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Published April 10 2011

Homegrown: He became baseball's home run king in 1961, but Roger Maris never forgot his roots in Fargo

FARGO - Roger Maris wasn’t changed by fame or notoriety. He wasn’t transformed by a record-breaking season or by Hall of Fame snubs.

Throughout his life, those that knew him best say Maris was sometimes quiet, sometimes playful, a fiercely loyal friend, a committed family man and a regular guy.

The Roger Maris who roamed the hallways of Fargo Shanley High School in 1951-52 was the same Roger Maris who drilled 61 home runs in 1961 to break Babe Ruth’s revered single-season record.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maris’ mammoth 1961 season. In breaking one of the most hallowed records in baseball, Maris endured death threats, throngs of reporters watching his every move and losing a clump of hair.

None of it altered Maris’ character.

“I suppose if you were to talk to him or if you knew him, you wouldn’t think he was something special,” said Wayne Blanchard, who graduated from Shanley in 1953.

“He certainly didn’t act like he was. That was a great thing about him. He was quite a guy as far as I’m concerned.”

Maris’ life story has been well chronicled.

He moved from Hibbing, Minn., to Grand Forks, N.D., when his father got a job with the Great Northern Railroad, and ended up in Fargo by the time he was 10.

Roger and his older brother, Rudy, attended Fargo Central High School before heading to Shanley when Roger was a junior.

Maris was a standout athlete at Shanley in football, track and field and basketball. He played baseball for the Fargo American Legion.

Maris received plenty of attention for his athletic ability in high school. However, friends say he never liked being set apart from the other students.

And he certainly never sought out any attention.

“When you grow up in that part of the country you do things a little differently,” said Maris’ widow and high school sweetheart Pat Maris, who graduated from Shanley in 1953. “You do the work and don’t want a lot of credit for it. I think he just took it like he was just like everybody else.”

Maris was like many teenagers in Fargo in the early 1950’s, said Orv Kelly, a 1953 Shanley graduate.

Maris liked billiards, school dances and sports. He could also be funny, playing occasional practical jokes on friends to get a few laughs.

Although mostly reserved and quiet, Maris had an outgoing side with his inner circle.

In the classroom, Maris was a hardworking student.

“Roger was a very wonderful young man,” said Sister Antonine Foy, who taught Maris in a typing class at Shanley. “He was a person who was very thoughtful. When he came back to town later in life when he was famous, he often came over to see the Sisters at the convent.”

As a Shanley athlete, Maris turned heads with his talent and ability in multiple sports. He could fly in the 100-yard dash, was a hard-working rebounder in basketball and he could sidestep opponents in football.

But he wasn’t a fan of football practice, according to 1951 Shanley graduate Pat Colliton, a former Maris teammate.

“He was always ready to play the Friday night games,” Colliton said. “But during the week, he kind of slowed down in practice. He was just such a gifted athlete.”

No matter what happened in his life, Maris was always “the same old Roger,” said friend Jim Wold.

Maris was always loyal to his high school friends. He often returned to Fargo during and after his 12-year Major League career.

“I remember one day when he and I were talking after he had started baseball with Cleveland,” Blanchard said. “He and I were having a cup of coffee and I kept asking him about playing Major League Baseball. He didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about what was going on here (in Fargo).”

Maris hit .260 with 275 home runs and 850 RBIs with the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Athletics, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

He earned consecutive American League MVP awards in 1960 and 1961 with the Yankees.

Maris held the single-season home run record for 37 years, until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa each eclipsed the mark in 1998. The current record of 73 was set by Barry Bonds in 2001.

McGwire, Sosa and Bonds have all been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

“He didn’t act like Roger Maris, the star he was,” Blanchard said of Maris. “He acted like a normal, everyday guy.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com