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Jeff Kolpack, Published April 10 2011

50 years after magical season, Roger Maris still Fargo’s hero

FARGO – The faded VHS production of 61 home runs was frozen into the ground, just a few inches away from the Roger Maris tombstone. The tape was not alone.

Guarding it were three old New York Yankee baseball caps and a St. Louis Cardinals cap. Golf balls – some of them signed by Maris grandchildren – and baseballs, mostly signed, surrounded the grave.

One ball had its cover completed ripped off, exposing the yarned inner core. Was that a ball from 1961?

“Every time we mow grass around it, there’s usually another ball or two,” said cemetery caretaker Gaylas Pritchard.

This year marks 50 years since Maris, a Fargo Shanley High School graduate, sent his 61st home-run ball into the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium.

It broke the single-season home-run record held by the legendary Babe Ruth, and Fargo has never forgotten it. To this day, Maris has remained the city’s No. 1 sports hero.

Maris died in 1985 at just 51 years old. Not many days in the summer go by without somebody stopping by Holy Cross Cemetery in north Fargo to pay their respects to Maris.

One day not too long ago, a man put down a couple of roses, sat down and had a picnic in front of the monument. He was from New York.

It’s not uncommon for people to leave two quarters, a dime and a penny – which adds up to 61 cents. And it’s not uncommon to see young adults, even kids, gawking at the granite.

Roger Maris is Fargo’s No. 1 sports hero for all ages.

“I think he had a hometown yen for Fargo,” said Walt Seeba, Maris’ brother in-law. “Just think, it was 26 years ago this December.”

Maris’ much-publicized funeral was held on Dec. 23 in Fargo, and Seeba still laughs at the thought of three writers from New York at the gravesite – wearing windbreakers. Maris and media were at odds in 1961.

“Flimsy windbreakers,” Seeba said. “They had no idea where they were. I’m sure Roger was laughing his head off watching those guys shiver.”

Seeba and his wife, Mary Jo, have taken care of the gravesite for the past 26 years. Now 82, Walt may pass on the caretaking torch to his son, Mark Seeba.

Former New York Yankees teammate Ken Hunt, from Grand Forks, is buried next to Maris. A few feet away is the tombstone of Judge Ronald Davies, whose most famous ruling of ordering the integration of a high school in Little Rock, Ark., put him in the limelight of civil rights history.

“Everybody who is buried out there is important, but there are people who influenced the world who are buried out there,” said Bob Hoss, superintendent for Holy Cross cemetery.

For fans of Roger Maris, that influence has lasted for 50 years.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia