Every few years, like a bad idea whose time has come, the argument for Roger Maris and the Hall of Fame springs up again. There have been several lately, no doubt spurred by the 50th anniversary of the Maris-Mantle home run chase in 1961 when both Yankee sluggers went after Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the steroid revelations of recent years are fueling the case for Maris.
Today there’s one on BleacherReport.com by guest columnist Robert Lipsyte. “This was the month my all-time favorite slugger found his groove; by the end of May he had 12 home runs and was on his way to a new record.
“That was 50 years ago, His name was Roger Maris, and I’m pissed off that the press box hacks who vote for the Hall of Fame have never handed him the golden ticket in.”
In support of Maris, Lipsyte texted Bob Costas, whom he correctly calls “as close as baseball has to a moral authority.” Costas’ return text: “Want him in. Stature grows with each passing yr, career stats short but historical importance huge …”
Some points to be made about Maris: most people forget that he was far from a one-year wonder, having won the MVP award not just in 1961, the year he broke the record, but the season before.
In addition to being a great slugger for several; seasons, he was a fine defensive player and a smart base runner. His relay on Willie Mays’ double in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1962 World Series kept Mattie Alou from scoring and tying the game. The Yankees won.
By all accounts Maris was a great guy and a terrific teammate and showed tremendous courage in weathering the scorn of baseball fans all over the country who didn’t want to see Ruth’s record broken. He also did his best to withstand the relentless pounding of a New York Ruth-centric press.
All of that said, Roger Maris does not deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. It isn’t just that his career performance did not merit the honor, though that is true. He didn’t have a long career (just 12 full seasons), he didn’t hit for a high average (.260), and unlike some great players who didn’t hit for average (Mike Schmidt for instance), he didn’t have a particularly high on-base percentage (.348). He only hit 275 runs in his career and drove in over 100 runs just three times – 1960-1962 with the Yankees. He had more than 40 home runs in only one season, 1961 when he broke the record.
More to the point, it can be argued – in fact, I will make the argument here – that Maris wasn’t the best player in the league in either of his two MVP seasons. In Total Baseball ‘s total player ranking, a method developed by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, Mantle not only tops him in 1960 but is considerably higher in 1961. In fact, the gaps between Mickey and Roger in those years was substantial. In Bill James’ complex Win Shares method, which takes in all hitting, fielding and base running contributions, Mickey topped Roger by five “shares”, 36-31 in 1960 and by a whopping 48-36 in 1961, Maris’ only truly great season. And if Mantle had won either of those much-deserved MVP awards, nobody would be making the case for Maris in the HOF.
Okay, so no matter how you slice it, Maris was named MVP twice, but so was an oddly forgotten ballplayer from a later time, the Atlanta Braves’ Dale Murphy, who topped Maris in every possible category, hitting just under 400 career home runs, leading the league twice in home runs to Maris’ once, and driving in more than 100 runs five time to Maris’ three.
Are Maris’ credentials greater than Murphy’s simply on the basis of one season? They don’t give the Nobel Prize for just one book. (One wonders if Murphy would be in the Hall today had he played most of his career in New York.)
In my 2002 book, Clearing The Bases, I devoted a chapter to this ongoing controversy: “Roger Maris is one of my first vividly recalled childhood sports heroes, and I’m forever grateful to Billy Crystal for bringing him back, along with Mickey Mantle” – in his television movie, *61 – “to help me explain to my ten-year old daughter why the summer of ’61 meant so much to me. But the Hall of Fame is about greatness, or at least I think it should be, and for whatever reasons that were locked up in his mind and heart, Roger Maris shied away from true greatness. Think of it this way: Roger Maris would have been the first to tell you that he didn’t quite deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. You know that he would. A less than honest response to the question of ‘Does Roger Maris belong in the Hall of Fame?’ dishonors his memory.’