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?