Claim to fame: This October will mark the 50th anniversary of Roger Maris’s 61st home run in the 1961 season. It broke Babe Ruth’s 34-year single season record and stood another 37 years until Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998, and it remains the defining achievement for Maris. He was a back-to-back MVP, four-time All Star, and one can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he not had just one healthy season after the age of 27. Still, 61 is the number people remember about Maris, and if he’s ever elected to the Hall of Fame, I doubt it will be for any other reason.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Maris went the full 15 years on the Cooperstown ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America, and while his vote totals peaked slightly after his death from cancer in 1985, he never received anywhere close to the 75 percent of votes needed for enshrinement. That leaves the Veterans Committee as Maris’s sole option for earning a plaque today.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? There are lots of directions I could probably go with this one. I’ll start with a quote I’ve used before here. In 1978, late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote a column arguing that Dodger stolen base great Maury Wills belonged in the Hall of Fame. Toward the end of the piece, Murray wrote:
The baseball writers are sometimes loathe to reward a guy for a single, incandescent, virtuoso performance over one season. They prefer a guy who keeps doing a predictable thing over and over again. Henry Aaron, who piled up 755 home runs, 30 to 40 at a time over 20 years, will go in the hall by acclamation. Roger Maris, who hit 61 one season, more than anyone ever hit in one season, will never make it.
I like Murray, though it’s hard to believe Maris will never make the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if there are many absolutes in life, particularly when it comes to the Veterans Committee. Players with solid lifetime stats but relatively low profiles are sometimes overlooked by the committee in favor of big names from great teams. That could favor Maris, who did his best work in Yankee pinstripes and remains beloved more than a decade since his record fell. He’s another player whose induction could offer good PR for the Hall of Fame as more and more steroid users become eligible with the writers.
The question is whether that’s enough, because I don’t know what else could get Maris enshrined. By no lifetime statistical measure does he appear worthy of Cooperstown, not through any of the Hall of Fame monitoring metrics on Baseball-Reference.com nor any traditional stat. His 275 home runs ranks far down the charts, as does his 39.8 career WAR, and .260 batting average. He never hit .300 in a season, retired with just 1,325 hits, and had barely more than 5,000 at bats. The list goes on. If not for the 61 home runs, I suppose Maris might be largely forgotten today.
But Maris isn’t a sentinel in baseball history, and here’s what I think the argument could come down to. There are roughly 300 people in the Hall of Fame, the majority obscure to modern fans. To most who pass through Cooperstown, names on plaques like Vic Willis and Tim Keefe and Buck Ewing are essentially meaningless. Maris is a name many if not most fans know and care about. If we isolate the word Fame in Hall of Fame, there may be no more deserving, eligible player than Roger Maris.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark