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Roger Maris

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by David Zingler

Cleveland Indians 1957-58
Kansas City Athletics 1958-59
New York Yankees 1960-66
St. Louis Cardinals 1967-68

It's hard to imagine rooting against someone breaking a record. After all wouldn't we, the fans, only beating cheating ourselves. We watch and attend games to be entertained, to see the extraordinary - what could be more thrilling than seeing history? That is what Roger Maris must have been thinking in 1961. It has been well documented that Maris wasn't exactly the people's choice to break the record. He was booed and ridiculed. He wasn't good enough - he was no Babe Ruth or even Mickey Mantle for that matter. He was what he was and he wasn't going to apologize for it - here is his story.

Roger Eugene Maris was born on September 10, 1934 in Hibbing, MN. He grew up right across the border in Fargo, ND where his family moved when he was eight. Maris starred in basketball and football at Shanley High School and played American Legion baseball (Shanley did not have a baseball team). As a sophomore he met his future wife, Pat, at a high school basketball game. Maris set a national high school record by returning four kickoffs for touchdowns in one game as a senior. The all state halfback gained interested from legendary coach Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, but Maris career as a Sooner was over before it began. Upon looking at the entrance exam, he decided that college wasn't for him and returned to Fargo.

The Cleveland Indians were the next team to deal with Maris' stubborn streak. After signing him to a contract that included a $5,000 bonus, the Indians wanted Maris to start at the Class D level. He refused saying that he would not play at the D level and that if he wasn't assigned to Fargo of the Class C level he would head home. He would be in Fargo either way. The Indians balked at first, saying they never put a player in his home town, but eventually gave into the young Maris' demands. During his only year in Fargo he hit .325 with 9 home runs and demanded to be moved to Class B for the next season. The Tribe again met his demands starting him at Keokuk. Maris would spend two more years in the minors between Tulsa, Reading, and Indianapolis before finally making his major league debut in 1957.

During his first year in the bigs, the 22 year old put up solid numbers (.235 14 HR 51 RBI) and played spectacular defense. During the 1958 season he was dealt to the Kansas City Athletics who were known around the league as the "Yankees farm club." In 1959, his only full season in Kansas City, Maris hit .273 with 16 home runs and 72 RBIs in 122 games. Following that season the Athletics dealt Maris along with two other players to the Yankees for four players including Don Larsen and Hank Bauer.

In 1960 Roger Maris broke out. He led the Yankees to the pennant hitting .283 with 39 home runs (one behind the league leader Mantle), and a league leading 112 RBIs. The Yanks lost the World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but Maris captured his first MVP (Mantle finished second) and his only Gold Glove.

Maris' star continued it's rise during his legendary 1961 season. He started off slowly hitting only one home run in April, but began to heat up in May hitting 11 round trippers. Maris continued his assault on American League pitching by hitting 15 more homers in the month of June. At the end of August he had an unprecedented 50.

Breaking the record, however, was not as cut-and-dry as it seemed. In 1961 because of expansion the schedule was expanded from 154 games to 162. Commissioner Ford Frick, a staunch Babe Ruth supporter, declared two records would be created if the record was not surpassed in 154 games. If anyone hit 61 in 154 games the record would be theirs. If it took more than 154 games, an asterisk would be placed next to it and both Ruth and the new record holder would be placed in the books.

During most of the summer teammate Mickey Mantle was hot on Roger's heels, relieving some of the pressure from the aloof Maris. But when Mantle was shelved in September because of an infection, all of the pressure was thrust onto the unwilling Maris. He did not react well, he became very distant and irritable. His hair began to fall out in clumps. Coming into the 154th game in Baltimore, Ruth's birthplace, Maris had 58 home runs. He did hit one that game increasing his total to 59, but to the delight of most he was held hitless his last to at bats and Ruth's record remained safe according to the baseball hierarchy.

Maris, of course, did surpass Ruth's mark in the 162nd, and last, game of the season - the infamous asterisk was born. Only 23,154 saw Maris make history. Most of them were there in hopes of getting the $5,000 bounty that was placed on the potential record setting ball. Truck driver Sal Durante caught the ball and offered it Maris - Maris declined, telling Durante to cash it in. That was vintage Roger Maris.

The Bronx Bombers went on to defeat Cincinnati in the World Series. Maris hit only .105, but did belt the winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 3. Following the Series the post-season awards began to roll in. Maris received his second straight MVP and also garnered Sport Magazine's Man of the Year, The Sporting News Player of the Year, the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards.

Maris put up solid numbers in 1962 hitting 33 home runs with 100 RBIs, was named to his fourth All Star Game, and helped the Yankees win the World Series again. However, he never again came close to duplicating his magical 1961 season.

Maris played only 90 games in his injury plagued 1963 season, but did hit 23 home runs. He bounced back with a solid 1964 campaign hitting .281 with 26 home runs and 71 RBIs, but the Yanks fell short against the Cardinals in World Series. It would be his final Fall Classic with the Yankees. A hand injury limited Maris to 46 games in 1965, and after another sub par season in 1966 he was dealt to St. Louis.

Maris spent his two seasons in St. Louis as a part time right fielder. He helped them defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series by hitting .385 with 7 RBI in 1967. Maris wanted to retire following the Series, but Cards owner August Busch talked him into playing one more year by promising him a Budweiser distributorship after the season. In 1968, the Cards again made it to the Fall Classic, but lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. Maris retired, and August Busch made good on his promise.

Maris' distributorship in Gainesville, FL made him a wealthy man. He spent the last 17 years of his life in Gainesville with his wife and six children. The Yankees retired his #9 in 1984. On December 14, 1985 Roger Maris died of lymphatic cancer, he was only 51. In 1991, thirty years after his record setting season, Commissioner Faye Vincent finally removed the asterisk and Roger Maris was baseball's official single season home run king.

Roger Maris' career lasted 12 seasons, he played in 1463 regular season games hitting .260 with 275 home runs and 851 RBIs. He had 1325 career hits and a .476 career slugging percentage.

-David Zingler, November 2001

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