You hit home runs not by chance, but by preparation.
Maybe I’m not a great man but I damn well want to break the record.
Former Major League outfielder Roger Maris passed away on December 14, 1985, following a two-year battle with lymphatic cancer. Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, John Blanchard, Bill Skowron, Whitey Herzog, and Bob Allison served as pallbearers at his funeral.
Most baseball fans are familiar with the name Roger Maris. Those who paid any attention to the home run race of 1998 definitely have a familiarity with the name, because from 1961 until 1998, Roger Maris held Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record.
Roger Eugene Maras was born on September 10, 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota, the son of Rudolph S. “Rudy” and Corrine Maras (Roger would later change his last name to “Maris”). Roger also had a brother, Rudy, Jr., who was older by a year. In 1942, the Maras family moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, then onto Fargo, North Dakota in 1946.
Maris attended Shanley High School in Fargo, and he met his future wife, Patricia, during his sophomore year. Roger and Rudy Maras, Jr. both competed in sports throughout high school, including track and football. During the summers, they participated in American Legion baseball, and in 1950, Roger led his North Dakota legion team to the state championship. Roger was also a standout football player and was even recruited to play for the University of Oklahoma. Though he initially planned to attend Oklahoma, he
changed his mind in favor of staying close to his brother, who had been diagnosed with polio. Maris instead decided to pursue a baseball career, and at the age of 18, he signed with the Cleveland Indians, starting out with their Fargo farm team.
After a few years in the minors, Maris made his Major League debut on April 16, 1957 playing outfield for the Indians. Halfway through the 1958 season, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. He recorded 28 home runs during the 1958 season, then in 1959, he represented the A’s in the All-Star game. However, he missed 45 games during the 1959 season due to an appendix operation and only hit 16 home runs.
In December 1959, Maris was traded to the New York Yankees, along with Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri. In the 1960 season, Maris hit 39 home runs, which was a career high for him at that time, and led the American League with 112 RBIs. He again played in the All-Star game, and the Yankees won the American League pennant. However, New York lost the World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maris won the Gold Glove award and was also named the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
In 1961, Major League Baseball extended its season from 154 to 162 games. When the season started, Maris started out slow, but he hit 11 home runs in the month of May and another 15 in June, putting him on pace to reach the single-season record of 60 set by the Babe Ruth in 1927. As mid-season approached, it seemed wholly possible that either Maris or fellow Yankee Mickey Mantle, if not both, would break Ruth’s home run record. The media focused intensely on the home run chase, fabricating a rivalry between Maris and Mantle that didn’t actually exist.
Very much an introvert, Maris grew weary of having to talk about the record with reporters day in and day out, and his hair started falling out due to increasing pressure. To make matters worse, as the season progressed, there was much discussion as to what would happen if Maris couldn’t break the record within 154 games, some going so far as to say the record didn’t count if Maris couldn’t do it within those 154 games as Ruth did. The popular belief that an asterisk would be placed on Maris’s record if achieved after 154 games, however, was urban legend.
Maris wound up with 59 home runs during that allotted 154-game time frame, and then Maris tied Ruth in game 159. He hit his 61st homer on the last day of the season. From then, until 1991, Ruth and Maris were acknowledged separately in the record books, just not with an asterisk. Maris also led the AL with 141 RBIs and 132 runs scored in 1961, winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player award once again. The Yankees went on to win the World Series over the Cincinnati Reds, four games to one.
In 1962, Maris compiled 33 home runs and 100 RBIs and he was named to the All-Star team for the fourth consecutive year. The Yankees repeated as World Series champs, this time defeating the San Francisco Giants, four games to three. In 1963, Maris played in only 90 games, hitting 23 home runs. He also missed much of the World Series due to injury. In 1964, Maris made a bit of a comeback, appearing in 141 games and batting .281 with 26 home runs. His play continued to decline after that season, however, and in 1966, the Yankees traded Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Maris played his final two seasons with the Cardinals, helping them to win the 1967 and 1968 pennants. While the Cardinals won the 1967 World Series, they lost a very close 1968 Series, four games to three, to the Detroit Tigers. Maris retired from baseball after that season.
His playing days behind him, Maris and his brother owned and operated Maris Distributing, a Budweiser beer distributorship in Gainesville, Florida. Maris also coached baseball at Gainesville’s Oak Hall High School, which named its baseball field after him in 1990. On July 21, 1984, his jersey number 9 was permanently retired by the Yankees, and that same year, the Roger Maris Museum was opened in the West Acres Mall in Fargo.
In 1983, Maris was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He died from the disease in Houston, Texas, on December 14, 1985. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota.
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
On November 7, 1963, Elston Howard was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player, making him the first black player to ever receive the honor in the AL. He also became the third consecutive Yankee to receive the honor, after Roger Maris (1960 and 1961) and Mickey Mantle (1962).
On September 26, 1961, Yankees outfielder Roger Maris hit his 60th home run of the season to tie Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old single season record. Since the homer came in the 159th game of a newly-expanded season, however (previous seasons had 154 games), baseball commissioner Ford Frick determined that Ruth would remain the single season record holder.
On September 3, 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees became the first set of teammates to hit 50 homers in a season. In a game against the Tigers, Mickey Mantle launched one in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score at 5-5, en route to a 8-5 victory.
Capping off his record-breaking home run season, on this day in 1961, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees was named the American League Most Valuable Player. It was the second year in a row that Maris won the award. This time, he edged teammate Mickey Mantle by four votes, 202-198.
Sometimes, if you’re a pitcher, it seems elusive. If you’re a batter, it can sometimes seem larger than life. The strike zone — in some ways, it is baseball’s version of the Twilight Zone: sometimes it’s hard to tell where it really is.
The strike zone is the area over home plate through which a pitcher must pitch the ball in order for the pitch to be called a strike if the batter does not swing. The idea is that the ball must pass through an area where the batter has a chance to put the ball into play if he swings at it. According to the MLB’s Official Rules:
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
Or, to make things simpler, many regard the area from the elbows to the bottom of the knees as the vertical axis of the strike zone.
The size of the strike zone has not remained static through the years. Major League Baseball will sometimes make the official strike zone larger or smaller in order to maintain a balance of power between pitchers and hitters. For example, after Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in the 1961 season, the strike zone was stretched to extend from the top of the batter’s shoulders to the bottom of the knees. Then, in 1968, pitchers such as Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, and Denny McLain utterly dominated hitters. As a result, not only was the size of the strike zone reduced in 1969, but the height of the pitchers mound was also reduced from 15 inches to 10 inches tall.
At the end of the day, though, enforcement of the strike zone lies with the home plate umpire. As any player or fan of the game knows, the size — and, sometimes, even the shape — of the strike zone can vary from one umpire to the next. As a result, pitchers and hitters often find themselves having to adjust their expectations according to those of the umpire. And, sometimes, the umpire can be the most loved or the most hated person in the ballpark.