By Ed Gruver
Just as Aaron Judge is celebrated almost solely for his sky-scraping blasts, Roger Maris is remembered most for his record-setting 61 home runs in 1961.
The two New York Yankees sluggers, separated by six decades, share some similarities, the most notable being that they are severely underrated for their fielding prowess. That they both play right field and share the same uniform numbers – Maris wore 9; Judge wears 99 – are notes for trivia buffs.
Judge was in the running for a Gold Glove last season and Maris claimed the coveted fielding award in 1960. And just as Aaron’s clutch defense helped the Yankees last October, Roger’s stellar fielding saved the Bronx Bombers in the 1962 World Series.
Maris’s Game 7 web gem in wind-swept Candlestick Park was cited by the Yankees and Giants as the key play of the Series. That Maris was a gifted all-around athlete is evident by his background. The North Dakota product led his American Legion baseball team to a state title and set a high school football record for most return touchdowns in a game with four. In 1952 Roger was recruited by legendary University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson but stayed in Fargo to be near older brother Rudy, who had polio.
In 1953, Maris was invited to a Cleveland Indians tryout and caught the eye of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, then the Tribe’s general manager. Greenberg sent a team representative to North Dakota – the Indians having a minor league squad in Fargo – and Maris signed with Cleveland.
From his beginning in minor league ball Maris displayed a definite talent for defense. His 305 putouts tied for the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League lead among outfielders and he continued to display defensive prowess after making his major league debut with Cleveland in April 1957. Casey Stengel, Maris’s manager with the Yankees in 1960, considered him a good fielder who was excellent around the fences. Stengel also praised Roger for having a strong and accurate right arm.
Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in Candlestick Park. The emerald green grass was sun-streaked but still damp from three days of heavy rains that extended the Series to a then-record 13 days. Yankees right-hander Ralph Terry, beaten by Bill Mazeroski in the ninth inning in Game 7 two years earlier, was attempting to go the distance against the powerful Giants while nursing a 1-0 lead.
Pinch-hitter Matty Alou led off the San Francisco ninth and dipped his bat for a bunt single. With memories of Maz stirring in the minds of fans, Terry steadied and struck out Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller. Willie Mays dug in at the plate and promptly doubled to the right-field corner.
Navigating swirling gusts and slick grass, and knowing that the Mercury-quick Mays and Alou were burning up the base paths, Maris played the ball expertly. He fielded the carom and in one seamless motion whirled and fired a strike to second baseman Bobby Richardson. It was a play representative of Maris’s defensive skills, particularly in 1962, when he posted 316 putouts and just three errors in 323 chances.
Years have passed but Yankees former ace Whitey Ford can still see in his minds-eye Maris making one of the most clutch defensive plays in World Series history.
Maris saved a crucial run by forcing Alou to slam his brakes at third base and Mays to stop at second. With his taut 1-0 lead still intact, Terry jammed giant Willie McCovey with a fastball that handcuffed the long-armed slugger and blunted his scythe-like swing. McCovey managed to extend his muscular arms enough to strike what he still calls the hardest-hit ball of his Hall of Fame career. The rocket flew in the direction of the re-positioned Richardson, who barely had to move to make the catch.
Richardson’s recording of the final out has been lamented by San Franciscans ever since. Through the years, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, a devoted Giants fan, published comic strips showing a glum Charlie Brown pondering San Francisco’s fate to his pal Linus. “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”
Yet as the gentlemanly Richardson would tell you, his heroics would not have happened if not for Maris’s highlight-reel play in right.
Maris an excellent fielder? Roger that. During his 12-year career, Maris produced a .982 fielding percentage with 2,649 putouts. His best season defensively was 1964, the final year of the Yankees mid-century dynasty. Playing center field at times for the injured Mickey Mantle, Roger recorded a .996 fielding percentage with only one error in 257 chances.
The prodigious power of Maris and Mantle made them famous as the “M&M Boys” and the “Dial M For Murder” Yankees. But they were outstanding fielders as well.
The same can be said of Judge, whose web gems – be it climbing the wall to rob a home run or diving to snare a sinking liner – are already numerous. And it wouldn’t be surprising if before his career is over, Judge has a signature defensive play.
Just as Maris did in Game 7 in ’62.