Reexamining Roger Maris’ Hall of Fame Candidacy


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In April 2005 the Star Tribune ran a feature in their annual baseball preview section touting Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau as the new “M&M boys”, referencing, of course, the famed 1960s Yankees slugging duo of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. When I asked the then 24-year-old Morneau about the nickname later that spring, he bristled at being compared with “two guys that are in the Hall of Fame”.

Morneau, like so many others, was mistaken. Roger Maris is not in the Hall of Fame and likely won’t ever be. On the golden anniversary of his magical 1961 season however, it’s important to not only remember what he accomplished, but also – as a new generation of baseball fans – revisit his Hall of Fame candidacy, which is stronger than you may think.

Maris’s decorated resume includes the legitimate single season homerun record, two AL MVPs, seven All Star appearances, a Gold Glove, seven pennants and three World Series titles. The main case against Maris of course, involves his statistics; in 12 seasons the rightfielder hit .260 with 275 homeruns, 851 RBI and 1,325 hits. While those numbers are not Hall of Fame caliber in the traditional sense, the induction of a player with Maris-type statistics is not unprecedented.

With his 15 years of eligibility on the writer’s ballot long since expired (he topped out at 43.1% in 1988, 75% is required for induction), Maris’ lone avenue to the Hall runs through the Veterans Committee. While the make-up and rules of the Veterans Committee have changed over the years, they have inducted several players that compare favorably to Maris.

For instance, the Committee elected former Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski in 2001. Mazeroski, like Maris, was a .260 career hitter, but hit just 138 homeruns in 17 seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. Maz was inducted on the strength of his eight Gold Gloves and iconic Game 7 walk-off homerun that beat Maris’ Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

Long-time Philly Richie Ashburn gained induction in 1995. Ashburn, a .308 career hitter, won two batting titles and compiled 2,574 hits, but the outfielder hit only 29 homers in 15 seasons and never finished higher than seventh in MVP balloting.

Former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto was inducted in 1994. The 1950 AL MVP hit .273 with 38 homeruns and 149 stolen bases in 13 seasons. Scooter’s popularity as the Yankees radio and television announcer contributed to his induction.

In 1989, the Veteran’s Committee punched former Cardinal Red Schoendienst’s ticket to immortality. A steady player, the second baseman hit .289 with 2,449 hits and 84 homeruns in 19 seasons. Schoendienst never finished higher than third in the MVP voting.

1979 inductee Hack Wilson may be the most similar to Maris. Like Maris, he played 12 seasons and is best known for one amazing year. In 1930, Wilson hit 56 homers with a record 191 RBI. Wilson’s career batting average of .308 bests Maris, but he hit only 244 career homeruns.

Like almost everything else, Hall of Fame induction offers different levels of prestige. First ballot enshrinement is reserved for the elite of the elite. As the years of eligibility pile up, the level of prestige lowers accordingly. For instance, a sophisticated observer knows that late termers like Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice are not equals to first balloters like Nolan Ryan and Rickey Henderson.

The Veterans Committee meanwhile, is considered the last hope of the overlooked star. Not obvious enough to be elected by the writers, Veterans Committee inductees – aside from the Negro League stars who were systemically and irrationally excluded from the major leagues by a racist establishment – are typically players who deserve to be remembered but lack the traditional requirements that warrant induction. They are the special cases whose legacy remains relevant. Maris, because of his historical significance and continued stature and notoriety, fits that bill.

Maris retired in 1968, broken down at the relatively young age of 34. A series hand injuries zapped his bat speed, but the real toll was mental. Most who knew him felt Maris never recovered from the media blitz and unfair criticism he endured during the 1961 season.

Unlike today when highly sought players are offered to the media in a controlled press conference setting overseen by their team’s media relations department, Maris was usually alone, trapped in his locker stall as the media crush baited him into slipping up or snapping to generate a story. To his credit, Maris was able cope with the unyielding scrutiny well enough to break Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record in 1961, but the stress likely cut his career, and possibly even his life, short.

While the SABRmetrics revolution and its emphasis on advanced statistics has largely been a positive to baseball – exposing many myths and shedding light on previously undervalued facets of the game – it is not without blind spots. In Maris’ case intangibles like leadership and professionalism are overlooked. Maris’ peers regarded him as a great all around ballplayer, particularly commending his fielding ability, instincts on the basepaths and eagerness to sacrifice for the good of the team.

When Maris was traded to St. Louis in December 1966, the team was coming off a lackluster 6th place, 83-79 season. With largely the same line-up – plus Maris – and rotation, the Cardinals won the World Series in 1967 and repeated as National League champions in 1968. While Maris’ numbers those seasons – the final two of his career – were pedestrian, he was seen as instrumental in the Cardinals dramatic turnaround.

Sometimes the long lens of history creates clarity and provides justice. Now that the steroid era and the homerun chases of 1998 and 2001 have been debunked, Maris’ significance and the magnitude of his 1961 season need to be reexamined. 50 years after the fact, Roger Maris looks better than ever.

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