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September 13, 2004

A Star Nobody Wanted To See Twinkle
by Mad Mike

The Phenom

“Some men are born great, others achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Roger Maris didn’t ask for much. He wanted to play baseball and do it to the best of his abilities and of course -- win. Nobody knew better what Roger Maris had to do to achieve that than Roger Maris.

Maris was never afforded that luxury.

Roger Maris was initially drafted and signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1953 and was considered a five-tool talent. He could: hit, hit with power, run, catch and throw. He was also known as being a very strong willed, strong minded young man. Generally youthful talents in that era were deferential when they first entered the professional ranks because they were awed and grateful that a major league team had shown enough interest in their skills to offer a contract.

Not Maris.

The Indians initially wanted to send the talented youngster all the way down to their Class D affiliate in Daytona Beach Florida. Maris simply let it be known that it was unacceptable for personal reasons and wouldn’t budge until the Indians sent him to Class C, their team in Fargo of the Northern League. Maris proved he belonged there by displaying his incredible talent and was not overmatched at that level batting .325 and posting an OBP of .429. He also drove in 80 runs in 418 at bats despite hitting just nine home runs. So the Cleveland front office decided to keep him Fargo for another season to be certain that it wasn’t a “fluke” campaign on Maris’ part.

Maris wouldn’t hear of it.

He demanded, and ultimately got a promotion to the Indians’ Class B club in Keokuk in the Triple I league. As he had the previous season, Maris proved he belonged, having a monster campaign batting .315. He also showcased his power stroke hitting 32 home runs, driving in 111 [runs] and when pitchers grew tired of pitching to him he’d simply take a walk to first base, which he did 80 times that year. In 1955 he split time in both the Texas League and the Eastern League hitting 20 home runs, batting .300 and reaching base 42 percent of the time. He finally graduated to the American Association, one rung below the major leagues. He had a decent enough year in Indianapolis hitting in some tough pitcher’s parks slugging .494. This earned him two things: a major league job in 1957 and the attention of New York Yankees’ scouts. Yankees general manager George Weiss made some inquiries about the young man’s availability and the Indians informed him in no uncertain terms that the Yankees wouldn’t get him in this world or the next one for that matter. The Indians had a difficult enough time keeping pace with the Yankees without developing players on their behalf.

Of course that didn’t slow Weiss up one bit.

Weiss wasn’t only knowledgeable about players in his own farm system, he also made it his business to know everything about players in everybody else’s minor league organizations. Not just their batting or fielding percentages either, he’d go so far as to amass a comprehensive file on all of a player’s characteristics and personality. He knew that Maris was strong willed, stubborn even and it didn’t bother him a whit. That was one of the reasons he had hired Casey Stengel in the first place, Stengel could handle “difficult” players. The Yankees field boss had managed enigmatic Joe Page, the idiosyncrasies of Yogi Berra, the sometimes sullen, often moody Mickey Mantle, the dark brooding hot tempered Vic Raschi, the truculent red-assed Gene Woodling not to mentioned the fiery, insecure Billy Martin. If a player had the tools, Weiss knew Stengel could handle the peripheral matters in the clubhouse.

Weiss also knew that a lot of teams couldn’t handle players of that stripe. He knew that soon enough Maris, because of his personality, might become available -- not to the Yankees of course, but available nonetheless. Weiss had allies that few knew about. Weiss let it be known to good friend, and Kansas City Athletics owner Arnold Johnson (who once owned Yankee Stadium) and Weiss’ previous employee of two decades and current Athletics’ general manager Parke Carroll that if they were to acquire Maris, that Weiss and the Yankees would sweep them off their feet with the sweetest deal imaginable.

Maris opened his major league career in promising fashion. Although he didn’t hit for a high average that year (.235) he showed excellent power in Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium swatting fourteen home runs. Maris also showed a keen batting eye drawing sixty walks and striking out just 79 times, excellent ratios for a young slugger. The mark of a good batting eye is oft evidenced on whether a hitter can post an on base percentage 100 points over his batting average. Maris did just that finishing his rookie campaign with a .345 OBP -- not impressive of itself unless you take into account that young Maris batted less than .240. The bottom line was: Maris didn’t disappoint. What was disappointing to the Cleveland brass was how badly he tailed off in the second half after breaking a couple of ribs in an on field collision raising questions about his talent and desire.

Maris however brought more than just his batting eye to the major league level, he also brought his strong willed nature along with him. Despite a sparkling sophomore season where -- despite a low batting average (.240) -- he still doubled his home run output from the previous season, Maris ultimately did become available after a falling out with the Cleveland Indians’ front office. The Indians, still suspicious about Maris’ pedigree after his injury plagued second half in 1957 began to platoon him with another promising young right fielder -- Rocky Colavito. When Maris butted heads with the Indians’ GM Frank Lane over this situation the Tribe then decided to keep Colavito and part with Maris. St. Louis Brown’s owner Bill Veeck was aghast and asked if Lane realized he‘d just sent Maris to the Yankees? Lane did and replied that it was a trade he had to make for the good of his club.

Kansas City was ready and waiting.

After a one year apprenticeship in Kansas City where he sparkled in all aspects of the game setting career highs (up to that point) in batting, on base and slugging percentage and as an added bonus, walked more than he struck out -- all despite a nasty second half slump, the Yankees shipped two promising youngsters: Marv Throneberry and Norm Siebern plus two solid veterans in Hank Bauer and Don Larsen for Maris and a couple of throw-ins.

The American League’s Most Valuable Player

After the debacle better known as the 1959 season the Yankee roster underwent a number of changes, the biggest one in right field. Hank Bauer had served that station with excellence clouting over 150 HR for over a decade all the while batting right handed into the jaws of “Death Valley” where 425 foot blasts became outs. Having played in nine World Series made Bauer’s footsteps big ones to follow in. However Bauer made his career on grit and hard work whereas Maris -- also a hard worker -- was blessed with obvious physical gifts.

Maris’ style of play was straightforward enough -- he was reckless. The right fielder knew only one way to play ... all out. Maris realized the obvious fact that baseball doesn’t operate by the clock, until the opposition had registered 27 outs there was still the possibility of tasting victory and he handled himself accordingly. By the end of May Maris was leading the league in longballs and was the offensive catalyst. Hank Bauer was a fine ballplayer but when somebody with the firepower of Maris was inserted into the middle of a lineup with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Bill Skowron then you’ve have the recipe for ravaging opposing pitchers’ ERA’s, not to mention their psyches.

Maris’ linebacker approach to baseball inadvertently affected Mickey Mantle’s 1960 season for the worse in mid August against the Senators. Mired in a slump, knees aching and growing frustrated Mantle -- with Maris on first -- hit a sharp grounder on the infield to Washington shortstop Jose Valdivielso and Maris, in typical Maris fashion tried his utmost to knock Senators’ second baseman Billy Gardner into the vicinity of left field. However Mantle didn’t hustle down the first base line and Maris -- who had suffered broken ribs earlier in his career playing for the Indians -- reinjured himself and was lost until mid September. Stengel was livid and took a strip of Mantle in the press, the reaction of the Stadium crowd could be politely referred to as vitriolic.

However Maris came back into the lineup and the Yankees kicked it into high gear shaking off the Orioles and winning their final 15 games of the season making an utter shambles of what initially appeared to have the makings of a spine-tingling pennant race.

The October stage better known as the World Series has humbled many a great player. Ted Williams in his only Fall Classic batted .200. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and even Joe DiMaggio had suffered October humiliation where they couldn’t even hit the (.200) “Mendoza Line.” It didn’t appear to phase Maris much however as he homered in his first post season at bat off Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace Vernon Law who’d won 20 games for the National League champs. He would connect again in Game Five off Harvey Haddix however, it all went for naught as Bill Mazeroski sent the Forbes Field crowd into ecstasy by launching a home run in the bottom of the ninth off of Ralph Terry.

Chasing the Babe

1960 ended in disappointment but Maris could at least celebrate being named the American League Most Valuable Player, however he’d have preferred to have a ring that proclaimed him a member of the World Series champions. In 1961 he’d get to enjoy both, but even in this his achievement was bittersweet. The beginning of the 1961 season, despite speculation that he had a chance to beat the unbeatable -- Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 circuit clouts -- was quiet for the reigning league MVP May 3rd against the Minnesota Twins was only notable due to Roger Maris hitting just his second four-bagger of the season. On the penultimate game of the month Maris slugged two more against the Boston Red Sox and hammered one the following day for good measure giving him 12 to that point of the season.

He was just getting warmed up.

He slugged two against the expansion Los Angeles Angels on June 11th and finished June with 27 homers. On July 2nd he slugged a pair against the Senators and on the 25th blasted a trifecta against the Chicago White Sox. He finished the month with 40 HR and a proclamation from commissioner Ford Frick. If Babe Ruth’s 60 HR season was not accomplished in the season’s first 154 games (the schedule had been increased to 162 games because of league expansion) then the record would have an asterisk affixed to it. Maris went on another run slugging five more dingers from August 13-16. As he neared the Babe’s record the media crush became unbearable. Reporters from around the world came to cover the great home run chase and when Mantle became ill and injured then the spotlight focused squarely on Maris. Maris fell short of Frick’s imposed deadline finishing with 59 at the 154 game mark. On September 20th at Yankee Stadium in the third innings off flame throwing youngster Milt Pappas Maris launched the aforementioned 59th. The game clinched the American League flag for the Yankees and Maris could only shake, partly from relief because the chase was over, at least by the commissioner’s criteria. However Maris still had eight games to reach 61. He got 60 against another promising young Oriole named Jack Fisher and finally topped the Babe on the final game of the season off Boston’s Tracy Stallard and the record was his, asterisk and all.

The World Series was anticlimactic as the Yankees completely overwhelmed the Cincinnati Reds.

Maris wished he could’ve enjoyed it.

The most crushing aspect of a professional athlete’s life is expectations. “What have you done for me lately?” is the anthem of the fans and the media. Maris for his heroics won his second consecutive MVP award, wore a World Series ring and the one question everybody seemed to ask: could he hit 62 HR in 1962? Maris had a stellar year in ‘62, his numbers not far off his 1960 totals when he copped his first MVP trophy. He added another World Series ring and was named “Flop of the Year” by the media ... expectations unfulfilled is a curse Maris would never be able to get out from under. The Yankees added two more American League flags in 1963 and 1964 and nobody was willing to let him get out from under 1961. Maris never thought he was better than the Babe yet everybody seemed to be determined to remind him of that fact. He just wanted to play baseball.

The Pariah

Maris often said that he’d have enjoyed his career a lot more if he had hit 59 HR in 1961. Since he couldn’t duplicate his achievement he was labeled a bum. He broke his hand in 1965 and the test results were kept from him, his performance suffered and finally the fans and media drove Maris out of New York and he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a journeyman infielder named Charlie Smith. However, despite no longer being able to play full time he contributed to a Cardinals’ World Championship in 1967 and a National League pennant in 1968. He heard cheers, not boos. They only expected him to be Roger Maris, the fans in St. Louis appreciated him and when he finally retired, Cardinals’ owner Gussie Busch set him up in a beer distributorship in Florida.

To say he was crucified in the media would be accurate. Maris was a private individual, more artisan than artist despite his gifts. The sometimes heartless New York press wanted Maris to be something that he wasn’t. Maris was too honest for that. He knew he was best at being Roger Maris. The pressures of 1961 would’ve destroyed a lesser man. With the perspective of history it becomes clear that he handled himself with both dignity and class despite press reports to the contrary. Very few people that year seeking a story went away empty handed. However whatever Maris gave whether on the field or in the media was never enough for some people and those people sought to hurt him, to punish him because he wasn’t what they wanted him to be.

He was Roger Maris, he deserved better.


  • Maris was recruited by legendary coach Bud Wilkinson to play football for the University of Oklahoma, he once scored four touchdowns on kickoff returns to set a national high school record.
  • Among eligible players Roger Maris is the only back-to-back winner of the MVP not to be inducted into the Hall-of-Fame
  • His best performance in World Series play was in 1967 for the St. Louis Cardinals: he batted .385 with a home run 7 RBI and three walks giving him an OBP of .448 against the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox.
  • Maris 7 RBI in the 1967 World Series is the most ever for a Cardinal in World Series play until Keith Hernandez broke it in 1982.
  • in 1961 Maris homered off Detroit 8 times, Minnesota 4 times, Los Angeles 4 times, Washington 9 times, Cleveland 8 times, Baltimore 3 times, Boston 7 times, Kansas City 5 times and Chicago 13 times.
  • Of the three HR hit off the Baltimore Orioles, two of them were numbers 59 and 60.
  • Roger Maris won the Gold Glove in 1960.
  • Despite being named “Flop of the Year” in 1962 he hit more home runs and drove in more runs than Mickey Mantle who won the MVP.
  • On July 21st 1984 the New York Yankees retired his number.