The unique career of Roger Maris

September 21st, 2022

Aaron Judge has brought Roger Maris’ name back to the forefront of the baseball conversation, just as Mark McGwire and did in 1998. 

In 1961, Maris hit 61 home runs, one more than Babe Ruth did in '27, setting a new Major League record. That stood until 1998, when first McGwire and then Sosa broke it in a chase that captivated the nation. Yet Maris’ 61 still stands as the American League and Yankees records -- for now. Judge hit No. 60 on Tuesday night (with two of Maris’ sons in attendance in the Bronx) and appears primed to tie and then surpass Maris in the coming days.

Maris, who died at the age of 51 in 1985, will always be associated with the number 61. But his unique career was about more than that. So here are nine stats and facts that tell the story of Maris, whose No. 9 was retired by the Yankees in '84.

1. If Maris is known for one season, it’s 1961. So would you believe that it arguably wasn’t even his best all-around season? That idea seems laughable at first, but if you go by wins above replacement (WAR), it’s true. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR credits Maris with 7.5 in 1960 and 6.9 in ‘61; FanGraphs’ version has him with 7.2 in ‘60 and 7.1 in ‘61.

Those are tiny and perhaps even meaningless differences in the context of WAR, but the point is, Maris wasn’t exactly a one-year wonder. The reason WAR has his 1960 campaign as roughly even or better than ‘61? Maris hit nearly as well on a rate basis (160 OPS+ vs. 167), albeit in 25 fewer games played, but had a career year defensively in right field according to the metrics we have available. Baseball-Reference credits him with 19 fielding runs in 1960 (when he won a Gold Glove Award), but just one in ‘61.

2. More than 60 years later, those seasons stand the test of time -- even in the decorated history of this franchise. The only other Yankees to have even one 6-WAR season as a right fielder (per Baseball-Reference) are Ruth and Judge.

3. Those amazing back-to-back seasons created two hotly contested AL MVP Award races. And Maris’ own teammate was his toughest challenger. In 1960, Maris (225 points) edged Mickey Mantle (222 points), despite Mantle getting more first-place votes (10-8). Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson (211 points) was a close third. In ‘61, Maris eked out another one over Mantle, 202-198 (and 7-6 in first-place votes).

To this day, those stand as two of the eight closest MVP Award votes since the Baseball Writers’ Association of America began using its current voting process in 1938.

4. Maris is one of 32 players to win multiple MVP Awards, but one of just 13 to win them in consecutive seasons.

5. Yet Maris is the rare multi-time MVP Award winner who is not in the Hall of Fame. If you remove four active players (Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout) and two whose otherwise overwhelming cases have been marred by PEDs (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez), you’re left with 26 players in that group. Of those, Maris is one of just three not enshrined in Cooperstown, along with Juan Gonzalez and Dale Murphy.

6. During that 1961 season, Maris put together one of the most dominant campaigns by a hitter against a single opponent in Major League history. In 18 games against the White Sox, he hit .380/.429/1.014 with 13 home runs and 26 RBIs. Maris remains one of only six players to go deep at least 13 times against a team in a season. (Lou Gehrig has the record of 14 against Cleveland in '36, but that was in 23 games).

But unlike when current Yankee Gleyber Torres tied Maris with 13 homers against the 2019 Orioles, Maris didn’t accomplish the feat at the expense of a team with 100-plus losses. The 1961 White Sox went 86-76, finished fourth in the 10-team AL and also ranked fourth in ERA.

7. The most shocking number associated with Maris’ 1961 might be zero. That’s how many times Yankees opponents issued him an intentional walk that season. Now, there is a good reason for that: Maris spent the vast majority of the year batting third, with Mantle right behind him. Nonetheless, the fact that a reigning MVP could break the single-season home run record and not be walked intentionally even a single time is mind boggling, especially in this context:

Most IBB in a 60-HR season
37: Sammy Sosa (2001)
35: Barry Bonds (2001)
28: Mark McGwire (1998)
21: Mark McGwire (1999)
17: Aaron Judge (2022 - through Tuesday)
14: Sammy Sosa (1998)
8: Sammy Sosa (1999)
0: Roger Maris (1927)

Note: Official IBB data does not go back far enough to give us a total for Ruth’s 1927, but he likely had a lot. Ruth walked 137 times that year, and one SABR study found that even in '23, opponents handed him 80 intentional passes.

8. As noted, Maris had more than one great season. But it is true that 1961 was a major outlier for him in terms of home runs. And that sets him apart among the six sluggers with at least one 60-homer season.

Second-highest single-season HR total
65: Mark McGwire (1999)
64: Sammy Sosa (2001)
59: Babe Ruth (1921)
52: Aaron Judge (2017)
49: Barry Bonds (2000)
39: Roger Maris (1960)

Top HR season as % of career total
22.2%: Roger Maris (61 of 275)
12.0%: Mark McGwire (70 of 583)
10.8%: Sammy Sosa (66 of 609)
9.6%: Barry Bonds (73 of 762)
8.4%: Babe Ruth (60 of 714)
N/A - Aaron Judge (active)

9. Because Maris is so closely associated with that 1961 season, it’s difficult to think of him in anything but Yankees pinstripes. But he actually played for three other teams: Cleveland (1957-58), the Kansas City A’s ('58-59) and St. Louis ('67-68).

And despite playing in five World Series and winning two rings with the Yankees (in 1961-62), it was actually with the Cardinals that Maris enjoyed his finest postseason. That came in '67, after the Yankees traded him the prior offseason for infielder Charley Smith. In a dramatic, seven-game Fall Classic against the Red Sox, Maris hit .385/.433/.538 and was second on the team in hits (10) and first in RBIs (seven).