Monday, October 3, 2011

50 years later, Maris still outside the Hall

The usual focus of this blog is on the Minnesota Twins with a look at the current team, the minor leagues, and the history of the franchise. The name of the blog is "North Dakota Twins Fan" and every once and awhile I delve into stories that tie into the North Dakota portion of my blog title. For instance, last offseason I took a look at the top ten players born in North Dakota and earlier this season I wrote that Roger Maris's chase for 61 home runs came through Minnesota. Baseball fans in North Dakota feel a connection to Maris and that has lead for a push towards the Hall-of-Fame.
Roger Eugene Maras (he later changed his last name to Maris) was born in Hibbing, Minnesota in the fall of 1934. He would eventually move to North Dakota and attend high school at Bishop Shanley High School in Fargo. After less than one semester in college, Maris would sign with the Cleveland Indians in 1953. His professional career would span most of the next two decades with many accolades along the way.

This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most important records in the game of baseball. On October 1st, 1961, Maris hit his 61st home run of the season in the last game of the year. This Yankee had passed the greatest Yankee of all-time, Babe Ruth, for most long balls in one season. He was pushed during the season by his teammate Mickey Mantle but Maris finished the season ahead of his middle of the order counterpart.

Maris now sits in seventh place on the single season home run list. The steroid era of the late 1990's and early 2000's meant that players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa were able to hit baseballs out of the park at a tremendous rate. Maris was not alive to see his record broken but the chase of his record brought a lot of attention to the Maris family for what he accomplished in the summer of '61.

In 1968 at the age of 33, Maris retired from the game of baseball. With any player of his stature, the question quickly turns to whether or not he should be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The resume of Maris included back-to-back MVPs in 1961 and 1962, four consecutive All-Star appearances, and a Gold Glove. He also was a member of a remarkable seven pennant winners and he finished his career with three World Series rings.

There are many glaring weaknesses in the Hall-of-Fame resume of Mr. Maris. He was a career .260 hitter and even with a 61 home run season, he only ended his career with 275 home runs. Over the course of his playing career, he managed to compile a WAR of 39.8. Even with all of his team's postseason success, Maris struggled in October and only amassed a .217 BA with six home runs in 41 playoff games.

Those statistics might make it hard to consider Maris for baseball's highest honor but another glaring negative was the relationship Maris had with reporters. The run to the record was extremely tough on Maris and he was not the most outgoing person in the world. Some in the New York media did not want Maris to break the record of the infamous Ruth and they hounded him on a daily basis trying to find a flaw in this small town man. The stress Maris felt during that season has been well documented and it lead to various health concerns for the man in the middle of the chase.

After his retirement, his relationship with the media might have played a role in the lack of support he received on the Hall-of-Fame ballot. In his 15 years on the ballot, Maris never received more than 43.1% of the vote. Following a battle Hodgkin's lymphoma, Maris died in 1985 while still on the Hall-of-Fame ballot. He lived long enough to have his number nine retired by the Yankees but he was never able to see himself enshrined in Cooperstown.

The reality of the situation is Maris has been getting a lot of push in recent years to be elected to the Hall. There is a rising cult following of Yankees fans and baseball fans that have brought attention back to Maris and his contributions to the game. He held one of the most significant records in the game for almost four decades and he is one of a handful of players to win back-to-back MVPs. In this coming year, the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall-of-Fame will be looking at players that made the greatest contributions during the "Golden Era" of the game from 1947 to 1972. Maris fits into this category and his contributions will be up for consideration by the Committee in 2012.

The initial reaction when looking at the career of Maris is to say that the numbers are not there to put him into the Hall. There are plenty of other worthy candidates that will be considered by the Veterans Committee including former Twins great Tony Oliva. As the players of the steroid era are coming up for election, the players from previous era's seem to stand out even more. The season Maris accomplished in 1961 looks even more amazing in light of recent events. There has still not been a player in the last 50 years who has been able to legitimately pass him for home runs over the course of season.

For fans from North Dakota and for true baseball fans, the record is still 61.

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