Hall of injustice?
His fate in hands of Veterans Committee, many wonder why Maris has been left out
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Kevin Maris hits fungoes, it looks like 1961. He has a crew cut and bulging muscles and wears pinstripes. He is a ringer for his father, who smashed 61 homers in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth's season home run record.
But when most people think about Roger Maris, they think of the asterisk that commissioner Ford Frick attached to Maris's name for breaking the record in a 162-game season instead of the 154-game schedule of the Babe's record season of 1927.
Roger Maris's son is sick of it. He's been hearing about it since he was a little boy, and he thinks it stinks. "The press keeps writing about it but there never really was an asterisk," said Kevin Maris, 44, the high school baseball coach at Oak Hall School, which plays its games at Roger Maris Field.
Now, nearly 20 years after Maris's death, there is a movement to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Last month, the North Dakota Legislature passed a resolution urging the Hall's Veterans Committee to right the "injustice" of Maris not being voted into Cooperstown.
Maris "probably achieved more in baseball with less appreciation from sportswriters and fans than any other player," the resolution said. It was sent to every member of the committee. The Veterans Committee, made up mostly of the 60 living Hall of Famers and two dozen media members, is a last chance at Cooperstown for veterans overlooked by the regular selection committee, which is made up of baseball writers. With the Veterans Committee, 75 percent of the votes is needed for induction.
The last time around, in 2003, Maris was named on only 22 percent of the ballots, but both a greater appreciation of his career and the recent revelations concerning steroids in baseball have brought Maris back into the spotlight.
The hostility Maris encountered in 1961 was fueled by sportswriters and fans who felt teammate Mickey Mantle was more worthy of breaking Ruth's record. Fans who booed the Mick early in his career for striking out too much now cheered him. Mantle was a product of the Yankees' farm system and hit tape-measure home runs. Maris was an outsider, arriving from Kansas City in a trade in December 1959, replacing the popular Hank Bauer. Many of Maris's home runs were hit to the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium, and were somehow deemed cheaper.
The press wrote stories about Maris being aloof, about how he supposedly didn't get along with Mantle. The Mick matched Maris homer to homer, until he dropped out of the race late in the season with injuries and finished with 54.
The press and fans complained that Maris was a .260 hitter without enough baseball stature to topple the Bambino's record. Maris, meanwhile, kept his emotions inside.
Maris hit his 60th home run against Baltimore in his 684th plate appearance; it took Ruth 689. Then he smacked his 61st on the last day of the season off Red Sox rookie Tracy Stallard in Yankee Stadium, which was more than half empty. No respect. "And when it came down to it, it was never in the record books as an asterisk," said Kevin Maris. "Reporters just don't do their homework. From what I understand, it was marked as a double heading. Ruth 60 in 154, Dad 61 in 161. But the way it was talked about back then, people assume it's true. That's just the way things are. Dad didn't really pay any attention to it. He didn't really care one way or the other. He knew he hit 61. No one could take 61 away from him. Only Hank Aaron could comprehend what Dad went through."
Sal Durante, a 19-year-old truck driver, caught the 61st home run ball and offered it to Maris for free, even though a Sacramento restaurateur offered to pay $5,000 for it. Maris refused to accept it. "The boy's planning to get married and he can use the money . . . It shows there's still some good people left in the world after all," Maris had said.
The restaurateur who bought the ball eventually gave it to Maris, who in return gave it to the Hall of Fame, along with the bat he used.
But Maris sometimes wished out loud that he never hit all those home runs.
"They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something," Maris said at the 1980 All-Star Game. "Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing."
Maris won back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player Awards, in 1960 and '61. He was a mainstay of five consecutive pennant-winning Yankee teams (1960-64). He appeared in seven World Series, more than any other player in the 1960s. He had a strong arm and was a Gold Glove winner. But injuries, usually caused by circus catches or hard slides, cut his longevity and production. He hit 275 home runs, batted .260, and drove in 851 runs in a 12-year career. And although many believe the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall on the strength of a good glove and one home run (a walkoff job that beat the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series), Maris is not despite breaking baseball's most sacred record.
Shortly before his death from cancer of the lymph nodes at the age of 51 in 1985, Maris had mellowed. "I've always come across as bitter," he said. "I'm not bitter."
Maris's family would like to see him get into the Hall, but they are not electioneering. Twenty-five former major leaguers appear on the 2005 Veterans Committee ballot. Included are Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Ron Santo, and Joe Torre, all of whom received more votes than Maris in 2003. Former Red Sox ace Luis Tiant is making his first appearance on the ballot.
"It'd be nice to see Dad voted in if the writers and veterans feel it's worth him getting in," said Kevin Maris. "But we're not into tooting his horn."
But some of Maris's other supporters are turning up the volume.
"He was the most impressive athlete I know, including basketball," said Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight. "He was just so unique."
Knight said Maris's shyness with the media hurt him. "Maybe Maris didn't like the spotlight, but he should be in the Hall. Absolutely," said Knight. "They should have baseball people choose [Hall of Famers], not media people. He was universally respected, [but] you understand what the media can do.
"You can't find somebody else who was an MVP twice, who has played on a World Series winner in both leagues who isn't in the Hall of Fame. They say he didn't hit for a high average. How many home run hitters were better base runners in the Hall of Fame? He never threw to the wrong spot. You check it out.
"Remember in '62 when [Willie] McCovey hit the liner to Bobby Richardson for the last out [of Game 7 of the World Series] . . . well, it was Maris who cut off the ball and held Matty Alou to third on the [Willie] Mays double.
"[Former Yankee] Moose Skowron told me nobody could break up a double play better than Maris."
Maris's record stood for 37 years. In 1998, when he was on the verge of passing Maris, Mark McGwire invited Maris's family to the ballpark, and when McGwire hit his 62d homer, he hugged the Maris family and pointed to the sky. McGwire finished with 70 home runs that season; Sammy Sosa of the Cubs hit 66. In 2001, the Giants' Barry Bonds smashed 73 home runs.
Although there are no asterisks attached to those accomplishments, there are questions as to whether those stars cheated.
"I don't want to get into that steroid thing," said Whitey Herzog, a teammate of Maris's with Kansas City, and a pallbearer at his funeral. But the accusations "have taken the glitter" off the record, Herzog said.
McGwire admitted to taking the supplement Androstenedione, which has since been banned by baseball, Sosa was caught using a corked bat, and Bonds admitted before a grand jury that he used steroids unknowingly.
Pitcher Ralph Terry, a teammate of Maris's with the Yankees, recently proclaimed Maris's 61 home runs "honest."
Eli Grba, who played with the Yankees in 1960, and served up two of Maris's 61 homers in 1961 while with the expansion Los Angeles Angels, said Maris was underrated. "He's got to be in the Hall of Fame," said Grba. "He was one of the most complete ballplayers I've ever seen."
Grba is suspicious of those who have bettered Maris's magical season. "Is it because of the steroids?" he said. "McGwire saw where this was going, that's why he got out so quick."
But Kevin Maris won't even utter the word steroids or encourage others to question today's sluggers. He says his family loves McGwire.
"It would be hard not to the way he included us in his phenomenal way," said Kevin Maris. "It was more than anybody could ask for. I know Dad would've been proud of the way he did things. He's a real classy guy, real genuine."
In Kevin Maris's heart, who is the real season home run king?
Kevin Maris took his cap off and wiped his brow. He looked very much like his father did when he was urged out of the Yankees' dugout by his teammates to tip his cap after hitting No. 61.
"Barry Bonds," said Kevin Maris. "He hit 73 home runs. That's phenomenal. You've got to put the bat to the ball. You just can't compare the eras because things change from era to era. To sit down and compare one era to another isn't fair to either era. Times change and sometimes things are better and sometimes things are worse. You've just got to appreciate that."
After solid seasons in 1962 and '64, Maris, who had bounced back from busted ribs and appendicitis as well as leg injuries from fearless slides, broke a bone in his hand while sliding on June 20, 1965.
"The Yankees told him it wasn't broken. He played a whole year with a broken hand," said Kevin Maris.
One day, Yankees manager Johnny Keane asked Maris to pinch hit. After telling Keane he couldn't grip the bat, Maris went to the plate, took three strikes, and sat down. Keane was furious. Maris almost quit. "He knew something was wrong with it," said Kevin Maris. "That pretty much ruined his career right there."
Maris had surgery in September of that year. He played in just 46 games that season and hit just eight home runs.
"He lost all the strength in three fingers on his right hand," said Kevin Maris. "You can't just hit with one hand. I mean, you've got to be able to pull. He'd wake up and he'd be cramped and he'd have to massage them to get them working right."
In 1966, he wasn't able to hit the ball the way he wanted. The Yankees got wind that he was planning to retire. Before he could make an announcement, the Yankees traded him to St. Louis. "Dad was traded without him even knowing it," said Kevin Maris. "He wanted to retire, but he felt bad for St. Louis. He didn't want them on the short end of the stick."
Maris played for the Cardinals in 1967 and '68, helping them reach the World Series twice. In the 1967 World Series against the Red Sox, he led both teams with seven RBIs and batted .385. After Maris's retirement, Cardinals owner August Busch rewarded him with a beer distributorship in central Florida that made him wealthy.
But he remained bitter toward the Yankees. "It's like being burned, you never get rid of the scars," he said when announcing his retirement in the fall of 1968.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner coaxed Maris back to Yankee Stadium, first at a flag-raising ceremony where he appeared with Mantle; again when the Yankees retired his No. 9 in 1984. "He was really unsure of how he would be received," said Kevin Maris, who went with his father to Yankee Stadium. "The last thing he wanted was to go there and be booed."
But Roger Maris received a prolonged standing ovation.
"I think it meant a lot for Dad to realize a lot of people appreciated him for what he did as a player," said Kevin Maris.
Friends, not foes
Of Maris's relationship with Mantle, Kevin Maris said it couldn't have been better, and that the stories of a grudge match were untrue.
"They were best of friends," said Kevin Maris. "When Dad was sick, Mickey would call him once a week at least. They stayed in touch."
Mantle was a Maris supporter. "I don't know why Roger isn't in the Hall of Fame," Mantle once said. "To me, he was as good as there ever was."
When Maris died, Mantle was a pallbearer, and he wept openly.
Kevin Maris misses his father. "I think about him every day," he said. "He was more or less my best friend. Tinkering with cars and motorcycles or whatever. I learned a lot of stuff. I could tell him anything. We had a lot of fun times."
Kevin Maris said his father's vices were "Camel cigarettes and Schlitz beer," but he never used drugs to improve his performance.
The younger Maris said his father got his strength from working on the railroad in his youth. "He never lifted weights," said Kevin Maris. "He pounded spikes and carried racks of bricks. When I put on his watch, it would go to my forearms; it was ridiculous, such thick wrists."
Kevin Maris played one year in the Cardinals' minor league system but a knee injury ended his career. He also played some professional golf. He runs baseball camps and some of the players don't even know he's Roger Maris's son. "I don't promote it," said Kevin Maris. "It's hard for them to comprehend."