2022 Golden Days Era Committee Candidate: Roger Maris

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to this year’s ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Roger Maris

2022 Golden Days Candidate: Roger Maris
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Roger Maris 38.2 32.4 35.3
Avg. HOF RF 72.1 42.5 57.3
1325 275 .260/.345/.476 127
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Casual baseball fans know Roger Maris mainly for his toppling of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, when he beat out teammate Mickey Mantle and hit 61 homers. The more hardcore fans might know that Maris actually won back-to-back AL MVP awards with the Yankees in 1960 and ’61, and helped the team to five straight pennants and a pair of championships. While it’s sometimes presumed that these achievements are enough to merit Maris a spot in Cooperstown, a closer look at the slugger’s 12-year career (1957-68) suggests that he’s exactly where he should be with respect to the Hall of Fame: on the outside.

It’s not that Maris wasn’t an excellent and important ballplayer for a stretch, it’s that outside of those two exceptional seasons and his signature accomplishment, he never sustained Hall-caliber play for very long. And while his unease with the spotlight, injury-shortened career, and all-too-brief life make “Baseball’s Reluctant Hero” — to use the title of a 2010 biography — a sympathetic figure, particularly when one considers the boos he received from fans and the charges of unworthiness he got from writers, that reality doesn’t confer Hallworthiness.

He was born Roger Eugene Maras on September 10, 1934, in Hibbing, Minnesota; not until he was in the minor leagues, in 1955, would his family change the spelling of its Croatian name to Maris, which helped him avoid taunts of “Mare-Ass!” The young Maras grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, where his football prowess earned him a scholarship offer from the University of Oklahoma. Upon arriving at the school for a recruiting visit, he had second thoughts and fell back on baseball. He had starred on an American Legion team that won the state championship, playing the outfield alongside his brother Rudy, who was a year older.

Scouts took interest in the lefty-swinging Maris, and Cleveland signed him for a $15,000 bonus in 1953, which allowed him to start his career in his hometown with the team’s Northern League affiliate, the Fargo-Moorehead Twins. He showed good power from the outset, and climbed the ladder methodically. He broke camp with the big club in 1957, and went 3-for-5 in his debut, with all three hits coming off the White Sox’s Billy Pierce, who’s also on this Golden Days ballot. Maris reeled off a nine-game streak to start his career, highlighted by an 11th-inning grand slam in his second game. By June he was being touted as a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he cooled off considerably after fracturing a couple of ribs trying to break up a double play, and finished with a modest .235/.344/.405 line with 14 homers.

Maris similarly scuffled at the start of the 1958 season. On June 15, general manager Frank “Trader” Lane — who had taken over the previous winter — dealt him to the Kansas City A’s in a five-player deal, with All-Star infielder Vic Power headlining the return. His play improved only somewhat during the remainder of that season, but he did hit 28 home runs. He broke out in 1959, making the AL All-Star team for the first time at age 24 despite missing a month following the removal of his appendix. He was hitting a sizzling .335/.397/.585 with 14 homers through July before cooling off and homering just two more times; he still finished with a 123 OPS+ (273/.359/.464).

The Yankees, who in 1959 missed the World Series for just the second time in an 11-season span, had already taken interest in Maris before he was dealt to Kansas City, which at that point was functioning as the pinstripes’ de facto farm club. The seven-player trade that sent Maris to the Bronx in December 1959 along with Joe DeMaestri and Kent Hadley in exchange for Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern and Marv Throneberry was the sixth deal between the two teams in that year alone, and the 21st since the end of the ’52 season.

Maris took over right field from the aging Bauer, and did so with a bang — or two; he homered twice while going 4-for-5 against the Red Sox on Opening Day in 1960, and went 20-for-42 with 11 extra-base hits in his first 11 games. Again he made the All-Star team, and as of August 6 had homered 35 times in 99 games, capped by three in a two-day span in Kansas City. Again, he struggled to the finish line, missing 15 games in the second half of August due to bruised ribs and finishing with 39 homers, one fewer than Mantle. Still, he hit .283/.371/.581, and led the league in slugging percentage, RBI (112), and WAR (7.5) while finishing second to Mantle in both homers and OPS+ (160).

The Yankees won the pennant by eight games. Maris played reasonably well in the World Series against the Pirates (.267/.313/.500) but his two homers, both solo shots, came in losses. He went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, and 0-for-5 in Game 7, which the Pirates won on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer. After the season, he narrowly beat out Mantle for AL MVP. He also added his only Gold Glove, one backed by off-the-charts defensive metrics (+19 runs).

For 1961, the American League added teams in Los Angeles (the Angels) and Washington (replacing the old Senators, who moved to Minnesota and became the Twins), and with it, the schedule expanded from 154 games to 162. Home run rates rose, and Maris, after homering just once in April, went on a binge, reaching double digits in every remaining month, with a high of 15 in June; from May 17 to June 22, he launched 24 in 38 games. Through 81 games, the midpoint of the season, he’d hit 32 homers, putting him more than halfway to Ruth’s record of 60, set in 1927, while Mantle was close behind with 29.

Coverage of the Yankees and the home run race intensified, with much of the media pitting the superstar Mantle, a career-long Yankee and by that point already a two-time MVP and four-time league-leader, against the upstart Maris, a private man unaccustomed to the spotlight. Chasing one icon and racing with another, Maris couldn’t win, particularly with commissioner Ford Frick (who had ghostwritten for Ruth from 1924-33) issuing a statement in July in which he proposed an asterisk in the event the Bambino’s mark was eclipsed:

“If the player does not hit more than 60 until after the club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule and the total of more than 60 was compiled while a 162-game schedule was in effect”

With fans pulling for his more famous teammate, and with the team doing nothing to protect him from the media barrage, Maris was the subject of angry letters and stupid questions. As told by Mantle in his 1985 autobiography, The Mick:

How he stood up I’ll never know. A writer once asked him, “How come a .260 hitter like you manages to get more home runs than Babe Ruth?’ And Roger answered, ‘What are you — a newspaperman or a goddamn idiot?” A while later he came to me and said, “Mick, I can’t take it anymore.” I had to tell him, “Just hang in there. It’ll be over soon.”

Maris’ hair fell out in clumps but the home runs continued; he took over the lead for good with his 46th homer on August 15 and hit number 50 in the Yankees’ 125th game on August 22. He entered September with 51, three more than Mantle, who would soon be sidelined by an abscess in his right hip, the result of an injection by a quack discreetly trying to treat a sexually transmitted disease; he finished with 54 homers. Maris hit his 59th homer in the Yankees’ 155th game (they had played one tie), off the Orioles’ Milt Pappas, but another long fly ball had been flagged down. Based on Frick’s edict, he had not broken the record.

Nor had he won everyone over. Wrote the Milwaukee Journal’s Oliver Keuchle after number 59, “If the record is to be broken, it should be done by someone of greater baseball stature and greater color and public appeal… Maris is colorless… There just isn’t anything deeply heroic about the man.”

Ouch. Undeterred, Maris added his 60th homer off the Orioles’ Jack Fisher in the Yankees’ 159th game, and his 61st off the Red Sox’s Tracy Stallard on October 1, in the season’s final game.

The Elias Sports Bureau and Sporting News record books would actually eschew the asterisk but list both Ruth’s and Maris’ marks while parenthetically noting that the latter’s 61 homers were hit during a 162-game season. Yet even if the asterisk was just theoretical, Maris said in 1985, the year of his death, that his relegation to second-tier status still “bitters me up.” Spurred by a column by the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in 1991, an eight-member panel led by commissioner Fay Vincent did away with the dual notation, declaring Maris the record-holder.

While setting a team record with 240 homers, the Yankees won 109 games and the pennant, then beat the Reds in a five-game World Series, doing so without Mantle and without much help from Maris, who went 2-for-19, though his ninth-inning homer off Bob Purkey in Game 3 proved decisive. Maris, who finished the regular season with a .269/.372/.620 (167 OPS+) line, again edged Mantle for the MVP award, though the latter’s 10.4 WAR outdistanced his own 6.9, which ranked fifth in the league.

Maris was an All-Star for the fourth season in a row in 1962, but dipped to 33 homers and a .256/.356/.485 (126 OPS+) showing. He helped the Yankees repeat as champions in 1962, and despite going just 4-for-23, led the team with five RBI, and made a crucial play that may have saved the World Series for New York. With two outs and speedy Matty Alou on first base in the ninth inning of Game 7 as the Yankees clung to a 1-0 lead, Willie Mays lined a ball to right field. Maris cut it off before it reached the wall, relaying the ball to the infield quickly enough to stop Alou at third. The next batter, Willie McCovey, lined out to second base to end the game.

From there the returns diminished for Maris and the Yankees. From 1963-66, he hit for a 125 OPS+, but averaged just 99 games and 18 homers a year due to injuries, most notably back problems in 1963, and a hamstring strain and a bone chip in his right wrist in ’65; the latter limited him to four pinch-hitting appearances after June 28. He was worth a combined 7.3 WAR in the first two of those seasons as the Yankees won pennants but lost in the World Series, but he totaled less than 1.0 WAR in 1965 and ’66 as the team slipped below .500.

Maris’ power dissipated. After batting just .233/.307/.382 with 13 home runs in 1966, he was traded to the Cardinals for third baseman Charley Smith — the same player traded by the Mets to the Cardinals for Golden Days candidate Ken Boyer just 14 months before. Joining an outfield that featured Lou Brock in left and Curt Flood in center — with incumbent right fielder Mike Shannon taking over third base — Maris hit a modest .261/.346/.405 with nine homers, still good for a 116 OPS+ and, with strong defense, 3.6 WAR. The Cardinals won the pennant and then beat the Red Sox in a seven-game World Series. While Bob Gibson won MVP honors thanks to his three complete-game victories, Maris had a case via his sizzling .385/.433/.538 line and a series-high seven RBI, including both in the Cardinals’ Game 1 win, and their first two in a Game 4 win.

Injuries limited Maris to an even 100 games in 1968, and while he hit just five home runs and managed a 105 OPS+, he was still worth 2.3 WAR. The Cardinals again won the pennant, but Maris could not recreate his previous October’s magic, going 3-for-19 in the seven-game World Series against the Tigers, with two of those hits coming with St. Louis on the wrong end of a 13-1 rout.

After the Series, the 34-year-old Maris chose to retire. Cardinals owner Gussie Busch sent him off with a beer distributorship covering 13 counties in northern Florida, a franchise that grew into a $50 million a year business. Unfortunately, Maris was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1984. That same year, the Yankees retired his number 9 and honored him with a plaque in Monument Park. He died on December 14, 1985 at the age of 51, six years before Vincent would right Frick’s wrong.

While Maris’ two MVP awards and seven seasons playing for pennant winners are impressive, he didn’t add much else. He was selected for seven All-Star games in four seasons (two games a year were played from 1959-62), won just one Gold Glove, and hit just .217/.298/.368 in the World Series. In a career that consisted of just 1,463 games, he didn’t come close to accumulating the counting stats that turn Hall of Fame voters’ heads. In fact, only two position players who did not spend time in the Negro Leagues were elected after accumulating fewer hits than his 1,325, and both began their careers in the late 19th century: Roger Bresnahan and Frank Chance. On the strength of his home runs, MVP awards, and reputation for playing on winners, Maris lasted the entire 15-year run on the writers’ ballot, debuting at 21.4% in 1974, but not topping 30% until 1985; he exceeded 40% in each of his final three years, peaking at 43.1% in 1988. That’s the 10th-highest share for any candidate who has yet to be elected, but, well, take a number:

Highest Share of BBWAA Vote Without Eventual Election
Player Year Highest % 2022
Curt Schilling 2021 71.1% BBWAA 10th Year
Gil Hodges 1983 63.4% Golden Era Committee
Barry Bonds 2021 61.9% BBWAA 10th Year
Roger Clemens 2021 61.6% BBWAA 10th Year
Scott Rolen 2021 52.9% BBWAA 5th Year
Omar Vizquel 2020 52.6% BBWAA 5th Year
Tony Oliva 1988 47.3% Golden Era Committee
Billy Wagner 2021 46.4% BBWAA 7th Year
Todd Helton 2021 44.9% BBWAA 4th Year
Roger Maris 1988 43.1% Golden Era Committee
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Maris isn’t alone among players who won multiple MVP awards but aren’t enshrined; Bonds won three times but has been kept on the outside due to his connection to PEDs. Juan Gonzalez and Dale Murphy each won twice but didn’t get far with the voters.

Maris was additionally considered via five Veterans Committees from 1994 and 2000, as well as the expanded VCs of ’03, ’05, and ’07; he topped out with 23.8% of the vote in 2005. He’s never been on an Era Committee ballot until this year.

From an advanced statistical perspective, Maris doesn’t have much of a case, as he ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR only in 1960 and ’61, the two seasons in which he was worth more than 3.8 WAR. His 32.4 peak WAR ranks just 48th, just ahead of J.D. Drew and Magglio Ordonez as well as six of the 27 enshrined right fielders. He’s 59th in JAWS among right fielders, ahead of only Ross Youngs, Harold Baines, and Tommy McCarthy, none of them good choices for Cooperstown.

Particularly on this slate, which features five candidates who polled at least 50% on the 2015 Golden Era Committee ballot, that’s not going to cut it. Still, that shouldn’t diminish our appreciation for what Maris did accomplish, or our empathy for what he went through to do it. Quite frankly, he got a pretty raw deal.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

“What are you — a newspaperman or a goddamn idiot?” I can’t blame Maris for that line. It’s interesting because a lot of the top home run hitters of that era did have better batting averages (Mantle, .317; Jim Gentile, .302; Orlando Cepeda, .311), and so it ha d to have been meant as an insult. But the only way you actually can be confused about Maris’s high homers and low BA is if you don’t understand that the vast majority of hits aren’t homers.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Maybe Joey Gallo can break out that line next year when he’s hitting .195 with 22 HR at the AS Break!