Roger Maris

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Roger Maris: 61 in 61

Roger Eugene Maris (September 10, 1934December 14, 1985), is an American baseball player of Croatian origin is remembered for breaking Babe Ruth's 34-year-old single-season home run record in 1961. His record 61 home runs stood until 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpassed it.

Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, Maris grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota and Fargo, North Dakota and made his Major League Baseball debut in 1957 with the Cleveland Indians. The next year, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, whom he represented in the All-Star game in 1959 in spite of missing 45 games to an appendix operation.

Kansas City usually traded its best players to the New York Yankees, and Maris was no exception, going to New York in a seven-player trade in December 1959.

Early on, Maris exhibited his independent, no-nonsense personality. He was recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma. When he arrived in Oklahoma City on a bus and found no one from the University there to greet him, he turned around and went back to Fargo.

When he showed up in New York to join the Yankees, he was dressed in blue jeans and a sport shirt. When told to get a better wardrobe, he snapped, "If they don't like how I dress, I'll go back where I came from."

That curmudgeonly side of Roger Maris caused reporters to vilify him when he played for the Yankees. The Yanks were Mickey Mantle's team. The sportswriters called Maris aloof, rude, and a hick.

Although Maris is generally only remembered for his record-breaking 1961 season, in 1960, his first season with the Yankees, he led the league in slugging percentage, RBIs and extra base hits and finished second in home runs and total bases, won a gold glove, and won the American League MVP award.

In 1961, Maris found himself chasing Ruth's record along with popular teammate Mickey Mantle. Unlike McGwire and Sosa after him, Maris was ostracized. In the middle of the season, Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that unless Ruth's record was broken in the first 154 games of the season, the new record would be shown in the record books as having been set in 162 games while the previous record set in 154 games would also be shown. It is an urban legend, probably invented by a New York sportswriter named Dick Young, that an asterisk would be used to distinguish the new record.. Maris hit his 61st on October 1, 1961, the last game of the season. No asterisk was subsequently used in any record books -- Major League baseball itself had no official record book, and Frick later acknowledged that there never was official qualification of Maris' accomplishment. Maris, however, remained bitter. Speaking at the 1980 All-Star game, he said of that season, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing." Despite all the controversy, Maris was awarded the 1961 Hickok Belt for the top professional athlete of the year.

In 1962, Maris made his fourth consecutive and final All-Star game appearance. Injuries slowed him for the next four seasons, most notably in 1965, when he played most of the season with a misdiagnosed broken bone in his hand.

In 1963, after missing a ground ball hit in a nationally televised game, he gave the middle finger to a jeering Minneapolis crowd. Now encumbered with an injured image as well as body, he was traded by the Yankees to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1966 season. The Yankees questioned Maris' courage and Maris left angry.

Maris played two final seasons with the Cardinals, helping them to two pennants in 1967 and 1968 and a World Series victory in 1967 (he hit .385 in the post-season). Gussie Busch, owner of the Cardinals and of Anheuser-Busch, set Maris up with a beer distributorship after he retired.

On the Indians, he wore uniform number 32 in 1957 and 5 in 1958; the Athletics first gave him uniform number 35, but in 1959 he wore number 3. On the Yankees and Cardinals, he wore number 9, which the Yankees have now retired in his honor.

Maris was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1983. In response he organized the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament to raise money for cancer research and treatment. Maris died in December 1985 in Houston, Texas at aged 51. A Roman Catholic, he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota. He remains a hero in his hometown of Fargo. There's Roger Maris Drive, the free-admission Roger Maris Museum and, most of all, The Roger Maris Cancer Center, the fund raising beneficiary of the annual golf tournament.

See also: MLB players who have hit 30 or more home runs before the All-Star break

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