Roger Maris (September 10, 1934 – December 14, 1985), was a baseball player primarily remembered for breaking Babe Ruth's 34-year-old single-season home run record in 1961. His record 61 home runs stood until 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpassed it.
Born Roger Eugene Maras in Hibbing, Minnesota, of Croatian background, Maris grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota and Fargo, North Dakota. While he was in Fargo he attended Shanley High School and was a very good athlete and participated in many sports. Later he made his Major League Baseball debut in 1957 with the Cleveland Indians. The next year, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, whom he represented in the All-Star Game in 1959 in spite of missing 45 games to an appendix operation.
Kansas City frequently traded its best players to the New York Yankees, and Maris was no exception, going to New York in a seven-player trade in December 1959.
Early on, Maris had exhibited an independent, no-nonsense personality. Recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma, he arrived in Oklahoma City on a bus and found no one from the University there to greet him. He turned around and went back to Fargo.
When he showed up in New York to join the Yankees, he was dressed in blue jeans and a sport shirt. When told to get a better wardrobe, he snapped, "If they don't like how I dress, I'll go back where I came from." That seemingly curmudgeonly side of Roger Maris only encouraged the New York sportswriters to look for things to criticize. They called Maris aloof, rude, and a hick.
Although Maris is most remembered for his record-breaking 1961 season, he was, for a number of years, a fine all-round player. In 1960, despite the already-nagging media, in his first season with the Yankees he led the league in slugging percentage, RBIs, and extra base hits and finished second in home runs (1 behind Mickey Mantle) and total bases, won a gold glove, and won the American League Most Valuable Player award, in another pennant-winning season for the Yankees.
The issue of Maris' personality was just another story in 1960. That changed dramatically in 1961. The American League expanded from 8 to 10 teams, generally watering down the pitching, but leaving the Yankees pretty much intact. Yankee home runs began to come at a record pace, and, as mid-season approached, it seemed quite possible that either Maris or Mantle, or perhaps both, would break Ruth's 34-year-old home run record. The local writers began to play the "M & M Boys" against each other, inventing a rivalry where none existed, as Yogi Berra has testified in recent interviews. The situation contrasted starkly with 1998, when both McGwire and Sosa were given extensive media coverage of a positive nature.
Earlier, in 1956, Mantle had already challenged Ruth's record for most of the season and the New York press had been protective of Ruth on that occasion also. When Mantle finally fell short, finishing with 52, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief from the New York traditionalists. Nor had the New York press been all that kind to Mantle in his early years with the team: he struck out frequently, was injury prone, was a true "hick" from Oklahoma, and was perceived as being distinctly inferior to his predecessor in center field, Joe DiMaggio. Over the course of time, however, Mantle (with a little help from his teammate Whitey Ford, a native of New York's Borough of Queens) had gotten better at "schmoozing" with the New York media. This was a talent that Maris, a blunt-spoken upper midwesterner, was never willing or able to cultivate; as a result, he wore the "surly" jacket for his duration with the Yankees.
So as 1961 progressed, the Yanks were now "Mickey Mantle's team" and Maris was ostracized as the "outsider", and "not a true Yankee," words leveled in more recent times at Alex Rodriguez, except that Rodriquez had become a Yankee by choice, whereas in Maris' day there was no choice involved. The press seemed to root for Mantle and to belittle Maris. But Mantle was felled by a leg infection late in the season, leaving Maris with the sole chance to break the record, which had already been compromised by the Major Leagues' dithering over the 8 extra games they themselves had put in the schedule, another factor totally beyond Maris' control.
In the middle of the season, Baseball commissioner Ford Frick had announced that unless Ruth's record was broken in the first 154 games of the season, the new record would be shown in the record books as having been set in 162 games while the previous record set in 154 games would also be shown. It is an urban legend, probably invented by New York sportswriter Dick Young, that an asterisk would be used to distinguish the new record.
Maris hit his 61st on October 1, 1961, the last game of the season. No asterisk was subsequently used in any record books -- Major League baseball itself had no official record book, and Frick later acknowledged that there never was official qualification of Maris' accomplishment. Maris, however, remained bitter. Speaking at the 1980 All-Star game, he said of that season, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing." Despite all the controversy, Maris was awarded the 1961 Hickok Belt for the top professional athlete of the year, as well as winning the American League's MVP Award for the second straight year. It is said, however, that the stress of pursuing the record was so great for Maris that his hair occasionally fell out in clumps during the season.
In 1962, Maris made his fourth consecutive and final All-Star game appearance. His fine defensive skills were too often overlooked. He made a game-saving play in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, preventing the San Francisco Giants from scoring the tying run, and setting up Willie McCovey's Series-ending line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson, capping what would prove to be the final World Series victory for the "old" Yankees.
Injuries slowed Maris for the next four seasons, most notably in 1965, when he played most of the season with a misdiagnosed broken bone in his hand.
In 1963, after missing a ground ball hit in a nationally televised game, he gave the middle finger to a jeering Minneapolis crowd. Now encumbered with an injured image as well as body, he was traded by the Yankees to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1966 season. The Yankees questioned Maris' courage and Maris left angry.
Maris was well-received by the St. Louis fans, who appreciated a man with a straightforward midwestern style even if the New York press did not. He played his final two seasons with the Cardinals, helping them to pennants in 1967 and 1968 and a World Series victory in 1967 (he hit .385 in the post-season). Gussie Busch, owner of the Cardinals and of Anheuser-Busch, set Maris up with a beer distributorship after he retired.
On the Indians, he wore uniform number 32 in 1957 and 5 in 1958; the Athletics first gave him uniform number 35, but in 1959 he wore number 3. On the Yankees and Cardinals, he wore number 9. The Yankees retired the number on Old-Timers' Day, July 21, 1984, and dedicated a plaque in Maris' honor to hang in the Stadium's Monument Park. The plaque calls him "A great player and author of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of major league baseball." Maris was on hand for the ceremony and wore a full Yankee uniform. His teammate Elston Howard, who had died in 1980, was also honored with the retirement of his number (32) and a Monument Park plaque that day. It is likely that the Yankees had waited to retire the number 9 until third baseman Graig Nettles, who had worn it since 1973, left the team following the 1983 season.
Maris was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1983. In response he organized the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament to raise money for cancer research and treatment. Maris died in December 1985 in Houston, Texas at the age of 51. A Roman Catholic, he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota. He remains a hero in his hometown of Fargo. There's Roger Maris Drive, the free-admission Roger Maris Museum and, most of all, The Roger Maris Cancer Center, the fund raising beneficiary of the annual golf tournament.