A Tale of Two Sluggers: Roger Maris and Hack Wilson

This article was written by Don Nelson

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

If  you were asked what Hack Wilson and Roger Maris had in common, your reply might be: “Wilson holds the record for home runs in the National League, Maris has the American League record.” That would be correct.

But are there other things? You might also say: “Roger holds a significant major league record-for home runs in a season—and Hack set one too, for runs batted in.”

Fine. Anything else? “Well,” you might go on, “each had his troubles after his big year (1930 for Wilson and 1961 for Maris), never getting anywhere near his great year again, and each retired at a relatively young age.” You might also add, “and both were outfielders.”

These similarities are the ones most readers would cite, but they are only the beginning.

Both players started their careers slowly, made a meteoric dash to fame, and then took a fast slide to retirement. Both spent 12 years in the big leagues. Both reached the majors in their 23rd year. Wilson played his last major league game in 1934 at age 34; 34 years later, in 1968, Maris played his last season, also at age 34.

Each had his second-best home-run output the year before his big campaign and each hit exactly 39 home runs in that year. More coincidental yet, each had a teammate club one more homer in the season previous to the Big One. Rogers Hornsby hit 40 for the Cubs in 1929. Mickey Mantle cracked the same number—40 for the Bronx Bombers—to lead the league in 1960.

Similarities enough? No. I’m just warming up. When Maris clouted his 61, teammate Mantle also had his greatest home-run season—hitting 54. Wilson also had a teammate enjoying his greatest long-ball year—Gabby Hartnett connected for a career-high 37 round-trippers the same year Wilson lifted 56. The Maris-Mantle total of 115 homers is the American and major league season record for two players on the same club. Wilson and Hartnett’s 93 are the most ever hit by two National League teammates in a season.

I mentioned Wilson’s major league record of190 RBIs in 1930. Hack led the league that year and also the year before, when he drove 159 across. Maris also led the league in the year before THE year and topped that with 142 to lead the league and set a personal high in 1961. Neither ever led the league in RBIs in any other year.

Not surprisingly, Maris and Wilson set several other personal highs in their record-shattering years. Besides home runs and RBIs, Wilson had his highest batting average and most games played, at-bats, runs, home-run percentage, bases on balls, slugging average, and hits. Maris also had personal highs in games, at-bats, runs, home-run percentage, bases on balls, slugging average, and hits, though he did match his at-bat total the next season. Maris tied for the league lead in runs, in addition to his HR and RBI titles. Wilson also had league leaderships besides HRs and RBIs in 1930 (home-run percentage, bases on balls, slugging average), but two of them weren’t the most coveted achievements—Hack led the league in striking out and outfield errors.

To continue, both were about the same threat to poke it out of the park: Hack’s career homers-to-at-bats ratio was 1 to 19.5; Roger’s rate was 1 homer for every 18.5 official plate appearances. They had about the same totals for walks (Wilson 674, Maris 652) and strikeouts (Maris 733, Wilson 713).

Both started and closed their careers with teams other than those with which they achieved stardom—Maris was with the Indians and the A’s before putting on the Yankee pinstripes; he was traded to the Cardinals for his last two years. Wilson began as a Giant and closed out with the Dodgers and Phillies (he spent a year in the minors before he called it quits). Each played for pennant winners other than his principal team—Maris on the ’67 and ’68 Cards; Wilson on the ’24 Giants.

Perhaps most puzzling about the careers of both men is that their historic feats have failed to win them lasting admiration, even among their own fans. Wilson’s achievement of 56 homers, though a National League record that has endured for 52 years, couldn’t have been too thrilling at the time, coming so soon after Ruth had blasted 60 (and also 59 and 54 twice). Besides, Hack came off as somewhat of a heavy. At 5’6″ and 190 pounds with a size 5½ shoe, he was no Frank Merriwell glamour boy, and he had problems with booze. Maris was considered by some to be more of a villain than a hero for his 1961 triumphs. Many pointed out that Rog had the benefit of a 162-game schedule and expansion teams to face in cracking Ruth’s mark. And, to add insult to injury, he had the audacity to over-shadow the long-ball feats of a latter-day Yankee favorite—Mantle—at the same time he was violating the immortal Ruth’s 60-homer record.

It remains to be seen if Maris will ever have his name enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Wilson’s name waited more than four decades to be cast in bronze at Cooperstown. Certainly not everything about these two ill-fated athletes supplies such fascinating parallels. Wilson hit for a higher career average (.307) than Maris (.260). Maris never batted .300 in the majors-.283 in 1960 was his best. Wilson topped the magic .300 mark five times; his best year was his big year, 1930, when he averaged .356. However, considering the eras in which they performed, their relative batting averages are not too far apart. During Wilson’s career, the average National Leaguer batted .283. In Maris’s time, the average ballplayer batted 33 points less (.250). Wilson was 8.5 percent better than the average batter of his time, Maris 4 percent better than his peers. There are many other differences, statistical, physical, temperamental. But this piece is about similarities. Ready for some more?

Wilson had more home runs in his one great year than in his first four major league seasons or his last four; he hit more than half of his career homers in the three consecutive seasons of1928 through 1930. Maris’s home-run career fits the same mold: he had more round-trippers in 1961 than in his first three seasons and as many as in his last five; he also hit almost half of his career home runs in three consecutive campaigns-1960 through 1962. Wilson closed out his career with only 15 four-baggers in his last two seasons (9 and 6) and Maris followed suit with 14 (9 and 5). And then there was … What? “Stop!” did you say? “Hold it! That’s enough!” O.K., if you say you’re convinced of the connection; but there’s more. . . .