When Roger Maris broke the home run record…
The story of Roger Maris is full of 61s.
He hit 61 home runs, which broke the single-season home run record in Major League Baseball, and he did it in 1961. And that was…61 years ago. And 61 years later, Yankee Aaron Judge is challenging Maris’ record, which stands as the most home runs ever hit in a single season by a Yankee, an American League player, and a player never implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Just as Judge may break the AL record of another Yankee, Maris overtook Babe Ruth, who had held the record since 1927. And Maris, in 1961, was up against yet another Yankee, Mickey Mantle. Mantle was something of an established Yankee, while Maris was relatively new to the team, and not seen by many fans and press as a “real Yankee.”
Maris, of course, has achieved baseball immortality. But unlike so many Yankee greats — DiMaggio, Mantle, Jeter — he did not play all or even most of his career in the Bronx. Maris was a Yankee for just six years, and to the surprise of many, he is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then again, neither are McGwire, Sosa, or Bonds.
Of course, even before there was controversy over whether the steroid users should have asterisks next to their records, that was alleged of Maris too. That’s because in between Ruth hitting 60 in 1927 and Maris’ chase for the record, the season was extended from 154 games to 162, giving Maris more time to hit more home runs. Then again, Ruth played at a time when the game was segregated and faced much weaker competition than Maris did.
The debate over whether Maris’ record was legitimate was decided, pretty quickly, in his favor, to the point where he is often, even today, called the “real” record holder.
The movies’ primary telling of the Maris story was 61*, a docudrama that was made for HBO in 2001. That film, directed by lifelong Yankee superfan Billy Crystal and starring Thomas Jane as Mantle and Barry Pepper as Maris, told the story of that remarkable season.
Among baseball movies, 61* was one of the better ones at showing the pressure that athletes are under, from everyone to the press to the Yankee mystique to the legacy of history (as personified by Babe Ruth’s mean widow, who’s clear that she’d rather her husband’s record not be broken.) This year’s documentary series about Derek Jeter, The Captain, covered many of the same subjects, on the same team, albeit four or five decades later.
While the film ultimately celebrates the love of the game and the great moment of Maris passing Ruth, it also provides a realistic, cynical look at baseball, from the nastiness of the media and fans to its unflinching depiction of Mickey Mantle as a womanizing drunk who pissed away the later years of his career. (Crystal and Mantle were friends in real life, as part of the comedian’s apparent quest to befriend all of the great 20th century athletes, although Mantle died six years before *61 was made. Maris died in 1985, at the too-young age of 51.)
Sure, 61* has a framing device — looking back on the Maris/Mantle home run chase through the prism of Mark McGwire breaking Maris’ record in 1998 — that aged very, very badly very quickly, thanks to the subsequent revelations about the steroid era. But other than that, the film is a favorite, one that I’ve gone back to watch many times (It’s streaming on HBO Max.)
One of the more ridiculous reactions to the revelations of the steroid era was that baseball had somehow “lost its innocence,” as if it ever had any to begin with. Black people weren’t allowed to play for almost half the 20th century. A team threw a World Series in 1919. There are ample examples, going back to the dawn of the game, of famous players being racists, drunks, and degenerates. Owners have been miserly and greedy for the better part of the game’s history. I credit 61* in telling Maris’ story in a way that didn’t soft-pedal the darker side of the game.
Performance-enhancing drugs are far from the worst thing that baseball has ever given us, and while they have led to some confusion over which records are legit or not, I tend to think there’s something to be said for Barry Bonds, at a time when many, many players were on the juice, hitting way more homers than anyone else. And besides, the all-time hit king, Pete Rose, has done about ten things in his life that are worse than the worst thing Bonds has ever done.
Roger Maris’ story is one of baseball’s best, no matter where you come down on whether he is or isn’t the rightful single-season home run king.