Why Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 remains the greatest of all records.
If records are indeed meant to be broken, then perhaps some are so intrinsically special that even in pieces they’re worth more than whatever replaced them.
For what seemed like a long time—though was only thirty-odd years—Babe Ruth’s 1927 home run number was the God-stat, the lore number, proof that Paul Bunyan once toiled in a batter’s box.
Prevailing wisdom held that Ruth’s mark would remain Ruthian—that is, unreachable—as long as pitches were hurled and bats were swung, and that was that, until on October 1, 1961, a man who has since been treated as some nondescript slugger, planted his 61st home run into the right field Yankee Stadium bleachers in the final game of the season against the lowly Red Sox.
That man was Roger Maris, and he will always be the owner of the rarest kind of record: that which transcends what it regularly means to hold a record. Nothing in sports captures our imagination, is as powerfully primal, as the home run. It literally soars beyond the boundaries of its sport, transcendence in flight. The ball starts in one plane of existence, and lands in another. A home run feels both human, and something extra-human. Whether smacked to win a World Series or backyard bragging rights, the home run is awesome.
Sixty years ago, the knock on Maris was that he wasn’t Ruth. Further, he wasn’t that great, which is how he’s remembered now, author of a fluky season. He was just as dominant the year before—only with less round-trippers—and copped the first of his successive MVPs. The bulk of his career was raddled by injury, but Maris was always a top-notch all-around player, which never felt like it was enough after what Maris had meant to baseball, popular culture, even American history, for that one glorious year.
What Maris achieved has always struck me as being post-baseball. Bigger than baseball. People hated him because he wasn’t Ruth. His hair fell out from the stress. Rogers Hornsby, the greatest right handed hitter to ever live, ripped Maris mercilessly, saying no .260 hitter deserved to take down Ruth.
But Maris just kept going. He launched and he launched and he launched, and he launched himself into a stratosphere where one amazing achievement became everything. A totality of legacy. The cynosure standard of American sports.
No one says this, but I’ve always felt Maris should be in the Hall of Fame. Speaking of Greta Garbo’s checkered filmography, Orson Welles remarked that sometimes in this life, one masterpiece is not only enough, but more than enough.
Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa soared past sixty, then Barry Bonds took down seventy, but none of them felt like a form of swatting magic come to life. The Maris mark is the six-year-old’s trip to Disney World, the birth of the child, the fiftieth wedding anniversary, the initial viewing of Star Wars, hearing the Beatles for the first time. It’s not an exercise in nostalgia, but a lesson in the ne plus ultra of life—pushing beyond what a person thinks is possible—that sports can sometimes provide. Which is when they feel bigger than sport.
I’m not sure someone has done that to the degree that Roger Maris did in 1961. One can ask for a longer career, a sustained run of dominance, but it seems greedy to me to ask for more from someone who produced a kind of everything in one glorious season. Call it the Maris record. More Ruthian than Ruth, more sportian than sport. The best damn record there is.