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 only way to make money as a manager is to win in one place, get fired and hired somewhere else.
Stan Musial became the first player signed to a six-figure contract in National League history on January 29, 1958 when he signed a $100,000 deal with the Cardinals. Musial had been willing to accept less, in spite of winning his seventh batting title by hitting .351 in 1957. The Cardinals, however, felt that he deserved the contract, which represented Musial’s first raise in seven years.
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.
The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history. It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II. It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of women’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.
In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it. The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters. 1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.
The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees. At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players. The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.
When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue. The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said. However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result. Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort. Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.
As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart. Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited. They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine. Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.
Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.
Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well. Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.
Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate. Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series. Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today. As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm. Through it all, he bit his tongue. Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him. Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby. Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.
Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined. As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.
The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948. It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything). Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth. Perhaps nobody knows. But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game. Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.