When you hear the name Roger Maris, his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961 is probably the first thing that comes to mind. It was an amazing feat as Maris and Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle pushed each other relentlessly until Mantle was sidelined with a hip infection, leaving Maris alone to chase baseball immortality. What you may not know is that Maris also had a spectacular season in 1960. He would lead the league in slugging (.581) and RBIs (112) and would win both a Gold Glove and the American League MVP award. It is also important to know that he would finish just one home run behind league leader Mickey Mantle. Maris would win a second MVP award in 1961, beating out media favorite Mickey Mantle again by a narrow margin.
Another thing about Roger Maris that you may not know is that he was a very good outfielder. He played right field as well as anybody in his era and had a cannon of an arm. He had deceptive speed and always seemed to make a good jump on a ball hit to the outfield. It is easy to forget that he was invited to 4 consecutive All Star Games (1959-1962). He was a complete ballplayer.
His playing style left him with a lot of injuries that took their toll over time. An emergency appendectomy, broken ribs from a collision on the infield, a broken hand, foul balls off his foot all cut into Maris’ playing time and in many cases, his offensive production. After the 1966 season, the Yankees were willing to part with the right fielder and found a willing suitor in the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards sent journeyman third baseman Charley Smith to the Yankees for the former star. Smith had played just one season in St. Louis, a mediocre one at best. He was certainly a disappointment after watching Ken Boyer handle third base for the last 11 years.
The Cardinals had been retooling since their 1964 championship season, mostly in the pitching staff. Mike Shannon would move from right field to third base to make room for the Yankee slugger. Dal Maxvill had replaced the legendary Dick Groat (another player that should get some reconsideration for the Hall of Fame) and was establishing himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. The final piece to the puzzle came from San Francisco in the person of Orlando Cepeda. Or perhaps persona is a better word. It was Cha Cha’s enthusiasm for winning that became the heart and soul of the team, which took on greater significance when starters Ray Washburn and Bob Gibson missed significant time due to injuries. His Go Go El Birdos team charge became the St. Louis battle cry for the remainder of ’67 and all of 1968.
If Cepeda was the heart of the team, Maris was the brain. The Cardinals got significantly more than a right fielder in the trade with the Yankees. They added some much needed winning experience and a big dose of the Yankees way of playing the game. The team would be tested many times during the course of the 1967 season, and would rise to meet each of them as a champion, due in large part to the leadership of Roger Maris.
Any concerns about Maris not being a competitor were laid to rest early in the ’67 season. The Cardinals were careful to rest Maris from time to time, but he proved to be durable, only missing an extended number of games once (5) and never going on the disabled list. Maris would get off to a great start in 1967, peaking on June 18 with a .313 batting average. The long and brutal St. Louis summer would wear him down and his average would drop to .261 by seasons end. Through the late part of the pennant race, Maris was as steady as anybody on the ballclub. More than that, Maris did all of the little things the right way. With the dual threat of Lou Brock and Curt Flood at the top of the batting order, Roger Maris always seemed to move them into scoring position, even when making an out. A large number of Cepeda’s league leading RBIs came from Maris grounding out to the right side of the infield, allowing Brock or Flood to move to third base. Nobody made a more productive out than Roger Maris.
This brings us to the 1967 World Series, the sixth for the new Cardinals right fielder. Bob Gibson and Lou Brock would steal the Cardinal headlines as would Boston’s Jim Lonborg and Carl Yastrzemski for the opposition. All four had a sensational post season, and any of them could have been awarded the World Series MVP, ultimately given to Gibson for his three complete game victories.
The unsung hero of the series was Roger Maris. He would finish the postseason with a .385 batting average (10 for 26) with a double, home run (his 6th in World Series competition) and 7 RBIs. This was the best postseason of his career, and he helped the Cardinals win their second championship of the decade. In ways that are not apparent when just looking at the box scores.
To understand just how important Maris was to the Cardinals, all you have to do is look at game 1. The October 4 game was an unexpected pitching duel between Bob Gibson and Jose Santiago. The Red Sox would have preferred to go with their ace, Jim Lonborg, but he had pitched on the last day of the season to help Boston clinch the AL pennant. Instead, Dick Williams gave the ball to Jose Santiago and he was impressive, showing us why he finished with a 12-4 record. The Cardinals would win the game, 2-1. Looking deeper into the game you will learn that both Cardinal runs came on ground outs to the right side of the infield by Roger Maris. What the record books will not tell you is that the heart of the Cardinals order (Cepeda, McCarver and Shannon) were absent from most of the 1967 World Series games. If not for Maris in the third spot, and Julian Javier starting rallies from the bottom of the order, the World Series might have ended much differently.
In game 3, Maris would drive in another run late in the game to give the Cardinals a 4-1 lead. This would be important as starter Nelson Briles would give up a home run to future Cardinal Reggie Smith in the next inning. A 3-2 game in the late innings is a lot different than a 4-2 lead. With two runs to play with, Briles would stay in and finish it, preserving the victory and giving the Cardinals a 2 games to 1 lead in the series.
Game 4 was another showdown between Gibson and Santiago. This time things would be different as the Cardinals got to Santiago early. After giving up singles to Lou Brock and Curt Flood in the first inning, Roger Maris delivered the knockout punch with a double down into the left field corner, easily scoring both Brock and Flood. He would score two batters later on a single by Tim McCarver. McCarver would score when Julian Javier and Dal Maxvill would both single after a Mike Shannon foul out. Santiago never makes it out of the first inning and the Cardinals would end up sending nine men to the plate, leaving the inning with a 4-0 lead. That’s all Gibson needed as he fired a complete game, five hit shutout. That gave the Cardinals a commanding three games to one lead in the series.
In game 5, Maris did all he could to end the series in St. Louis. He would go 2-4 including a home run in the ninth inning. Unfortunately for Maris, neither Brock nor Flood could figure out Lonborg as he pitched another brilliant game.
Maris still had a few cards to play, and he used them in game 7. This was the duel that everybody wanted to see. Bob Gibson against Jim Lonborg. Both pitchers on were returning on short rest, Gibson on three days and Lonborg on only two. That extra day turned out to be the difference as Lonborg was nowhere near as effective as had been in his previous starts. The Cardinals were finally hitting the big right hander, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Little Dal Maxvill would get thing started in the Cardinals third, leading off with a triple. He was still standing on third with two outs when Curt Flood hits a single to center, scoring the Cardinals shortstop. Maris would follow that up with a single to right field, allowing Flood to advance to third. And that was the pivotal hit of the game as Longborg would throw a pitch in the dirt against Orlando Cepeda, allowing Flood to score the second run of the game. This was only possible because of the Maris single to the right side of the outfield. Even his singles were productive. Maris would also come up big in the fifth inning. After a one out home run by Bob Gibson, Lou Brock would single. He would steal second base, and after a walk to Curt Flood would steal third base. Maris with another productive out, hits a fly ball deep to right field which easily scores Brock on the sacrifice. While Javier would break the game open with a three run homer later, this is point in the game where the Cardinals realized they were going to win the series.
While Roger Maris is in the record books for his play in New York, much of the Cardinals success in 1967 and 1968 is due to his leadership and clutch performance. We saw Roger smile a lot during those two seasons wearing Cardinals red, and we smiled back each time in appreciation. For his clutch performance in the 1967 World Series, Roger Maris receives an Atlas Award.