Great baseball biographies are best served by great subjects, but good writing doesn’t hurt either; Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero has both. Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, emerges as a complex, inscrutable individual, and co-authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary never miss chances to account for the complications in his family life, including his humble origins in Minnesota and North Dakota and the squabbling among his Serbian and Croatian relatives. Maris was a youthful athlete of uncommon ability, and after turning down a college football scholarship, he signed with the Cleveland Indians and worked his way through their minor league chain. A solid hitter with left-handed power, Maris was also an excellent outfielder with speed and a strong arm, and after joining the New York Yankees in 1960 he became a huge star, winning the American League MVP Award twice. Yet his noted assault on Ruth’s record turned into a PR nightmare, due in part to his own taciturn ways and the obnoxious, at times simply vile cruelties of New York reporters, many of whom wanted more “show-biz” out of him or simply resented that his achievements overshadowed those of Gotham’s Mickey Mantle.

Maris the man ultimately comes off as an incredibly misunderstood jock, and his early death at age 51 from lymphoma poignantly caps off a tale that is equal parts professional determination and personal sadness. Yet the testimony gathered here from Maris’ ball-playing colleagues also offers a portrait of a decent and well-respected individual who always played the game to the max.

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