Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961 to set major league baseball's single-season record, died today after a two-year struggle with cancer.
Maris, who was 51, died at M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, where he had been hospitalized since Nov. 20. His wife Patricia Ann, with whom he had six children, was with him.
The former outfielder, who gained his fame with the New York Yankees, was being treated for lymphoma, a cancer that invades the body's lymph system, according to Jane Brust, a hospital spokeswoman.
"All baseball is saddened by the loss of one of its true heroes," Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said in a statement. "While he will be remembered for his brilliant assault of the home run record in 1961, we should also remember the courageous battle he fought against this dreaded disease these last two years."
Yogi Berra, who had been his teammate on the Yankees, tried to visit Maris Friday but was told Maris was too ill.
"It's a sad night," said Ralph Houk, the Yankees' manager during the 1961 season. "He was a great ballplayer and a great family man. He was modest, and winning came above any personal statistic."
Maris' lymphoma was diagnosed in November 1983. At that time, a doctor said it had gone undetected for five years. Early last year, Maris said the disease was in remission, but he became ill again in August 1984. His condition had deteriorated since then despite an experimental cancer treatment in Nashville before coming to Texas this fall.
At baseball's winter meetings this week in San Diego, a bloodmobile was set up to collect blood for him.
Maris made his mark on baseball history by breaking one of the game's most revered records, the 60 home runs hit by Babe Ruth in 1927. That 1961 season produced many emotional highs and lows for Maris and left an asterisk after his name in the record books. Ruth had set his record when teams played 154 games and Maris hit his record-breaking shot on the final day of a 162-game season.
"As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again," Maris said in a magazine article after the 1961 season. "As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again."
Maris was born Sept. 10, 1934, in Hibbing, Minn., but moved to Fargo, N.D., at the age of 10. He began his baseball career with the Cleveland Indians. He almost had decided to take a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma in 1953 when a Cleveland scout saw him play in a summer league and suggested he try out with the Indians. Maris signed with Cleveland and made the Indians in 1957.
He was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in 1958. Following the 1959 season, he was traded to the Yankees, where he won the American League's most valuable player awards in 1960 and 1961.
He was traded again after the 1966 season, to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played two seasons before retiring. He called those two years "my happiest in baseball."
Maris finished with 275 home runs, 851 runs batted in and a batting average of .260. He played in seven World Series, winning in 1961 and 1962 with the Yankees and in 1967 with the Cardinals.
Maris started the 1961 season slowly. He had just one hit through four games and did not hit a home run until the 11th game. During the first three weeks of June, however, he hit 15 home runs and finished the month with a season total of 27.
By mid-July, as the home runs continued, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that if Ruth's record was tied or broken, it would have to be done in 154 games. Maris received hundreds of nasty letters from fans who said they did not want Ruth's record broken.
"He should have been a hero," current Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said.
Maris hit his 60th and 61st homers in the last week of the season, after he had passed the 154-game mark. His 61st homer came in Yankee Stadium off Boston's Tracy Stallard. After the 1961 World Series, in which the Yankees defeated the Cincinnati Reds in five games, Maris said, "I just wanted to pull down the curtains and shut out the crazy world I'd just been through."
Maris spent his later years as a beer distributor in Gainesville, Fla., where he said in an interview, "Maybe I wouldn't do it all over again if I had the chance. Sometimes I think it wasn't worth the aggravation."
Larry Boulger, director of the Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo, said funeral services tentatively have been scheduled for Thursday at St. Mary's (Catholic) Cathedral there. He will be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Boulger said.