Maris up for Hall of Fame consideration

December 1st, 2021
Design by Tom Forget

On Dec. 5, the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee (pre-1950) and Golden Days Era Committee (1950-69) will meet to vote on 10-player ballots, with the results announced live on MLB Network that night at 6 p.m. ET. We're here to offer a primer on the 20 players who are up for consideration. Click here to view the other posts.

Player: Roger Maris

Years: 1957-68

Career stats: .260/.345/.476, 1,325 H, 275 HR, 850 RBI, 21 SB

Though he lacks the career statistical milestones typically associated with Hall of Fame sluggers, Roger Maris undoubtedly left an indelible mark on baseball history -- and, more specifically, the era The Golden Days committee is tasked with evaluating.

Born in Hibbing, Minn., on Sept. 10, 1934, Maris moved to North Dakota with his family when he was a child and graduated from Bishop Shanley High School in Fargo. Maris signed with Cleveland as an amateur free agent and made his debut with the club in 1957. The following June, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics with Dick Tomanek and Preston Ward for Woodie Held and Vic Power.

After earning his first All-Star selection in 1959, the outfielder was traded to the Yankees with Joe DeMaestri and Kent Hadley for Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern and Marv Throneberry.

Joining Mickey Mantle as one half of the “M&M Boys,” it was in New York that Maris blossomed into one of the top players in the game. While he was a member of the Bronx Bombers, Maris won two MVP Awards and two World Series titles and broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61 dingers in 1961.

After seven seasons with the Yankees, Maris was traded to the Cardinals and spent his last two seasons in St. Louis, where he won another World Series championship. Maris was 34 years old when he played his final MLB game, so he didn’t have a chance to reach some of the benchmarks that might have given him a better shot at the Hall of Fame when he was on the BBWAA ballot. 

In his 15 years on the ballot, he peaked at 43.1% of the vote in 1988, his 15th and final year of BBWAA eligibility. But he now has another chance at Cooperstown enshrinement. Here’s why Maris’ career still resonates, more than 50 years after his final season and more than three decades after he passed away at the age of 51 in 1985.

61 in 1961

Any conversation about Maris’ legacy has to start with 1961, one of the most famous individual seasons in MLB history. 

In 1927, Ruth set the single-season AL/NL standard with 60 home runs. That mark stood for 33 years, with several challengers coming close but falling short. There were 10 50-homer seasons from 1928-60 -- two by Jimmie Foxx, two by Ralph Kiner, and one each from Ruth, Mantle, Hank Greenberg, Willie Mays, Johnny Mize and Hack Wilson. Foxx and Greenberg came closest to 60, with 58 big flies in 1932 and 1938, respectively.

Entering 1961, Maris had never even reached the 40-mark, topping out at 39 homers during his American League MVP Award-winning 1960 season. But in 1961, he went off, engaging in an epic race with Mantle to top Ruth’s record.

With some fans feeling he wasn’t worthy of breaking the Great Bambino’s record, Maris received hate mail and death threats throughout the season, and the introverted outfielder dealt with such stress during the chase that his hair began to fall out.

A further source of controversy stemmed from the newly expanded 162-game regular season schedule, which was eight games longer than the schedule played in 1927 when Ruth hit 60. Then-commissioner Ford C. Frick called a press conference and declared that a player must hit more than 60-plus homers in the first 154 games of the season to be considered the true record holder. Frick called for a distinctive mark -- an asterisk was suggested by New York Daily News columnist Dick Young -- to be added to the record books if anyone broke the record after 154 games. (There was no “official” Major League record book at the time, so Frick’s decree was a recommendation that independent record keepers had no obligation to follow.)

Maris fought through the noise and on the final day of the regular season hit his 61st homer of the year, breaking Ruth’s record with a solo shot to right field in the bottom of the fourth inning in a 1-0 win over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

The 1998 home run chase saw both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa top Maris’ mark with 70 and 66 homers, respectively, and Barry Bonds set a new record with 73 in 2001, but performance-enhancing drug allegations have caused some to question the validity of those feats.

Back-to-back MVPs

Maris’ 1961 performance earned him AL MVP honors for the second straight season. In addition to the 61 home runs, Maris hit .269 with 141 RBIs, 132 runs, 366 total bases and a .993 OPS.

The outfielder won the AL MVP Award in his first year with the Yankees after hitting .283 with 39 homers, 112 RBIs, 98 runs, 290 total bases and a .952 OPS.

While 32 players all time have won multiple MVP Awards (including versions of the award that predate the modern Baseball Writers' Association of America MVP Award), Maris is one of only 13 individuals since the BBWAA MVP Award was established in 1931 to go back to back.

Even more impressive is that he earned those MVPs while he was a teammate of the iconic Mantle, who finished second behind Maris in both 1960 and 1961 before winning his third MVP in 1962.

From 1959-64, there were few better

Maris’ two MVP seasons were part of a six-year stretch (1959-64) in which he produced 198 home runs, 549 RBIs and an .890 OPS (142 OPS+) over 807 games.

Among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances in that span, Maris ranked ninth in OPS+ behind seven Hall of Famers -- Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda -- and Norm Cash.

Only Killebrew, Mays, Aaron, Rocky Colavito and Mantle had more homers than Maris in those six years.

Three World Series titles

In the 12 years from 1947-58, encompassing the end of the Joe DiMaggio era and the beginning of the Mantle era in the Bronx, the Yankees won eight World Series titles and made the Fall Classic two other times. But in 1959, the year before Maris joined the team, New York went 79-75, posting its worst winning percentage (.513) since 1925.

The addition of Maris gave the Bronx Bombers another star position player to go with Mantle and an aging Yogi Berra, and the Yanks quickly returned to their winning ways. Only Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series prevented the Yankees from taking the crown that year, and the team finished the job in 1961 and 1962 before losing in the World Series in 1963 and 1964.

Maris earned his third championship ring in his first season with the Cardinals as St. Louis defeated the Red Sox in seven games. In helping the Cards win it all, Maris put some of his past World Series struggles behind him, leading all players with seven RBIs and hitting .385 (10-for-26) with one homer and a .972 OPS.

Maris helped the Cardinals reach another World Series in 1968, though they were defeated by the Tigers in seven games. He’s tied for 10th all time with Ruth in World Series games played (41).