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Roger Maris Still Loved in Hometown of Fargo
By Dan Gunderson
June 26, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Minnesota baseball fans get a chance this summer to see Mark McGwire in action when the St. Louis Cardinals play the Twins. McGwire is trying to break the record for most home runs in a season record, set by Fargo native Roger Maris.

FOR 37 YEARS players have been trying to best the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris. Maris, who broke the home run record set by Babe Ruth, has never gotten the credit he deserved because sportswriters didn't like the taciturn young man who unseated a legend.

But Maris, who died of cancer in 1985, is a hero in his hometown of Fargo. There's Roger Maris Drive. The Roger Maris Museum. The fifteenth annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament is this weekend; it raises money for the Roger Maris Cancer Center. On Saturday the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks will retire the number Maris wore when he played for the F-M Twins of the old Northern League.

SFX: Play by play of the 61st home run.

The highlights of the 1961 record setting season play endlessly at the Maris museum in West Acres mall in Fargo.

Jim McLaughlin helped raise money and organize the museum. He says at first, Maris was reluctant to allow a museum in his name. Finally he agreed - if the museum would be in a public place with no admission charge.

Jim McLaughlin says Maris gave nearly all his awards and memorabilia to the museum where thousands of people see them every year.

McLaughlin: I've been asked by alot of people, "Are you gonna keep the museum if somebody breaks the record?" Certainly we are. Babe Ruth had the record for 34 years, Roger's had it for 37. He's a hometown boy. We're proud of the museum. We'll keep it.
Across town in a quiet residential neighborhood there's another, more private shrine to Roger Maris.
Bill Weaver: Look at the walls in this room ... all the pictures ... I think about him everyday.
Bill Weaver was a Fargo sportscaster for 20 years. He vividly remembers ordering in dinner and spending the evening watching the Western Union ticker in the newsroom as it slowly relayed the details of each Yankee game in 1961.
Weaver: His dad would come down, and we'd sit and watch. I don't suppose there's Western Union tickers now like those days. It would "tick" "tick" "tick." It would go "hr" - home run - "ny" - New York. Then "m", then "a". We'd sit there ... Mantle or Maris? Which is it?
Bill Weaver first knew Roger Maris as a star high school athlete in Fargo. Maris once returned four kickoffs in a row for touchdowns - a national record that still stands.

Early on, Maris exhibited his independent, no-nonsense personality. He was recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma. When he arrived in Oklahoma City on a bus and found no one from the University there to greet him, he turned around and went back to Fargo.

When he showed up in New York to join the Yankees, he was dressed in blue jeans and a sport shirt. When told to get a better wardrobe, he snapped, "If they don't like how I dress, I'll go back where I came from."

That curmudgeonly side of Roger Maris caused reporters to vilify him when he played for the Yankees. The Yanks were Mickey Mantle's team. The sportswriters called Maris aloof, rude, and a hick.

Bill Weaver's temper still flares when he recalls those days.

Weaver: I just don't understand how some of those reporters back then could turn against him; but I can see he could be sharp. I will tell you this: if Maris didn't like somebody - just get out of his way. That's all. But people just don't understand. Night after night, the same questions: "Are you gonna hit 61?" He didn't know if he was going hit 61. "Your hair's falling out - is the home run race the reason?" Goofy questions. Then three days later, move to another town - same questions. Three days later, same questions. It'd drive anybody to lose their hair.
Weaver remembers Maris being unrepentant after an incident in which he slighted Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby and was pilloried by the press. Hornsby had derided Maris as a singles hitter. When he later asked Maris to pose for a picture with him, Maris refused.
Weaver: His dad was chiding him about the Hornsby story, and Roger said "Dad, I can't pick my relatives, but I can pick my friends. And when I pick a friend, he's a friend for life."
Bill Weaver remembers the Roger Maris who got him tickets to a World Series, and then without saying a word, paid the airfare and hotel bill as well. He recalls the Maris who asked friends to keep his charity work secret. To this day, Weaver refuses to tell those stories.

The race to set a home run record in 1961 had Maris neck and neck with roommate Mickey Mantle until Mantle was injured late in the year. Bill Weaver says reporters fabricated stories about fights between Mantle and Maris.

Weaver : Roger would tell me, "Mickey would be reading the paper and he'd say 'Hey Roger. You and I are fighting again.'" They'd laugh it off. Who was a pallbearer at Roger's funeral? Who sat in the pew across from me and cried his eyes out for an hour? It was Mickey Mantle, his close, close friend.
For Bill Weaver and other Roger Maris fans, the final, most painful slight was the failure of sportswriters to vote Maris into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This season, Roger Maris may lose the place he's held in the record book for 37 years. But in Fargo, his hometown hero status will be undiminished.