As the Yankees’ Aaron Judge moves closer to hitting 61 home runs, the conversations include the name of the original Yankee to accomplish that feat. That player would Roger Maris who, in 1961, outlasted teammate Mickey Mantle to set the new record.

Roger Maris in 1961
A 1961 media release image of Roger Maris at Yankees’ spring training.

Maris’ feat was not as accepted at the time as other accomplishments would be.  Why?  Because he was Roger Maris and not Mickey Mantle. And, he broke the record of 60 set by baseball legend Babe Ruth.

In 1961, Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season and broke a record that no one thought would ever be duplicated, much less broken. Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs had stood since 1927. Historians describe that 1927 Yankees squad as one of the greatest ever. Ruth’s feat of 60 home runs made that season even more memorable.

But, the character and personality of the two Yankees played a part in the controversy. Ruth loved the crowd, he loved to live it up — on and off the field. Maris was not flashy and did not stand up to the myth and legend of Babe Ruth. 

Breaking Ruth’s record was not an easy task for a normal man. For Maris, the chase for Ruth’s record was almost unbearable. Maris started to lose his hair as the chase wore on. He was fond of quiet moments and he liked to show little emotion. His integrity and his willingness to fight for what he thought was right irritated reporters. The fans never seemed to catch on to the type of person that Maris was.

“I’m impatient,” Maris said of himself. “When I think something isn’t right, I want it to be made right then and there. I don’t believe in holding things in. When I’m impatient or dissatisfied I say something.  “You can always do better than you’re doing. You have to try all the time.”

For Maris, the day he hit the 61st home run of the season must have been the beginning of some of the emptiest days of his life. Some claimed that his achievement was tainted because Maris had played in 161 games in the 1961 season. Ruth had only played in 151 games. Commissioner Ford Frick made the ruling that an asterisk would be attached to Maris’ record. 

That asterisk was removed by baseball’s committee for historical accuracy in 1991.  

Baseball’s commissioner at the time, Fay Vincent, said, “This decision does not diminish or demean the contributions of Babe Ruth to the game of baseball. He is, among other things, responsible with Judge (Kenesaw Mountain) Landis for saving our game after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. He is surely the most famous player in the history of the game and will remain so for generations to come. This change allows Roger Maris to receive the recognition he deserves.”

Maybe I wasn’t the chosen one, but I was the one who got the record.

Roger Maris

The 61 home runs were only a part of Maris’ incredible season in 1961. Maris led the American League with 142 runs batted in and 132 runs scored. He won his second consecutive American League MVP honor and he helped the Yankees capture a championship with a World Series win over the Reds.

Maris’ other honors from the 1961 season included the Hickock Belt as the best professional athlete of the year, the Catholic Athlete of the Year and the Gold Glove. In addition, few knew that Maris appeared in more World Series games in the 1960s than any other player in baseball.

In 1985, Maris died from lymph gland cancer. Prior to his death, Maris said, “I always come across as being bitter. I’m not bitter. People were very reluctant to give me any credit. I thought hitting 60 home runs was something. But everyone shied off. Why, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t the chosen one, but I was the one who got the record.””