Roger Maris: Baseball’s Forgotten Home Run King

Phil Rossi
Roger Maris, circa 1960The Maris Family

The steroid-free player who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record

In 1961, Roger Maris, a right fielder for the New York Yankees, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. In 1927, Ruth hit 60 dingers. The Babe’s record stood for 34 years until Maris hit his 61st in the fourth inning of the last game of the ’61 season.

The sportswriters of the day didn’t care for Roger Maris. They saw his feat and record chase as a fluke. A great record by the game’s biggest icon, befallen by a decent and only better-than-average player?

Despite the sportswriters’ ire, Maris was a very good baseball player and much better than marginal. His career numbers speak for themselves. Not eye-popping, but nothing to sneer at either.

Roger Maris was a 7-time All-Star. He also won two American League MVPs (’60 and ’61) and 2 AL RBI crowns (’60 and ‘61). He also won 3 World Series titles (’61 and ’62 with the Yankees, and ’67 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals) and one Gold Glove award.

In his 12 MLB seasons, Roger’s per year stats: 30 home runs, 94 runs batted in, with a .260 batting average. He may never make the Hall-of-Fame, but in today’s financial climate, a slugging bat who would cash out big time in the modern era of free agency and multi-year contracts.

Maris was traded to the Yankees from the Kansas City A’s before the 1960 season. Maris came of age with the Yankees. Healthy, experienced, and surrounded by Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Moose Skowron, opposing teams couldn’t pitch around him.

In 1960, Maris hit 39 home runs. In 1962, during the follow-up season, he hit 33. In every other season except from ’60 through ’62, Roger Maris never hit more than 28 home runs.

In baseball circles, Roger Maris becoming the single-season record-holder was blasphemous. The writers wouldn't let up.

It was the snobbery of the baseball world who wanted to see Ruth keep the record. How dare a player with a career-high of 39 home runs in a single season topple the Babe?

By 1961, MLB had already instituted a 162-game schedule. In 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, MLB played a 154-game season. The writers conspired with MLB to place an asterisk next to Roger Maris’ name should he surpass Ruth with a new record.

After the 154th game of the 1961 season, Maris had 59 home runs. Failing to tie, much less beat Ruth’s 60 home runs within the original season length.

At this point, the writers turned up the vitriol against Maris. Obtained in a trade, his pedigree dismissed. Not a real and homegrown Yankee, like the beloved Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

Many of the sportswriters of the day covered Babe Ruth. Some were personal friends and remained loyal to Ruth and his legacy. They didn’t want the record to be broken. Not by the likes of Roger Maris — the non-Yankee and average Joe.

During the ’61 season, Maris and Mantle were in the midst of a home run race. Marred by injuries, Mickey Mantle was forced to miss too many games and at-bats to catch Roger. Mantle would finish the campaign with 54 homers. The rest is history.

I witnessed McGwire's and Sosa’s home run battle as it played out. I was enthused. I rooted for McGwire to break the record. To be a part of baseball history.

Records, great records like this, are classic and historic. It wasn’t about McGwire and Sosa. It was about the game and the lore of baseball. Great sluggers who came before and couldn’t pass Ruth and Maris themselves.

McGwire was a god. The home run battle with Sammy Sosa saved baseball. MLB, still reeling from the 1994 player’s strike that canceled the season and the World Series had almost destroyed the game.

It took years and events like this to bring back the fans. Slowly, and with each season, MLB continued its steep climb back. From the brink to relevancy.

On the day McGwire broke Roger’s record, he embraced the Maris family. They were in attendance, invited by the St. Louis Cardinals. (Roger passed away in 1985 at the age of 51 to cancer).

At the press conference following the game, McGwire paid homage to Roger Maris. He addressed the turmoil and anguish Maris suffered through the rest of his career and shortened life. Disrespected and disparaged by the press and baseball snobs. A great and historic moment.

McGwire would launch 8 more bombs that year, establishing a new single-season high of 70 home runs. (Sosa would also surpass 61 home runs, totaling 66).

After 1998 was all said and done, like most baseball fans, I felt duped. Once the dust settled on that historic season, steroid allegations arose. To me and many fans, McGwire’s and Sosa’s records became fraudulent.

Steroids are illegal substances and their use is banned by MLB. As the rule today, it was the rule in 1998. PED’s equal cheating. Enhanced anti-bodies enhance stats, numbers, and performance. All the things that enter and manipulate the record books.

McGwire’s, Sosa’s, and Barry Bonds’ home run records are farcical. A sham propagated by players and supported by owners. All at the expense of baseball, its rich traditions, and its fans.

To the credit of the writers covering the sport, they pounced on the rumors of alleged steroid use. Their reporting and stories uncovered these hidden truths.

The team owners and MLB commissioner, Bud Selig, were always accused of playing dumb. Turning a blind eye to PED use. In their minds, whatever it took to revive the sport, hallelujah.

Once the level of interest returned, America’s Favorite Past Time enjoyed record attendance, merchandise sales, and lucrative TV contracts. In spite of regained health and record profits, MLB let greed and the almighty dollar taint its game and trick the public.

In the wake of 1998 and MLB’s steroid era, Roger Maris. A humble man who played by the rules. The player who climbed and conquered.

Here’s my asterisk: Roger Maris is still the reigning home run king for one season. He broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record fair and square.

Roger Maris set records and standards by showing up to the ballpark every day. For his teammates, his organization, the fans, and the sport. He played the game to help his team win. Along the way, he achieved personal success.

A legitimate record by a legitimate baseball player. Roger Maris accomplished all of this, and he did so steroid-free.

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ

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