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Roger Maris: 50 years ago today, a legacy was born

By Chris Olds | Beckett Baseball Editor | Commentary

Fifty years ago, a simple man from Fargo, N.D., reluctantly took his place in the MLB record books not knowing how to deal with the pressure of a nation intently focused on its pastime.

It was today, on Oct. 1, 1961, in the fourth inning of the final game of the New York Yankees’ season that the team’s second-favorite son smacked a pitch into the short porch in right field, surpassing a mark that had lasted for 34 seasons — a record set by the very man who had built the legacy and, of course, the stadium in which this bit of history was made.

Roger Maris‘ 61 home runs in 1961 firmly placed him atop the record books awkwardly atop everyone, including Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle — the icon of all icons and New York’s chosen son. While Maris’ record has been erased and his mark topped by three men in the last 15 years, it’s clear to some that the reluctant icon, the unlikely hero, just might truly deserve to remain atop the single-season list today — with asterisks applied to others.

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Since his shot off Baltimore’s Tracy Stallard, Maris has been topped by three players — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — each of whom have been linked to suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use.

In April, Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice in the BALCO trial and on Dec. 16, he’ll be in a courtroom for sentencing. If they aren’t already, the memories of his 73 home runs in 2001 will likely be tainted by the fact that he was legally found to be evasive on the question of whether he knowingly used substances that aided his achievements.

On Jan. 12, 2010, McGwire admitted in a tearful interview with Bob Costas that he did, indeed, use steroids during his career and the 1998 season in which he hit 70 and captured the hearts of many who had left the game of baseball behind.

Sosa has not faced charges or admitted using steroids, but he has been tabbed as one of the 104 players who reportedly failed anonymous steroid tests given for MLB research purposes in 2003. While he never held the single-season record, he’s the only player to hit 60 or more three times and his place as McGwire’s Mantle in 1998 can’t be overlooked.

And all that, once again, leaves Maris — the man who died of cancer in 1985 never knowing he would be recognized by MLB as its sole single-season leader when records were merged in 1991 — as perhaps once again that awkward icon, the man whose legacy stands tall among plenty of noise around him.

“I think there needs to be a distinction,” Maris’ son, Randy, told The New York Times after his father was honored at a recent game. “Unfortunately, I think Major League Baseball turned an eye to that era. Since they started drug testing, where are the numbers now?”

On cardboard, Maris remains somewhat overlooked compared to other legendary names and legendary peers of his time as his 1958 Topps Rookie Card, which shows him as a member of the Cleveland Indians, typically sells for only $300 to $500. That pales in comparison to the RCs of Ruth (1933 Goudey, $5,000 to $8,000) and Mantle (1951 Bowman, same price) but has held its momentum as the best early cards of Bonds (1987 Fleer, $5 to $12), McGwire (1985 Topps, $8 to $20) and Sosa (1990 Leaf, $5 to $20) have continued a trek toward the bottom of a disappointment-filled barrel after once commanding serious cash in the hobby.

That’s not to say there’s not interest in Maris — as there is substantial interest in the cards from his MVP season of 1961 and immediately afterward. While his 1960 Topps card (No. 377) checks in at a maximum of $100, his 1961 Topps card commands as much as $250 and his 1962 Topps card — the first card to note the achievement on its back — sells for as much as $500. His 1963 Topps card falls down to $80 (or less) while the rest of his remaining standard Topps cards depicting him in pinstripes made during his playing days typically sell for no more than $60.

Just two other cards in the celebrated wood-grained 1962 set note Maris’ achievement — a $100 AL Home Run leaders card he shares with Mantle, Jim Gentile and Harmon Killebrew and an $80 “Maris Blasts 61st” in-action card awkwardly showing four swings from the at-bat.

Could the man whose achievement was marked by an asterisk in some record books be vindicated if the same were applied to others’ marks? Probably not — and I’m glad he’s not here to see what has become of his record that would have been his and then lost.

Could the cardboard-buying public rally behind a player whose legacy has not been tarnished and likely won’t ever be? Sure, but that might be a stretch to expect in an era where cardboard expectations are fueled by the performance-enhancers of their own right that now power today’s key cards — game-used memorabilia and the almighty autograph — as those mania-fueling home run totals have dissipated.

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball magazine. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at colds@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

8 Comments

Larry

Performance enhancing drugs? Why don’t people just use plain english, they were caught cheating by using STEROIDS!!!!!! No need to make it sound pretty, it is what it is.

Posted October 1, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink
Larry

I forgot to mention in my opinion Roger Maris is the last to break the HR record. He was a humble man and a man worthy of such a prestigious record.

Posted October 1, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink
chrisolds

Human Growth Hormone is not a steroid, it’s naturally produced and can also be created. hence the PED/steroid difference.

Posted October 1, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink
john paul

yes, i agree with larry. nevermind the asterisk, those records should be obsolved. cheating is cheating, and the records made during that cheating should NOT count. if they are allowed to hold records and keep those honors, then pete rose should be instantly reinstated as well! at least he didn’t cheat to gain his records!

Posted October 1, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink
jeremy hanson

Why does the talk always come to home runs. Pete Rose is the all time hit leader. He cheated as well. He was caught, who is to say that pitchers were not on the take. There is a reason Maris’ cards are not worth much. He was an average player at best with the stick. You still have to hit the ball, steroids don’t improve your hand eye coordination. Besides Sosa, all the players using in the 90’s still hit .300 or so.

Posted October 2, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink

I was 13 years old and a HUGE baseball fan in 1961. I couldn’t get enough information on the homerun chase of ’61. I read every inch of print in the daily paper. I watch the daily sports news every night at 10 p.m.. I listened to the nightly games on the radio. I watched the “Game of the Week” with Dizzy and Pee Wee every Saturday. I needed to know did Mickey or Roger hit a home run today and I needed to know as soon as possible.

What Roger Maris did was truely remarkable. Across the entire United States, the home run chase of 1961 was full of excitement. It was the topic of conversation everywhere. It soon became evident to me, if anyone were to break the Babe’s record, Mantle was the only one who could do it with the blessing of the Yankee faithful. Much like Jeter today, Mickey was considered to be worthy of mentioning with the greatest of all Yankees. Amoung the Yankee fans in 1961, everyone was pulling for Mickey. And Maris, being new to the Yankee Pinstripes, was not worthy of breaking the Babe’s record. Roger and Mickey were matching each other homer for homer until late in that summer Mickey faded and it became evident that Mickey could not pass Roger.

When it became a Roger Maris vs. Babe Ruth competition, the entire city of New York (and everyone else in the United States) started pulling for Maris to fail to the pressure or even get hurt. Fans in the stands would yell terrible things at Roger. The papers were full of negative print. Roger became an island, left to himself. No one wanted Roger Maris to break the Babe’s record. And, as he approached that record, Major League Baseball announced if Roger Maris were to break the home run mark after game 154, the Babe’s record would remain Babe’s.

I believe Roger Maris deserves much more recognition in baseball for what he did in 1961 and his career. I believe someday, he will.

Posted October 2, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink
Jon Chuckery

I’m confused…baseball didnt ban the use of, or test for use of steroids, so how exactly is that cheating? By the way, your article failed to mention the fact that Bonds, to date, has never failed an actual drug test. As for Maris, he was an average player who had one great and one real good season. He had 3 seasons of 30+ HRs (61, 39, 33) and never hit more than 28 in another year. There have been 6 SEASONS with a HR total higher than his 61…If you want to do a legitimate recognition story, then the man who should be talked about is Hank Aaron…A true hero who spent his life overcoming bias against him…He’s the guy that has gotten lost in any HR debate

Posted October 4, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink
egg

babe ruth cheated. search about the bat he used until they finally banned it.

Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

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