Jack Of All Trades: Roger Maris

After writing about Jose Bautista last week, I got to thinking about some other shocking home run totals that followed trades. And one that isn't getting enough attention is that of Roger Maris, whose 50-year anniversary of hitting 61 home runs happens to take place this season.

To be sure, Maris was no one-hit wonder, having captured the 1960 AL MVP. But were his home run totals to be expected when the Yankees traded for him? I'm not so sure. Let's take a closer look at his career and deals.

Maris signed with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent in 1953. Certainly, he profiled as a strong prospect, hitting 32 home runs in Class B Keokuk as a 19 year old, then 20 home runs the following season, split between Class A and Double-A. But when he got to the big leagues, it looked like batting average would limit his overall offensive profile. He hit .235 with 14 home runs in 424 plate appearances for the 1957 Indians, then .225 with nine home runs in 202 plate appearances in 1958. The Indians played him primarily in center field and he was overshadowed by the young star in right: Rocky Colavito.

Seemingly without a position, Maris became expendable, and the Indians traded him to the Kansas City Athletics on June 15, 1958 with lefty swingman Dick Tomanek and utility player Preston Ward in exchange for defensively extraordinary first baseman Vic Power and Joe McEwing-like Woodie Held. Maris hit another 19 home runs for Kansas City in 1958. Power's best years were behind him, meanwhile, though his glove kept him in the league for many seasons to come.

Maris blossomed in his age-24 season, 1959. He made his first All Star team, raised his average to .273, cut his strikeouts down from 85 to 53, and clouted 16 home runs. He certainly looked like a potential star, but the idea that he, and not Rocky Colavito, would challenge Babe Ruth's record wouldn't have made much sense to contemporaries.

Still, the deal Kansas City made in December 1959 – shipping Maris and throw-ins Joe DeMaestri and Kent Hadley to the Yankees for Hank BauerDon Larsen (both past their sell-by dates), Norm Siebern (a hitter without a position on the Yankees) and Marv Throneberry (a future 1962 Met) – looked one-sided at the time. Maris was clearly the best player in the deal. But he didn't profile as any kind of home run champion.

Maris immediately set about proving that conventional wisdom wrong. He hit 39 home runs in 1960. And while it has become common to dismiss Maris' hitting as a product of Yankee Stadium's short right field, the numbers don't bear that out. He actually hit 26 of his 39 home runs on the road in 1960, and 31 of his 61 home runs away from home in 1961. In 1962, when his total dropped to just 33, he hit 19 home runs at home, 14 on the road. Over that three-year period, he hit 71 home runs on the road and 62 home runs at Yankee Stadium. He was no park fluke.

Maris hit 23 home runs in 1963 and 26 in 1964, his last reasonably healthy season. By the time he got dealt one final timen – in December 1966 to the Cardinals, for infielder Charley Smith - even his double-digit home run seasons were behind him. He provided enough defensive value, however, to be an important member of two NL pennant-winning Cardinal teams in 1967 and 1968. His total home run output over 812 plate appearances? 14.

In short, I think the Yankees had greater reason to believe they were acquiring an impact player when they traded for Maris than Toronto did when dealing for Bautista. But the teams were probably equally surprised to receive all-time levels of home run production.


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