Major League Baseball

Roger Maris:
Hall of Fame Controversy

by Winona Hess
Copyright © 1998 by Winona Hess

A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SURPRISED to find out that Roger Maris, former longtime holder of the single-season home run record (61), is not in Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. With all the excitement this season about home run records, the debate about whether or not Maris should be in the Hall of Fame has re-ignited.

Maris broke Babe Ruth's record on October 1, 1961 in the last game of that season. The New York Yankees were hosting the Boston Red Sox. In his first at bat Maris flied out to Boston's rookie leftfielder, Carl Yastrzemski. In his second at bat, in the fourth inning, with the count at two balls and no strikes, Maris hit the orb, thrown by Boston pitcher Tracy Stallard, 360 feet over Yankee Stadium's rightfield wall and broke Ruth's record. It was 2:43pm and it was the only run of the game. That great accomplishment, however, according to the rules governing Hall of Fame eligibility, is not sufficient to get Maris elected to the shrine.

The rules are written to discourage the election of what are called "short-term wonders." These are the players who have performed an outstanding feat in one season. Entrance to the Hall is based on career-long excellence. Rule Six states,

6. Automatic Elections -- No automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted.

Maris' career statistical record is above average but it is debatable whether or not he has Hall of Fame numbers. According to research conducted by a contributor to the newsgroup Maris ranks close to rightfielders like Bobby Allison, Bobby Bonds, Rocky Colavito, Dwight Evans, Ken Griffey Sr., Jackie Jensen, Tony Oliva, and Dave Parker none of whom are in the Hall of Fame. But none ever hit 61 home runs in a season either.

Baseball great Hank Aaron, has said, "What irritates me the most is the suggestion that Roger was a fluke who had one good hitting year. I played against him. He was one of the best all-around outfielders I have ever seen." Maris' teammate Mickey Mantle called the single season home run record the greatest sports accomplishment of his time. Nevertheless, based on numbers alone, Roger Maris probably does not belong in the shrine.

Comparison of Roger Maris and other Rightfielders Not in the Hall of Fame
Batter Years G AB+W BA OBA SA
Bob Allison 1958-1970 1541 5827 .255 .360 .471
Bobby Bonds 1968-1981 1859 7957 .268 .356 .471
Rocky Colavito 1955-1968 1841 7454 .266 .362 .489
Jackie Jensen 1950-1961 1438 5986 .279 .372 .460
ROGER MARIS 1957-1968 1463 5733 .260 .348 .476
Tony Oliva 1962-1976 1676 6749 .304 .356 .476
KEY: G=Games; AB+W=At Bats + Walks; BA=Batting Average
OBA=On Base Average; SA=Slugging Average
Source: post by Gerry Myerson 9-1-98.

On the other hand, Rule 5 states,

5. Voting -- Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Unlike Pete Rose, whose numbers clearly qualify him for a place in the Hall of Fame but is kept out because he lacks character (see the Pete Rose: Hall of Fame Controversy plate), Maris was a man of integrity, sportsmanship and character. In eleven seasons Maris played on seven pennant winners and three World Series winners. He appeared in 4 All Star games, and was twice-in-a-row voted the American League's Most Valuable Player. His contribution to the teams he played on and to the sport in general are obvious and significant. With regard to sportsmanship, on the night he broke the home run record, Maris went to the Lenox Hill Hospital to see the recuperating Mickey Mantle, who had also challenged the record before being injured. Regarding personal character, Florida sports writer, Hubert Mizell wrote that "Maris [was] one of the half-dozen best baseball people I've ever met...far more admirable than Mantle." By most accounts, Maris was an admirable and honorable man.

Maris' friend and former baseball field manager Whitey Herzog has said that Maris' negative relationship with the New York sports media was what kept him out of the Hall. This is a reference to the difficulties Maris had under the media microscope during his bid to break the home run record. Maris was made to feel subversive for trying to break the record. He was booed by the fans who saw him as an interloper. Yankee Stadium was only half-filled for the game in which Maris broke Ruth's record.

Official baseball didn't like the idea of anyone encroaching on Ruth's record that had stood for 34 years. On July 17, 1961 the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick (a Ruth biographer), ruled that anyone who challenged the Babe's record had to accomplish the feat in 154 games. The pressure on Maris was so intense his hair began falling out. It took Maris 162 games to break the record which is why the asterisk was placed beside his name in the record books.

So, if you want to do it by the numbers, Maris should probably be kept out of the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, if you believe that it is people who count, not numbers, and you want to consider other non-statistical factors, as we do in the case of Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, then perhaps Major League Baseball ought to consider enshrining the last man to wear Yankee uniform number 9.

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Published: October 9, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association