Our cross-country drive to Emo called for an overnight in Fargo, apparently a magnet for Canadian shoppers. A little homework proved valuable: The Roger Maris Museum was in Fargo…in a shopping mall! Two birds, one stone, right?
As distant-replay aficionados know, Roger Maris was once the biggest name in baseball. His countdown to breaking the game’s most prestigious record — Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in one season — was spell-binding in its time, without 24-hour sports channels, cel phones or Twitter.
Its time was 1961, which ironically was 61 years ago, and Maris hit 61 home runs. The pressure of testy New York scrutiny, night after night, became too much for him. So did the asterisk that baseball attached (in advance) on breaking the record, because Roger’s season was eight games longer than Babe’s.
The Maris museum in Fargo’s West Acres Shopping Center includes seats from Yankee Stadium, a replica of his locker, documentary films, two MVP awards, comparisons to The Babe, memorabilia with photos of him and Mantle. And, naturally, the story of ’61.
Maris was born in Hibbing but Fargo was his hometown. Where his athletic prowess first surfaced, in high school. Where he first played pro baseball. Where he met his wife of 31 years. Where he was buried in 1985. And where every June there’s a Roger Maris All-Star Week and golf tournament to help his cancer center to fight the disease that took him, and to preserve his memory.
Maris was against a personal museum, finally agreeing only because it was a public place which he chose, with free admission that’s still the case today. It has no gift shops and no host. It’s just there. Walk in, walk out. It’s been like that since 1984, the year before he died. We walked in and out in 2016, a 90-minute visit that could happily have been longer.
On the 1961 night Maris became a legend, he hit a 2-0 pitch from Boston rookie Tracy Stallard into Yankee Stadium’s right-field seats, just a few feet from where Ruth hit his 60th in 1927. After breaking the record, Maris said:
“Great. Great. Great. Greatest day of my life.”
Just three years later, he told Toronto writer Jim Hunt: “That was a long time ago, and I’m trying to forget it.”
What Maris was trying to forget was being demonized for having the audacity to erase Ruth’s greatest record, because his more storied teammate (and friend) Mickey Mantle was a better heir, as a lifelong member of the Yankees. Besides, his critics said, what’s so special about Roger Maris? His last Yankees manager, Johnny Keane, said Maris was a five-tool player (hit, run, field, throw, hit with power), ranking him with Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. They’re all enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Maris is not. Somewhere, voters lost the meaning of “fame.” Last December, baseball’s Golden Days Era Committee had him on a list of 10 candidates. Four made it but not Roger Maris, who was on three of 16 ballots. Seriously? Just three?
Maybe a road trip to Fargo would help.