When Maris hit his record 61st home run of the 1961 season, he became the owner of the most glamorous of all baseball standards, a mark he has held for nearly as long as his predecessor Babe Ruth did before Maris broke it. A great outfielder with a fine arm, an adept baserunner, and a team player willing to move baserunners and slide hard to break up double plays, Maris was a winner in two cities, appearing in more World Series than any other player in the 1960s and establishing himself as one of the dominant players of the first half of the decade.
In 1953 Maris signed with the Indians out of high school for a $5,000 bonus after turning down an athletic scholarship from the University of Oklahoma. He hit .325 at Fargo-Moorhead. Fargo today houses a Roger Maris museum. At Keokuk in 1954 manager Jo Jo White taught him to pull, and Maris hit 32 home runs. Using a 35-inch, 33-ounce bat, he broke into the major leagues with the Indians by going 3-for-5 on Opening Day 1957 against the White Sox, and the next day he hit his first big league home run, a grand slam game winner, in the top of the 11th inning. His 14 rookie homers were followed by 28 in his second season, which he started with Cleveland and finished with Kansas City. The Athletics acquired him along with Preston Ward and Dick Tomanek for Vic Power and Woody Held.
Seeking to restructure their team after finishing third in 1959, the Yankees, who had traded frequently with the Athletics in the late 1950s, obtained Maris from Kansas City with Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri for Don Larsen, Hank Bauer, Marv Throneberry, and Norm Siebern. In his first game as a Yankee, he hit two home runs, a double and a single, and he wound up with 39 home runs for the year, one behind Mantle’s league-leading 40. He topped the league with a .581 slugging percentage and beat out Mantle for MVP honors by three points in the weighted voting. Although New York lost the 1960 World Series on Bill Mazeroski‘s home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game, prompting the firing of manager Stengel, a new Yankee dynasty marked by five consecutive AL crowns had begun.
Under new manager Ralph Houk in 1961, the Yankees fielded a set lineup, usually batting Maris third and Mantle fourth. The two preyed on American League pitchers, including the weak-armed staffs of Los Angeles and Washington, the league’s two expansion franchises. Neck-and-neck with Mantle through September until Mantle was felled by an injury, the nation watched as Maris hit his 59th homer in the 155th game of the year, his 60th in game 159, and his 61st in the final and 163rd game of the season at Yankee Stadium off Tracy Stallard of the Red Sox in a 1-0 Yankee victory. The home run ball was caught by a 21-year-old truck driver, Sal Durante, who sold it to Sam Gordon, a Sacramento restaurant owner. Gordon displayed it for a while, then gave it to Maris.
Controversy surrounded the feat. There were those who claimed that Maris’s achievement was tainted, because Maris, who played in 161 of the Yankees’ 163 games that season, had more games to break the total of 60 that Ruth had accumulated in 1927 playing in 151 of the team’s 155 games. (Each team played one tie game.) Commissioner Ford Frick ordered an asterisk attached to the record. With time, however, his ruling has been dwarfed by the feat itself and survives only as a piece of trivia surrounding the lore of Maris’s chase of the record. Maris’s great season included AL-leading totals of 142 RBI and 132 runs scored, and it led the Yankees to a World Series victory over Cincinnati. In addition to winning his second consecutive MVP award, Maris was awarded the Hickock Belt as best professional athlete of the year, and was named Catholic Athlete of the Year. He won numerous other plaques, as well as a Gold Glove.
The quest for the home run record weighed heavily on Maris, and the hair of his famed crew cut began to fall out from tension in the stretch run of the chase. The pressure he felt was exacerbated by his accurate assessment that he was never as popular with fans as he thought he should have been. A private man who seldom showed emotion, he irritated many reporters with his angry stubbornness and his fierce, combative integrity. “I’m impatient,” he said of himself. “When I think something isn’t right, I want it to be made right then and there. I don’t believe in holding things in. When I’m impatient or dissatisfied I say something.” Much of his impatience was aimed at himself. “You can always do better than you’re doing,” he said. “You have to try all the time.” Shortly before his death from lymph-gland cancer in 1985, he said, “I always come across as being bitter. I’m not bitter. People were very reluctant to give me any credit. I thought hitting 60 home runs was something. But everyone shied off. Why, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t the chosen one, but I was the one who got the record.”
The four intentional walks Maris drew in a 12-inning game in 1962 were indicative of the respect accorded him around the league following his 1961 season. Maris had his last great season as a Yankee in 1962. He had more than 30 homers and more than 100 RBI for the third year in a row, and the Yankees defeated San Francisco in the World Series. A hand injury plagued him in 1963 and robbed him of his power, and he never fully regained his home run form, despite making a partial comeback in 1964. Batting in a game in June 1965, he took a swing and felt something pop in his right hand. He was sidelined the rest of the year, but did not submit to surgery until the season was over. His 1965 injuries were a portent of the future for an aging Yankee team, which slid to a last-place finish in 1966. Maris played in only 95 games, pinch hitting in 20 more, and hit 13 homers.
In December 1966 Maris was traded to the Cardinals for Charley Smith, a much-traveled third baseman with a .240 career average. St. Louis moved Mike Shannon from the outfield to third base and played Maris in right field. The change was the only alteration of the lineup the Cardinals fielded in 1966 when they finished in sixth place, 12 games behind the Dodgers, but it was a significant one, as they won consecutive National League championships in 1967 and 1968 with Maris. He batted .385 for their 1967 World Championship team.