The Yankees’ Slugging Sparkplug

Earlier this month many of us were once again disappointed that Roger Maris failed to make it into the Hall of Fame. But we understand. Maris did not have the lifetime stats to qualify. He had a fine career and several great seasons, but his injury shortened years as a pro just didn’t approach Hall of Fame standards. We can however reflect on his achievements and take a closer look at how much he meant to the success of those Yankee teams in the early 1960’s.

As a two-time American League MVP Maris led the league in RBI’s twice, home runs, runs, total bases and slugging once. His record-breaking 61 home runs in 1961 surpassed Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 that lasted 34 years and Maris’s 61 stood for another 37 years until it was broken by Mark McGwire in 1998 during the steroid era. But what is often over-looked is what Maris meant to the New York Yankees. Only twice in major league history has a team won five consecutive pennants like the Yankees did from 1960 to 1964 and the most significant catalyst to that achievement was Roger Maris who was acquired by the Yankees from a trade with Kansas City in December of 1959.

The Yankees had dominated much of the 1950’s but they stumbled badly in 1959 finishing third behind Chicago and Cleveland. They had an aging right fielder, Hank Bauer, and an aging catcher, Yogi Berra.  Their star slugger, Mickey Mantle, had a such disappointing year (for him, only 31 homers and 75 RBIs) that he began to hear the Bronx boo-birds. When the season ended there was no reason to expect that the once mighty Yankees could re-immerge and challenge the go-go White Sox with Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio, and the powerful Indians with Rocky Colavito and Minnie Minoso. But there was hope for the Yankees upon the arrival of the young outfielder from the mid-west who swung a powerful left-handed bat that would prove perfect for the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field.

Roger Maris did not disappoint. In his first game as a Yankee in April 1960 he hit two home runs with 4 RBIs in a Yankee victory over the Red Sox. He went on to have an MVP season leading the league in RBIs and slugging percentage as the Yankees won the pennant. No longer the sole slugger on the team, Mantle benefited greatly from Maris’s presence in the lineup and rebounded with a fine campaign, leading the league in home runs and runs scored and finishing a close second to his teammate in the MVP voting.

In 1961 Maris not only had a stellar MVP season but this time it was record-breaking, as he bested Ruth’s magical home run mark with his 61st home run on the last game of the season. An event I will never forget because I was at the game. (How lucky we were that my dad was a procrastinator and waited for the very last game for our yearly trek to the Stadium.) Maris led the league in RBIs with 142 and tied with Mantle for the league lead in runs scored at 132. The Yankees of course went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Worlds Series. But Roger’s contributions to the success of his team did not end with these two remarkable campaigns. Maris again had a solid year in 1962 leading the Yankees in home runs and RBIs as the Bombers repeated as World Champions defeating the San Francisco Giants in seven games. And it was Roger’s tremendous game-saving defensive play in the bottom of the ninth of that seventh game that prevented the tying run from scoring in New York’s 1-0 victory.

Maris missed roughly half of the 1963 season with injuries, but he still managed to hit 23 home runs and helped his team to their fourth consecutive pennant. He staged a commendable comeback in 1964 batting .281 with 26 homers and 71 RBIs as the Yankees won their fifth consecutive American League pennant. Five seasons with New York, five pennants. Maris was truly a difference maker for New York.

As injuries plagued number 9 and his production faded so did the fortunes of the Yankees as they slipped to sixth in 1965 and dead last in 1966. The next year Maris was traded to the Cardinals.

The important thing to remember here is not so much his tremendous hitting, he averaged 36 home runs and 96 RBIs over that five-year span, but his ever presence in the heart of the Yankee lineup. Maris batted in the third or fourth slot nearly 90% of the time. Number 9 was a fixture in Yankeeland those years. Perhaps an all too underappreciated fixture. Yet growing up a baseball fan in those days many of us would try to bat lefty and emulate Roger. Loosen our shoulders with a Maris-like shrug. Then two choppy practice swings and finally that compact, elegant, and always powerful swing. Roger Maris, the slugging sparkplug for the New York Yankees, and always a “Hall of Famer” to his legion of fans.

References:

The Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball Reference.com, The Baseball Almanac,

 New York Yankees Seasons of Glory

If you get a chance check out my books: Mickey Mantle’s Last Home and Grandpa Gordy’s Greatest World Series Games

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