02/19/07 10:00 AM ET
Maris' candidacy remains a hot topic
Storied home-run champion still atop Veterans ballot
By Jack O'Connell / Special to MLB.com
The Baseball Writers' Association of America passed on Maris' election for 15 years, after which his candidacy was among the most frequently discussed by the Veterans Committee, which was restructured in 2003, and Maris' name is still ripe for debate.
Why not? After all, Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record that had stood for 34 years with 61 in 1961 and held it for three years longer than Ruth before Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998. Three years later, Barry Bonds set the current mark of 73. Yet there are many who believe Maris' achievement was greater due to the pressures he dealt with in challenging a portion of the legacy of the game's most revered player and competing against his own teammate, future Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle.
That Maris and Mantle were able to maintain a close friendship during their chase for the home run mark in '61 is a testament to both men's respect for the value of team unity. They actually shared a Queens apartment during that season and were never in any way the rivals that they were made out to be by certain segments of the press. Mantle had a longer and more celebrated career than Maris, who might not be a part of any Hall of Fame conversation if not for that 1961 season.
That was the middle of a three-year stretch of Maris' career that defines his candidacy. He came to the Yankees in 1960 in a trade from Kansas City, where he had been an All-Star the previous year. While he may never have felt quite at home in New York, Yankee Stadium was well suited to Maris' swing. The right-field porch proved as inviting to him as it had for the guy whose popularity as a box-office attraction helped get the place built in 1923.
The M&M boys, as they came to be known, vied for the American League lead in home runs in their first year as teammates. Mantle won the home run title, 40-39, but Maris copped the Most Valuable Player Award in a close vote against Mantle. They were 1-2 again in '61, but Maris was first in both cases, with 61 homers to Mantle's 54 and with another MVP trophy.
Maris is the only two-time MVP winner who is not in the Hall of Fame of those eligible, but just as Dale Murphy is finding out on the current BBWAA ballot, such a daily double is no punched ticket to Cooperstown. Hal Newhouser, the AL MVP in 1944 and '45, didn't make the Hall until the Veterans Committee elected him in 1992. That is the only route now open to Maris, who died in 1985 of lymphoma cancer at the age of 51.
Candidates can stay on the BBWAA ballot for up to 15 years provided they get five percent of the vote each time. Maris went the full 15 years, but his best showing was 43 percent, both in 1987 and '88. A 75-percent plurality is required for election. On the Veterans Committee ballot, which is voted on by living Hall of Famers, Ford Frick Award and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winners, Maris received 19 of 83 votes (23.8 percent) in 2005 and 18 of 81 votes (22.2 percent) in 2003.
August Busch Jr.
As years pass, Maris' legacy seems to grow, which he would probably find amusing. "I was born surly, and I'm going to stay that way," he once said. The only game Maris wanted to play was on the field, and when he finished his career after the 1968 World Series with the Cardinals, he walked away and never looked back. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner practically had to beg him to come to the Stadium in 1984 for ceremonies in which his uniform No. 9 and the No. 32 of his late teammate, Elston Howard, were retired.
Roger Eugene Maras (he legally changed the spelling later) was born in 1934, the son of immigrants from Croatia, in Hibbing, Minn., which was also the birthplace of another nonconformist, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The family moved to Fargo, N.D., where Maris excelled not only in baseball but also as a football quarterback, good enough to earn a scholarship offer from the University of Oklahoma.
He took a bus to Norman, Okla., but when nobody from the athletic department was there upon his arrival, Maris got right back on the bus and went home, where a contract from the Indians soon had his signature. Baseball stardom did not come quickly, not setting in until he got to the Yankees. Most don't remember that Maris began the 1960 season as manager Casey Stengel's leadoff hitter. Within a month, Maris was batting third, in front of Mantle, and the M&M Era was in full swing, so to speak.
Maris' career was not lengthy, but it was worthy. He played in seven World Series in his 12 seasons, five with the Yankees and two with the Cardinals. McGwire's chase of the home run record brought Maris back into focus 30 years after his retirement as a player, and Hall of Fame voters continue to study whether his worthiness extends all the way to Cooperstown.
Jack O'Connell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.