Baseball, perhaps more so than any other sport, is a game of numbers. Any self-respecting baseball fan knows, without hesitation, the numbers 56, 511, 755 and .367, and what they represent. Another number, 61, will always be associated with Roger Maris. Coming at a time when millions of kids outside the home team's market knew of players only through newspapers, magazines and baseball cards, his single-season home run record was a jaw-dropping feat.
Maris was a vastly underappreciated right fielder who played for only a dozen years in the major leagues (1957-1968) for four different teams (Cleveland, Kansas City, NY Yankees, St. Louis). He made it to seven World Series in that span, and was on three world championship teams. For his career, Maris batted .260 with 275 homers and 850 RBI's. Those numbers may not be worthy of Cooperstown, but they don't take into consideration his impact on a pair of great franchises during the 1960s.
Hall of Fame talk aside, Maris remains one of the most popular vintage baseball cards on collectors' want lists... and dealer showcases.
The recent scandal involving performance-enhancing substances play heavily in Maris' favor. The controversy surrounding Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds has left both fans and voters with a sour taste, and more and more are concluding that Maris' 1961 feat is the real single-season home-run record.
Another factor in Maris' exclusion from being mentioned among baseball's elite may have been his less-than-amiable relationship with the media during his playing days. Maris was an honest, plain-spoken man who had little or no use for all the hoopla that came with being a celebrity. He felt that what he did "between the lines" was sufficient, and when reporters tried to dig deeper inside of him, he recoiled.
During the '61 home-run chase, the Yankee front office essentially left Maris all on his own, and the young man was ill-equipped to handle the constant scrutiny. In the Yankees defense, the home-run chase occurred just as the media (especially television) was becoming as much of a "player" as the players themselves. There was no template for how to cover an event such as was transpiring, and Maris was unfortunate enough to be the subject of a day-to-day "soap opera" that transfixed the nation.
Maris persevered however, and on the final day of the regular season, the left-handed slugger connected off of Boston's Tracy Stallard for #61 and baseball immortality. Roger Maris was a product of a simpler time, and although during his playing days he would always pale in comparison with Mantle, with the passing of time and the ugly scar of steroids on the game, Maris has become a more sympathetic figure than he ever was in his heyday.
He played several more years following the 1961 history-making campaign, concluding his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. While he never approached the lofty single-season mark he set, He helped the Cardinals win pennants in 1967 and 1968. In '67, he hit .385 with one home run and seven RBIs in the post-season.
Being a part of the legendary 1961 Bronx Bombers and forever linked to Mickey Mantle, Maris baseball cards have always been popular with collectors. His 1958 Topps rookie card (#47) is one of the keys to the set. A PSA 9 example sold on eBay last month for $4,278. An 8.5 will run about $2500.
In the collector's market, he's treated like a superstar. Every Maris card from every set carries a premium, especially those from the Yankee years. Dealers often have a difficult time keeping copies in stock as team collectors, baseball history buffs and set builders all chase them.
There was never any question (unlike today) of Maris using anything other than his own God-given ability, and for that reason alone, Roger Maris' accomplishment will always be one of baseball's most important milestones. In fact, as history moves far beyond the era that tainted the record book, he's experiencing a rebirth of sorts among collectors looking for lasting value.
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