Update: Now that Mark McGwire has admitted juicing when he broke Roger Maris’ record (which was obvious at the time, by the way), do I think he should be elected to the Hall of Fame? Yes, absolutely. 37 years after Maris gets in.
When I was a young man, I swore I would not visit the Baseball Hall of Fame until Roger Maris was properly enshrined.
I retreated on the vow after making another vow. My oldest son, Mike, was a Johnny Bench fan. When Bench retired in 1983, Mike asked if he would make it to the Hall of Fame. I assured him that Bench would be voted in on the first ballot. Mike asked what year that would be. I said 1989. Mike asked if we could go to the induction ceremonies. I said sure. What kid remembers a promise like that five-plus years later?
Mike did. And we spent a marvelous weekend in Cooperstown watching Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Red Schoendienst and Harry Caray inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The museum was fabulous, even crowded with induction-weekend fans. I didn’t spend much time in the hall itself. Maris wasn’t there and his absence cheapens the honor for those who are. If the selection process and the electors are obviously biased and skewed, how much can it mean to get in?
If that museum in Cooperstown were the Hall of Longevity or the Hall of High Batting Averages, then fine, leave Maris out. Those are the only two legitimate knocks against him. But it’s the Hall of Fame. And Maris is more famous than most of the players there.
First Maris broke the most famous record in baseball. Then he held it for 37 years, losing it only to players who clearly used performance-enhancing drugs. During that 37 years, you never had to explain what record Maris held. Whoever hit a lot of homers in April was on pace to pass Roger Maris and every baseball fan knew what that meant because Maris and his record were that famous. His record was so famous that when Billy Crystal made an HBO movie about that season, all he needed was the number and the unjust asterisk: 61*. Everyone knew who the movie was about. And for 37 years, all those guys who were on pace to pass Maris didn’t make it and his fame grew.
Maris set the record in 1961, an expansion year for baseball. So the Maris haters who wanted to diminish his record said he broke the record only because of watered-down pitching. But baseball expanded again in 1962 and ’69 and ’77 and no one came close to 61*. They even juiced the ball in 1987 and no one came close. Finally people started coming close in the ’90s when baseball expanded again. But of course, expansion had nothing to do with all the homers hit in the 1990s.
Roger Maris is not in the Hall of Fame because he didn’t suck up to baseball writers during his chase of Babe Ruth. Period. Commissioner Ford Frick hated him for breaking Ruth’s record and baseball writers hated him for not being their buddy and not being Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth. Every other excuse anyone gives for him not being in the Hall of Fame is fiction.
He was not a one-hit wonder. Maris was a Most Valuable Player the year before he broke Ruth’s record. He was a winner, playing in five World Series for the Yankees and two more for the Cardinals, winning three championships altogether. Injuries (and negligence by Yankee doctors trying to keep him in the lineup) cut short his career, so he didn’t rack up big career numbers. He was a Gold Glove outfielder. His batting average, .260, was low, but not too low for the Hall of Fame (four points higher than Harmon Killebrew, two points higher than Rabbit Maranville, two lower than Luis Aparacio, Gary Carter and Ozzie Smith, seven lower than Bench and Mike Schmidt.)
Maris’ 275 career homers were not too few for a Hall of Fame slugger. Hack Wilson, who holds the single-season RBI record, hit only 244. And he’s in the Hall of Fame.
But statistics aren’t the reason Maris has to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s quite simply because it’s the Hall of Fame and Maris was one of baseball’s most famous players ever. Let’s go back to 1998, back when most fans were pretending that the surge in homers was genuine. Remember what a great year that was — Big Mac and Sammy chasing Roger Maris. The Hall of Fame gets hung up on lots of arbitrary magic lines — 300 wins, 3,000 hits, 500 homers. Cross those lines (pre-steroid era, at least) and you’re in the Hall of Fame. Maris didn’t cross any of those magic lines that dozens of players have crossed.
But here’s a line that only a few have crossed: If your ghost and your record dominate a magical baseball summer decades after you retired and years after you died, you are not one of a few dozen baseball immortals. You are one of a few. Only Ruth and Lou Gehrig did that. And Maris. DiMaggio will do it if anyone ever comes close. No other record or player is so special.
Without such players, the Hall of Fame lacks credibility.