An otherwise knowledgeable fan recently told me he was rooting
for Mark McGwire to break Roger Maris's home run record because
Maris "wasn't a real home run hitter." That sounds like a late
'90s version of the anti-Maris, pro-Mickey Mantle sentiment that
prevailed in 1961. According to this fan's theory, as Maris was
chipping away at Babe Ruth's mark 37 years ago, even the
pitchers who faced Maris didn't view him as a bona fide slugger.
The proof? Maris wasn't walked intentionally once during the '61
season. Combine that with Maris's paltry career total of 275
blasts and, QED, Maris wasn't a real home run hitter.
This, of course, ignores the fact that Maris wasn't walked
intentionally in large part because Mantle, who hit 54 homers,
batted behind him for much of the season. Moreover, Maris drew
94 unintentional walks in '61; last year McGwire had only 85.
The demeaning of Maris's career home run total also is unfair to
a man who may have had as much on-field misfortune as anyone in
the history of the game. First of all, 275 is a respectable
number. Hack Wilson, the single-season National League record
holder, with 56 homers, finished with only 244. Such sluggers as
George Scott (271), Gorman Thomas (268) and Dick Stuart (228)
all come in behind Maris on the career list.
Maris could well have hit far more than he did. Mostly because
of injuries, he lasted only 12 seasons, and in only four of
those could he muster even 500 at bats. Mix the frequency with
which he went yard and Hank Aaron's career at bats, and the
theoretical Maris hits 668 homers.
Maris's career may have lacked longevity, but his record has
not. Ruth set his first home run mark of 29 in 1919 and improved
upon it with 54 in '20, 59 in '21 and 60 in '27, meaning that
his final record had stood for 34 seasons when Maris broke it.
Despite the avalanche of home runs in the post-Maris era,
Roger's record has lasted 36 years, two years longer than Ruth's.
Maris actually hit 62 home runs in 1961. One was washed out
before a July 17 game in Baltimore became official. It would
have been his 36th homer of the year, and it's hard to believe
the umpires would allow the elements to claim a similarly
high-numbered blast from one of Maris's current pursuers.
No matter who breaks the 61 barrier, or how many do, Maris may
yet have the last laugh. While baseball has ruled that records
set in the interleague era will supersede those established
before 1997, history may say otherwise. Sosa's 63 or McGwire's
67 might eventually be listed separately, with Maris's 61
preserved for all time in an "intraleague only" category.
Can't happen? We rewrite history all the time--or did you forget
that the asterisk commissioner Ford Frick stuck on Maris's
record was officially erased seven years ago?
B/W PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN [Roger Maris]