Maris died of cancer in 1985, his place in baseball history secure. Just like the asterisk that failed to diminish his most remarkable accomplishment, the continuing arrogance and ignorance of Hall of Fame voters only add to Maris’s luster.
He broke the record baseball’s commissioner and press didn’t want him to break, and the baseball establishment has never forgiven him. He didn’t chat up reporters when he was baseball’s biggest story, and the baseball writers, who held the keys to Cooperstown, stubbornly made him pay.
Babe Ruth was baseball’s iconic figure, and baseball’s powers that were wanted his record of 60 homers in a season to stand forever, or at least to fall to another iconic figure. For a quiet, good player to rise to immortality in a single year didn’t fit the prejudices of baseball’s powerful — neither sports writers, who were too wedded to clichés to recognize that a story for the ages was unfolding before them, nor the commissioner, Ford Frick, who had ghost-written Ruth’s biography. Frick, who is remembered for little more than the asterisk he placed on Maris’ record, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. He is nowhere near as famed among baseball fans as Maris.
Maris has been dead 26 years, his record was broken 13 years ago, and still he remains one of the most famous baseball players of all time. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. He belonged there while he was alive and he certainly belongs there when he remains more famous than most Hall of Famers 50 years after he left his mark. That he isn’t there says far more about the Hall of Fame than it does about Maris.
I’ve already made the case for Maris to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s an easy case to make. Let’s examine just how famous he is, compared to his peers.
I count 33 Hall of Famers (let me know if I overlooked someone) who were playing in 1961: Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Richie Ashburn, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Lou Brock, Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Nellie Fox, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Bill Mazeroski, Willie McCovey, Stan Musial, Robin Roberts, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Red Schoendienst, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm, Billy Williams, Early Wynn and Carl Yastrzemski.
How many of them did anything that will even be noted on its 50th anniversary? The 50th anniversary of Maris’ 61st homer, coming up Oct. 1, will be featured on Sports Center and in countless blogs and newspaper columns and baseball broadcasts and probably on the nightly network news. It will be a big deal, trust me. Certainly Aaron’s 715th homer will be similarly celebrated on its 50th anniversary, but nothing else will be close. Clemente’s death will probably be noted 50 years later. I don’t remember much being made of the 50th anniversary of Mazeroski’s World Series homer. Maybe a few others — Koufax’s sudden retirement, Drysdale’s scoreless innings streak — will receive trivial notice. Update: Illustrating my point, I just found a blog that’s tracking the Maris-Mantle chase of Babe Ruth’s record day by day. Um, anyone doing that for Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews or Robin Roberts 50 years later?
How many of those Hall of Famers were famous enough to be the subject of an Emmy-winning movie (61*)? I can’t think of one.
How many of those players are better known than Maris 50 years later? Aaron, Mantle, Mays and Musial for sure. Maybe Berra, Gibson, Koufax and Clemente. Maybe Banks, Frank Robinson and Yaz. The list is short and it’s a list of baseball’s very best, each of them a no-doubt Hall of Famer. If you’re on that list when it comes to baseball fame, you belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
How many of those players won two Most Valuable Player awards (Maris was the MVP the year before he broke Ruth’s record)? Only Mantle, Berra, Musial, Mays, Banks and Robinson.
Injuries cut Maris’ career short. In football, part of Jack Youngblood‘s legend in football was his toughness in playing a game with a broken bone. Yankee doctors misdiagnosed a broken bone in Maris’ hand, but he played on in 1965 and was never a great player again. If longevity is the only criteria for selection to the Hall of Fame, he doesn’t belong there. But the Hall of Fame made room for other comets who flashed across baseball’s sky: Dizzy Dean, Hack Wilson and Koufax, to name a few.
If high batting averages were required for the Hall of Fame, Maris would not qualify with his .260 career average. But Mazeroski had the same average and Killebrew (.256) and Rabbit Maranville (.258) had lower averages. Aparicio, Ozzie Smith and Reggie Jackson all hit .262.
Maris was dismissed by some sportswriters as one-dimensional. But he was a Gold Glove outfielder. His great play on a double by Willie Mays in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 1962 World Series kept Matty Alou from scoring the tying run, setting up Bobby Richardson’s famed Series-ending catch of Willie McCovey’s line drive.
When baseball writers feel like it, they dote on players they perceive as performing well under pressure. Few players faced anything approaching the pressure Maris did (Aaron certainly endured a similar spotlight, with a racial factor added, but he didn’t face the deadlines Maris did; as long as he kept playing and hitting homers, he had his shot at Ruth’s career record). The clutch players writers love act cool under the pressure, as if they don’t feel a thing. But Maris obviously felt the pressure: He was openly cranky and losing his hair in clumps. He looked for all the world like a guy who was going to fall apart. And under all that pressure, still he hit homers. Still he set a record that stood for 37 years, longer than Ruth’s record did.
One of the ways critics diminished Maris’s achievement was that he set the record against diluted pitching in an expansion year. But baseball expanded again in 1962, ’69, ’77 and ’93, with no threat to Maris’ record. That was always a bogus rap. If it was somehow easy for Maris to hit homers that year, it would have been easy for everyone that year or every time baseball expanded. Six American Leaguers hit 30 or more homers that year. Leagues had more players with 30 homers lots of times before and since, even before the homer explosion of the 1990s. The American League had 20 hitters with 30 or more homers in 1987, but the league leader fell a dozen homers short of Maris.
The A.L. homerun king that year was Mark McGwire, who underscored Maris’s greatness in needing to cheat to break his record. I thought Maris might get into the Hall of Fame as attention focused on him in the 1990s as McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. started flirting with his record. Though McGwire and Sammy Sosa soared past 61 homers in 1998, the special year that resulted really showcased Maris’s unique place in baseball history. And, of course, the accomplishments of McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire’s record with 73 homers in 2001, have all been tainted by accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs.
So Maris’ record has a different type of asterisk now, the all-time record by a clean player.
I’m no fan of Bud Selig, but I was pleased to read that at this year’s All-Star Game, Selig noted that Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame. Maybe 50 years after one commissioner shamed himself and the game by trying to diminish one of its all-time achievements, another commissioner will help the Hall of Fame recognize a player whose fame endures 50 years after his year in the spotlight.
My friend Jay Rosen faults journalists who cite arguments that people supposedly make without quoting or linking to examples of those arguments. The arguments against electing Roger Maris to the Hall of Fame have been going on for 50 years, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was eligible for election by the Baseball Writers Association of America. That was long before such arguments were made online. I have linked a few pieces that represent some of the anti-Maris arguments mentioned above:
Actually, it’s a great idea and decades overdue.
Update: And here’s the most moronic of the anti-Maris takes I’ve found:
Actually, dude, your lame take proves that no one ever had the look of the M&M boys. And, by the way, no one else on your list will be noted 50 years later the way you just noted Maris and Mantle. That’s fame. Case closed.