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Les Knutson: The Maris light still shines bright


The Globe sports reporter

HERON LAKE -- After watching a bit of the 1962 movie “Safe at Home” a couple of mornings ago, I was again intrigued by the athletic career of Roger Maris, who -- after stints with both the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Athletics -- had back-to-back American League MVP seasons with the New York Yankees in 1960 and 1961.

Maris and legendary Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle both played themselves in “Safe at Home” and end up inviting a whole group of Florida Little Leaguers to a day of training camp after teaching 11-year old Hutch a life-long lesson in honesty and doing things right.

Mantle had a long and highly-successful career with the Yankees throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, highlighted by a Triple Crown in 1956 (52 home runs, 130 RBI, .353 batting average). He was favored by the New York City media during the famous ’61 home run chase between Mantle and Maris -- the M & M boys. Mantle finished the season with a career-high 54 home runs.

Meanwhile, Maris hit 61, breaking Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old record of 60 set in 1927. Maris, however, only had 59 after 154 games, so when he hit two more in the extra eight games (the schedule was expanded to 162 games in ’61), Commissioner Ford Frick demanded an asterisk be attached to the accomplishment by Maris.

An amazing athlete, who in the fall of 1951 as a senior football star at Shanley High School in Fargo, N.D., once returned four kickoffs, a punt and an interception for touchdowns in the same game. That remarkable accomplishment -- six returns for TDs in one game -- is still a national high school record. He was offered a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, the top program in the country, coached by Minnesota great Bud Wilkinson, during the 1950s.

Maris turned down football at Oklahoma to be near his older brother, Rudy, who had come down with polio. Roger stayed in Fargo and signed with the Indians in 1953 and did well as both a hitter and a fielder in the minor leagues.  He starred for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins in the Northern League and the Keokuk Kernels in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.

Maris drove in seven runs in Game 2 of the 1956 Junior World Series and hit a total of 78 home runs, while batting .303 during his four seasons (’53-56) in the minors.

His first major league home run was a grand slam on April 18, 1957 -- his third day with the Indians in a game against the Tigers at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. Maris was traded to the A’s midway through the 1958 season after hitting 23 home runs (14 as a rookie in ’57 and nine through 51 games in ’58) with Cleveland.

Maris did well in Kansas City (belting another 35 homers; 19 more in ’58 and 16 in ’59), but was traded to the Yankees prior to the 1960 season. He played in the second All-Star game in 1959 (there were two each season from ’59-62) but missed 45 games following an appendectomy.

Maris was awesome as the Yankee right fielder in 1960. A strong-armed thrower, he was great in the outfield and he had a big year with the bat, hitting 39 home runs and leading the American League in slugging percentage, runs batted in (112) and extra-base hits. Roger Maris earned a Gold Glove Award in 1960 and was the AL’s MVP.

So, obviously, Roger was not just a one-year wonder in ’61. His 61 home runs in ’61 are what he is most remembered for. But he later had a big-time World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, hitting .385 with a homer and seven RBIs. He played in seven World Series, won a pair of MVP awards (also winning in ’61 with a league-leading 141 RBI) and finished with 275 career home runs. His last homer came on September 5, 1968, with the Cardinals.

Many argue that his overall career statistics are not enough to warrant a place In the Hall of Fame. But what about those back-to-back MVP seasons which included 100 home runs, along with 253 RBIs, in ’60 and ’61? He played 12 full seasons, with four teams, in the majors and is a huge part of baseball history.

If I could vote, I would vote YES on Roger Maris -- from Fargo, N.D. -- on being inducted into Cooperstown as a member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.