a Gold Glove and had his number retired by the Yankees. He is also a Monument Park honoree, and how could he not be? Even though he didn’t spend two decades in pinstripes or even one, and even though he wasn’t the most charismatic player around, he left a huge mark in franchise history and did something that no one had ever done before.

Upon calling it a career, Maris entered the beer distributing business thanks to Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. That’s how the Maris Distributing Company was born. Roger and his brother Rudy operated it, and he was happy in his new endeavors.

Maris turned down an invitation for the 1977 Old-Timers’ Game, but he was there to lift the American League pennant with a person that would be associated with him for much of his career: Mantle.

New York Yankees

The moment, as described by the Society of American Baseball Research, was electric:

“A crowd of over 44,000 surprised fans reacted with admiration and appreciation as Maris came onto the field, heavier than in his playing days, but still sporting his trademark crew cut. With chants of ‘Roger, Roger,’ ringing in his ears, it was clear that at least some of the ghosts of 1961 had been buried.”

As noted earlier, Maris later had his No. 9 retired by the Yankees in July 1984 and was honored with a plaque in Monument Park. But he sadly didn’t get to enjoy the status for very long, as he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1983 and died of the disease at age 51 on December 14, 1985.

Words cannot express what Maris had to go through at times during his Yankees tenure, particularly in 1961. He was a small-town guy who wasn’t exactly comfortable around the media, and he paid the price for that. But there is a place for him — a very big one — in the annals of baseball history. Since Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927, the closest to that number was Hank Greenberg in 1938.

Apart from Mantle, it was extremely rare to see someone eclipse 45 home runs back in those days. Maris came up and hit 61. Take a minute to really understand what he did.

Many think he was awkward and boring, but Maris was a competitor, a winner, an extremely talented baseball player and a family man. That’s success right there.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Staff rank: 28
Community rank: 21
Stats rank: 51
2013 rank: 37

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Clavin, Tom and Danny Peary. Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Golenbock, Peter. Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964. Hoboken: Prentice Hall, 1975.

Pinstripe Alley

Pruden, Bill. SABR Bio

Missouri Sports Hall of Fame

Roger Maris website

Previously on the Top 100

30. Roy White
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