Maris battled Mantle, media and Babe's legacy

Updated: October 16, 2005, 9:11 PM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"It fell to Roger Maris to break the sexiest record in professional sports. That will always be the line on Maris' baseball epitaph," says Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury show.

Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth's record by hitting 61 homers in 1961, will be profiled on Saturday, October 30 at 4 p.m. ET.

While Hank Aaron had to deal with anonymous enemies as he chased Babe Ruth's career home-run record,

Roger Maris
Despite his monster '61 season, Maris finished with just 275 homers in his 12-year career.
Roger Maris at least knew his antagonist when he sought to break the Babe's single-season record in 1961. Commissioner Ford Frick's insistence on creating two records ultimately had the opposite effect; it pointed up the negligible difference in establishing major league marks broken within the old 154-game schedule and the newer 162-game schedule.

This alteration in perspective, however, did Maris little good in his pursuit of immortality. Quiet and shy, he recoiled from the incessant media attention. The pressure of his drive to beat the Babe so frayed Maris that he began losing his composure and his hair.

The left-handed hitting rightfielder wasn't the people's choice to break the 34-year-old record. Most Yankees fans were rooting for his home-grown teammate, Mickey Mantle. But an infection forced the Mick out of the race in September, and he finished with 54 homers.

Of the 275 homers Maris hit in his 12-year career, 61 came this season. No. 59 was slugged in the Yankees' 154th game to a decision (Game No. 155 overall) off Milt Pappas in Baltimore, Ruth's hometown. He tied Babe with his 60th in Game 158, off Baltimore's Jack Fisher. Maris broke Ruth's record with a blow into the rightfield seats at Yankee Stadium off Boston's Tracy Stallard on the last day of the season.

The crowd was a mere 23,154, many of them packed into the rightfield seats to try for the $5,000 posted for the ball by a Sacramento restaurateur. The modest attendance was attributable to the slighted significance given to the feat by Frick's ruling and by Yankee management's unwillingness to hype the event.

When truck driver Sal Durante sought to give Maris the ball he had caught in the stands, the star declined, insisting that Durante should receive the bounty. He would say later that Durante's generosity meant more to him than the media pressures and the catcalls from the pro-Ruth and pro-Mantle fans.

Maris was born on Sept. 10, 1934, in Hibbing, Minn. When Roger was eight, his family moved to North Dakota, eventually settling in Fargo. Roger and older brother Rudy starred in football and basketball at Shanley High School. In a game as a senior, Roger returned four kickoffs for touchdowns to set a national high school record.

The school, like many in North Dakota, had no baseball program because of the cold weather. But the Maris brothers played American Legion ball, and Roger led his team to a state championship.

While a sophomore at Shanley, Maris met his future wife Pat at a high school basketball game.

Recruited by the legendary Bud Wilkinson to play football at Oklahoma, Maris chose instead to sign with the Cleveland Indians. After four seasons in the minors - with stops at Fargo-Moorhead, Keokuk, Tulsa, Reading and Indianapolis - Maris made his major league debut in 1957 with the Indians, batting .235 with 14 homers and 51 RBI in 116 games.

In June 1958, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, a move that was widely seen as a prelude to a second swap, to New York. American League president Will Harridge, already under fire for allowing Kansas City to operate as a "big-league farm club" for the Yankees, was moved to caution the Athletics not to send the outfielder to the Bronx for at least 18 months.

Kansas City owner Arnold Johnson took the pledge, and at one point was on the verge of dealing Maris to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Bill Mazeroski. However, he finally succumbed and in December 1959, he sent the budding star to New York along with two other players for four Yankees, including Hank Bauer and Don Larsen.

In the meantime, Maris had produced a .240 average, 28 homers and 80 RBI in 1958 and .273, 16, and 72 in 1959.

Maris' first year in pinstripes, in 1960, netted him the first of two consecutive MVP awards. The 6-foot, 197-pound outfielder belted 39 homers (one behind Mantle's league-leading 40), led the AL with 112 RBI and a .581 slugging percentage, hit a career-high .283 and won his only Gold Glove. While the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to the Pirates, Maris hit two homers.

His 1960 performance was quickly eclipsed, however, by the circus atmosphere surrounding his 1961 effort.
Roger Maris (l) and Mickey Mantle's (r) home run race in 1961 even garnered the attention of former President Harry Truman.
Maris began the season unostentatiously, hitting only one homer in April. But then he picked up steam, belting 11 in May and 15 in June. He became the first player in history to hit 50 by the end of August.

Conspicuous was the media caravan that grew longer the closer Maris got to Ruth's fabled number and his increasingly sullen reactions to being the center of national attention. Making everything worse were the Frick ruling and the media-inspired feud with Mantle. The pair shared an apartment in Queens with outfielder Bob Cerv during the season and marveled at the daily reports of their mutual hostility.

Besides finishing with 61 homers - the only time Maris reached 40 - he also led the AL in total bases (366), RBI (142) and runs (132, tied with Mantle) while batting .269. Maris' home-run record lasted 37 years, until Mark McGwire broke it with 70 in 1998.

Maris won the Hickok Belt as the best professional athlete of the year and was voted 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's Sportsman of the Year.

Though Maris batted only .105 as the Yankees defeated Cincinnati in the World Series, his ninth-inning homer won the third game, 3-2.

In 1962, Maris' numbers dropped considerably - 33 homers, 100 RBI and .256 batting average - though he was named to the All-Star team for a fourth straight year. In Game 7 of the World Series, he ran down Willie Mays' ninth-inning, two-out double and held Matty Alou at third. When Ralph Terry retired Willie McCovey, the Yankees were 1-0 winners and world champions again.

While injuries limited him to 90 games in 1963, he did manage 23 homers and 53 RBI as the Yankees won their fourth straight pennant. The following year was a slight improvement (a .281 average, his second highest with the Yankees, 26 homers and 71 RBI). In the World Series, his last with the Yankees, he hit .200 with one homer as New York lost to St. Louis.

But 1965 was a disaster as a hand injury sidelined him for all but 46 games (.239, eight homers). The next season, he rebounded to play 119 games but batted only .233 with 13 homers. That December, Maris was dealt to the Cardinals for third baseman Charley Smith.

With his power gone, Maris hit only 14 homers with 100 RBI in his two seasons as a part-time rightfielder for St. Louis. However, he flourished in the 1967 World Series, batting .385 with seven RBI as the Cardinals defeated Boston in seven games. In the 1968 World Series, he hit only .158 with one RBI as the Cardinals lost to Detroit in seven.

Maris, who retired with a .260 average and 851 RBI, had wanted to quit after 1967, but St. Louis owner Gussie Busch persuaded him to stay another season by offering him an Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Gainesville, Fla. Running it with his brother Rudy, the deal made Roger a wealthy man.

He moved to Gainesville, where he and Pat raised their six children (Roger Jr., Kevin, Randy, Richard, Susan and Sandra). The Yankees retired his No. 9 on July 21, 1984.

Seventeen months later, on Dec. 14, 1985, he died of lymphatic cancer in Houston. Roger Maris was 51.

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