Legendary hitter grew up in Fargo, still holds American League home run record

Located in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo is a black marble headstone in the shape of a diamond.

Maris’ gravesite in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo. Note some of the many items left by admirers. Photo by Scott Thoma

In the center of the headstone is the name “Maris.” Below the name is a laser-printed silhouette of Maris swinging a bat. The number 61 is engraved above the bat and “61” is engraved below the bat, representing the number of home runs Maris hit in 1961. Sixty one is also the year he broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run mark.

The myriad of items left at the former slugging sensation’s gravesite indicates how well he was admired. Maris passed away on Dec. 14, 1985 from lymphatic cancer. He was 51 years old.

When Maris was diagnosed with cancer in 1983, he organized the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament in Fargo to raise money for cancer research and treatment.

“The tournament is held each June and we just had the 37th annual one,” said Roger Maris, Jr., via telephone from his home in Gainesville, Fla. “We have a great turnout each year with celebrities, former major leaguers and many others.”

Maris played 12 seasons in the major leagues. He began his career with the Cleveland Indians (1957-58), then played with the Kansas City Athletics (1958-59), New York Yankees (1960-66) and St. Louis Cardinals (1967-68). In all, the seven-time All-Star had 1,325 hits, 275 home runs, drove in 850 runs and had a career batting average of .260. Despite all his accomplishments, Maris has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Maris swatting a home run in 1961 as a member of the New York Yankees. Contributed photo

It was during his Yankee years when he won two American League Most Valuable Player awards (1960 and ‘61), a Gold Glove Award (1960) and was a member of two World Champion teams (he also won a World Series in 1967 with the Cardinals) that he is best remembered.

His No. 9 was retired by the Yankees on July 21, 1984.

At Maris’ funeral at St. Mary’s Church in Fargo, his pall bearers includes former Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Bill “Moose” Skowron, former Cardinal teammate Mike Shannon, former Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, and former Minnesota Twin Bob Allison. Mantle, a good friend of Maris’, openly sobbed during the funeral service.

“Some may say that he struck out in his final at bat,” Rev. John Moore said that day. “But I think of it as a bases on ball. A free pass to heaven.”

Maris was born in Hibbing and grew up in Fargo where he was a standout athlete for Shanley High School. He remains a local hero in Fargo as evidenced by the grave marker, an impressive museum inside the West Acres Shopping Center and two highway billboards with his picture, the number 61 and the words “Legitimate” Home Run King displayed on each one.

After Maris shattered Ruth’s record of 60 homers in a season by one, Mark McGwire broke Maris’ record on Sept. 8, 1998 when he clouted his 62nd homer. McGwire finished that season with 70 home runs, but that record was shattered by Barry Bonds in 2001 when Bonds finished with 73. Both McGwire and Bonds, however, have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs and many in baseball, and especially those in Fargo, still feel Maris should hold the home run record.

One of two billboards the Newman Outdoor Advertising put up in Fargo to indicate their feeling about the home run record after Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were each linked to steroids. Contributed photo

“Maris is the rightful home run king,” said the late Harold Newman, who owned Newman Outdoor Advertising in Fargo and put up the two billboards in Fargo to support Maris’ “clean” record. “And I want to make sure people know that.”

Maris is still the current American League single-season home run leader. His second home run of the 1961 record-breaking season came on May 3 against the Minnesota Twins at the former Metropolitan Stadium. He hit three other home runs against the Twins at Yankee Stadium that season.

The Maris family also feels Roger should be recognized as the single-season home run leader.

“We feel my dad did it the right way,” said Roger Jr. “After the steroid controversy with (Mark) McGwire and (Barry) Bonds, we think dad should still own the record.”

Even though having a baseball great’s museum located in a mall seems a little unconventional, it was the way Maris wanted it.

“The museum was dedicated in 1984, the year before Roger died,” said Chris Heaton, the Senior Vice President and Manager of West Acres Shopping Center. “He was here for the dedication. It’s a lot different now than it was when it was first dedicated.”

One big difference is a small theater room with actual stadium seats from old Yankee Stadium where Maris and Mantle waged a home run battle in ‘61. While Maris would eventually outslug his counterpart, Mantle finished with 54 that season.

“Dad would only agree to having a museum if it was in Fargo, was free to the public and that it was in a place where a lot of people could enjoy it,” said Roger Jr. “He just didn’t feel people should have to pay to see the items in his collection.”

A look at the Roger Maris Museum in the West Acres Shopping Center in Fargo. The banner above represent each of the 61 home runs he hit in 1961. Photo by Scott Thoma

With the Fargo American Legion Post No. 2 sponsoring in the development of the museum, the site chosen was the West Acres Shopping Center.

Maris donated many items that he had collected or won during his professional playing days. The museum underwent a renovation in 2003 and was rededicated with the entire Maris family in attendance. Besides the stadium seats that were added when it was remodeled, the theater also includes a large video screen with a documentary of Maris continually playing.

Other items behind glass that are displayed in the south hallway of the mall include one of his two American League MVP plaques (1961), the Gold Glove Award, many bats he used throughout his career, and several of the home run balls from the 1961 season (the ball from his 59th home run was kept by the family and the record-breaking 61st home run ball is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY). There are also many other trophies, plaques, jerseys, photos and a replica of his 1961 locker that includes one of his game-worn jerseys and a pair of cleats.

Unfortunately, Maris’ 1960 American League MVP Trophy and 1961 S. Rae Hickok Award (for the top professional athlete in the United States) were stolen from a display case in the early morning hours on July 26, 2016. Surveillance video captured the image of a man dressed as a security guard with his face covered breaking one of the mall’s locked exterior doors, running to a display case, smashing the glass with a small hatchet, grabbing the two items and running back out the door and hopping into a waiting car.

A look at the Maris family when Roger was ending his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968. Front row, left to right, Sandra, Rich, Randy and Kevin. Back row, left to right: Pat, Susan, Roger and Roger Jr. Contributed photo

The theft, which remains unsolved to date, took only about one minute.

At the south end of the museum is a section on the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament, which features a continual video showing some of the personalities that have played in the tournament.

Many fans and media members wanted Ruth’s record to stand, while others wanted the more flamboyant Mantle to break the record; not the misunderstood Maris, who writers felt was surly and uncooperative. This led to some death threats, bad press, and even catcalls during games from fans at Yankee Stadium and others. Maris became so stressed that he began losing small clumps of his hair.

On the lower portion of Maris’ gravestone is printed “AGAINST ALL ODDS,” a reference to the tumultuous time he endured while chasing Ruth’s record.

The Maris family saw a different side of their father than most people did.

“He was a great family man,” said Roger Maris, Jr. “We were a church-going family. Dad wasn’t into the party life. His family came before anything else.”