Roger Maris' home run #58, September 17, 1961, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit (12th inning). Public Domain.

Reflecting on the Legacy of Roger Maris, The Original “Home Run King”

61 years. Roger Maris has held on to the American League record for most home runs in a season for 61 years. During that time, 12 U.S. presidents have taken office. 21 teams have been added to the National Basketball Association. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Amazon have taken the world by storm.

’61. Maris etched his name into the MLB history books in 1961. That same year, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her tenth year as the Queen of the United Kingdom. The Marvelettes released their debut single, “Please Mr. Postman”. Walt Disney Studios released the original “101 Dalmatians”.

61 home runs. Maris surpassed the legendary Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs on Oct. 1, 1961. No one in baseball touched 61 until 1998, when Mark McGwire hit 65 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds went on to surpass 61 home runs as well. However, all three men used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers.

Additionally, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds all surpassed the 61-mark playing for National League teams. As a result, Maris still held the American League record. His record lasted up to the 2022 season, with Yankees superstar Aaron Judge hot on his trail all season long. Eventually, Judge tied his record on Sept. 28 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Judge will likely break Maris’ record any day now. But even after Judge sends ball #62 deep into the stands, Maris will not be forgotten any time soon. Despite unfair treatment from the media and fans both during and after his career, Maris left behind a stellar legacy and made his mark on Major League Baseball forever. Baseball fans will never forget about when Roger Maris hit 61 in ’61.

Early Years In Baseball

Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, on Sept. 10, 1934, Roger Maris showed clear athletic prowess early on in his life. According to his official website, Maris originally played football and basketball at Shanley High School in North Dakota. Since North Dakota high schools did not play baseball, Maris took part in the  American Legion Baseball program every summer.

After graduating from high school, Maris declined a scholarship offer to play football for the University of Oklahoma. He instead chose to pursue a career in professional baseball, signing a minor-league deal with the Cleveland Indians. In four years in the minors, Maris turned in a .303 batting average while blasting out 78 home runs.

Eventually, Maris made his major-league debut with the Indians in 1957. Just two days after his debut, Maris hit a grand slam against the Detroit Tigers for his first career home run. But it would not be his last one. Not even close.

New York Yankees outfielder en:Roger Maris in a 1960 issue of Baseball Digest. Public Domain

After belting out 14 home runs in his rookie year, Maris was dealt to the Kansas City Athletics midway through the 1958 season. Maris finished his sophomore campaign with 28 home runs and a .240 batting average. The following year, he earned his first All-Star game appearance.

Despite missing 45 games due to an appendix operation, Maris still managed to finish the 1959 season with 16 home runs and a .273 batting average. With Maris gaining more recognition across the league, the Athletics opted to deal him to the New York Yankees prior to the 1960 season.

Blossoming With The Yankees

Maris took a major leap in his first season with the Yankees. In his 136 appearances during the 1960 season, Maris racked up then-career highs of 39 home runs and 112 RBIs. He also finished the year with a .283 batting average. Maris led the Yankees to a 97-57 record and an American League pennant. Unfortunately, the Yankees fell short in the 1960 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates came out on top in a tightly contested game seven that saw the Yankees lose 10-9.

Nevertheless, Maris had already established himself as one of the best players in baseball. He won the 1960 American League Most Valuable Player award. Maris also received a Gold Glove Award for his superb fielding. Despite this recognition, Maris and the Yankees still had one ultimate goal in mind: to get back to the World Series and win it.

Following their success the previous year, the Yankees entered the 1961 season with sky-high expectations. With a squad that featured some of the best players in baseball, including Maris, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, many saw the Yankees as favorites to win that year’s World Series. However, another notable storyline began to emerge following changes to the American League schedule format.

The AL introduced two new expansion teams that expanded their league to ten teams. In order to keep their schedule balanced for the 1961 season, they elected to extend their season from 154 games to 162 games. This created speculation that someone from the Yankees could perhaps break the home run record set by Babe Ruth in 1927.

61 in ’61

As the season progressed, Maris and his teammate Mantle both put together impressive campaigns that posed a challenge to Ruth’s record. The pair became known as the “M&M Boys” as they faced intense media scrutiny, as the press attempted to pit the two against each other. Maris and Mantle sat atop the home run leaderboard all season long, frequently switching back-and-forth at the number one spot.

Eventually, Mantle suffered a hip injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. Mantle finished the year with 54 home runs, failing to surpass Ruth’s record. Maris, on the other hand, stayed healthy and continued marching towards the 61-mark.

New York Yankees outfielder Roger Maris hits a home run to right field (maked with ×) in the top of the 12th inning off Detroit Tigers pitcher Terry Fox at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. It would prove to be the winning run as the Yankees went on to win, 6–4. Public Domain

However, he faced an uphill battle both on and off the field. Maris received plenty of negative press during the 1961 season, with the media giving Mantle more preferential coverage. Fans were incensed at the idea of Ruth’s record being broken. Even then-MLB commissioner Ford Frick, a close friend of Ruth’s, suggested that his record should still stand on its own should anyone break it during the 162-game season.

With the whole world watching his every move, Maris remained focused on the task at hand. The closer he got to Ruth’s record, the more pressure Maris faced. Eventually, he tied Ruth with his 60th home run of the season against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 26. Five days later, on Oct. 1, 1961, Maris hit his 61st home run of the season. The record had been broken. As the entire country looked on, Roger Maris officially etched his name into the Major League Baseball history books. He had officially become a legend.

Later Years In The MLB

Maris and the Yankees continued to make history in the 1961 postseason. The Yankees cruised back to the World Series, where they took care of business in five games against the Cincinnati Reds. Additionally, Maris won his second consecutive MVP award with ease. Roger Maris had become a World Series Champion and a two-time MVP. Most baseball players can only dream of a resume like that.

Maris put together another strong campaign in the 1962 season, finishing the year with 33 home runs and 100 RBIs en route to another World Series victory. In the Yankees’ game seven matchup with the San Francisco Giants, Maris made a game-saving throw in the bottom of the ninth inning to tag out the tying run for the Giants.

 

Soon after the 1962 season, Maris faced multiple injury woes that limited his time on the field. He only played in 90 games during the 1963 season. The Yankees were swept in the World Series by the Dodgers that year; Maris suffered an injury in game two that forced him to miss the rest of the series.

Despite a bounce-back campaign in 1964 where he hit 26 home runs in 141 games, Maris continued struggling with injuries as his career went on. The Yankees eventually traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 1967 season. Maris helped guide the Cardinals to a 1967 World Series victory; he maintained a .385 batting average throughout the series.

Life And Legacy After Baseball

Eventually, Maris retired from baseball in 1968. In his 12-year career, Maris knocked out 275 home runs and drove in 850 runs with a .260 batting average. Following his retirement, Maris settled in Gainesville, Florida, operating an Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship with his older brother, Rudy.

Maris also became an avid supporter of the Oak Hall School in his later years. His children played baseball at the school, and his son Kevin currently coaches the Oak Hall Eagles baseball team. The Eagles play all their home games at Roger Maris Field to this day.

Roger Maris’ plaque in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

In 1983, Maris received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. He passed away on Dec. 14, 1985 at the age of 51. Prior to his passing, he founded the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament, which raises money for cancer research. The tournament is still running and going strong to this day.

The Yankees retired Maris’ number 9 jersey on July 22, 1984. However, he still has not been inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Despite the apparent snub, many still remember Maris as one of the greatest Yankees (and greatest baseball players) to ever live.

No matter how many records are broken or how many players come and go, a famous quote from the 1993 movie “The Sandlot” summarizes the legacy of Maris and all baseball legends: “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” And Roger Maris will always be a legend. Now and forever.

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a second-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

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