Let’s talk about my dad’s favorite Hall of Fame case: Roger Maris. Maris broke babe Ruth’s single season home run record, but then you never hear much else about him. How can someone break a record that stood for 34 years and not be in the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at why Roger Maris fell short of the Hall of Fame.
Dad had no reason to like Roger Maris. He played for the team he rooted for as a kid that left Philadelphia and went west. And then right when he got good, The New York Yankees traded for him. And then of course, he had his best years with the Yankees.
But Dad admired a guy who played hurt. Maris played hurt a lot. And I think it bugged him that the Yankees didn’t really appreciate him outside of his magical 1961 season.
Why isn’t Roger Maris in the Hall of Fame?
You may be wondering what those injuries did to his chances of making the Hall of Fame. And I think that’s pretty much the story in this case. Roger Maris only played 11 seasons. His monster 1961 season was his career high for number of games played. He only had three seasons where he didn’t miss significant time to injury.
Due to the brevity of his career, he didn’t hit any of the traditional career milestones that generally guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame. He didn’t hit 500 home runs, he didn’t get 3,000 career hits and he didn’t set any career records. He set a single season home run record that lasted longer than Ruth’s record did, and all the MLB players who surpassed it like Mark McGwire have been credibly accused of using performance enhancing drugs. But that was never enough to convince voters to induct him into the Hall of Fame.
There is a pattern that most Hall of Famers fall into. A typical Hall of Fame outfielder will put together seven great seasons, usually ending around age 30 or 31. Most players decline around the age of 32.
Even Hall of Famers start to have bad seasons after the age of 32. And that can make or break certain players Hall of Fame cases. If you have too many below average seasons in the twilight of your career, it makes your Hall of Fame case much more difficult.
Roger Maris was better than you remember
The interesting thing about Maris was that according to modern analytics, he never had a below average season after 1959. And even that year he was only 3% below average. Even when he was battling injuries and a shadow of his 1961 self, he was a slightly above average player.
When you project out his 162-game average over 18 to 20 years, he looks like he would have had a Hall of Fame case. The problem, when you look at modern analytics, was that during his seven best seasons, he missed too many games.
But if you know someone who saw him play and hear the stories, Roger Maris probably was better than they remember.
What might have been
Once Maris reached his thirties, he found it too difficult to stay healthy. He ended his career with a couple of seasons playing for the Cardinals, and he considered retiring rather than reporting to St Louis. Cardinals management thought he had something left, and St Louis fans have always loved players who play hard.
The change of scenery seemed to help, because he did enjoy two unheralded but productive seasons in St Louis. But the enormous multi-purpose Busch Stadium II where the Cardinals played was not conducive to an aging left-handed power hitter. Certainly not the way Yankee Stadium was. The 386-foot power alley in right field turned a lot of home runs into doubles.
In retrospect, if the game had not trended in the late 1960s toward large stadiums that could accommodate both baseball and football, it might have been a bit easier for a player like Roger Maris to stay healthy. And if he had been able to stay healthy a little bit longer, the American League adopted the designated hitter rule in the early 1970s. Maris would have been an ideal candidate for the designated hitter. Not having to play the field would have given him fewer opportunities to injure himself, and would have saved wear and tear on his legs and knees.
First base would have been the next best thing, but the Cardinals had Orlando Cepeda there.
But that’s a lot of what ifs, and there’s no guarantee it would have all been enough.
Ultimately, there’s a reason his magical 1961 summer is what everyone remembers Roger Maris for. He had a few more underappreciated seasons in pinstripes, and he was a better player than his traditional statistics suggest. He didn’t hit for high average the way some of his Yankee teammates did, but modern analytics show he drew enough walks and hit for enough extra base power to be a very underrated middle of the order hitter.
If he had played in another era, he might have been able to stay healthy long enough to put together a Hall of Fame career. But with what he had to work with, he didn’t have enough longevity.