It was the Summer of 61, the season of 61 Home Runs, when almost everyone in the country was following The Mick and The Rajah as they chased the ghost of Babe Ruth. It was my Junior year in High School and the last season that my dad and I would be bonded by the game of baseball.
Thanks to great baseball karma, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my dad, reading about the “M&M Boys” in the New York papers, cited in the very eye of the Home Run Hurricane, just 35 miles, by car, to old Yankee Stadium, “The House the Ruth Built.”
The film 61* and several books** have addressed the core historical question of the Summer of ‘61:
With the most famous baseball record, held by Yankee Babe Ruth, threatened, did media and fans diminish the accomplishment of Roger Maris, because they wanted the Yankees’ heir to Ruth, the nonpareil Mickey Mantle, to break the record–not some Athletic stranger, especially an outfielder from Kansas City?
My dad and I were rabid Giants’ fans who had been deserted by our beloved team four years earlier; we attended the last game that our New York Giants played in the Polo Grounds in 1957; at the age of 12 I learned that some unknown something, or someone, could suddenly take your team and break your heart.
As proud National League fans, we paid no attention to the Yankees, except to despise them for buying so many pennants and World Series’ trophies, and we dismissed the American League as a “country club league” of clean uniforms and station-to-station baseball; we loved the National League, which had begun to allow black players much sooner and they brought a gift from the fading Negro Leagues: a style of dash and daring and sliding and getting your uniform dirty—think Jackie Robinson running the bases or stealing home.
I watched my Irish/Italian dad, who grew up on the edge of Harlem, infused with a subtle racism born of the fear of The Other, jubilantly embrace the ebullient Willie Mays, Monte Irvin [1951 RBI champ and HOF inductee], Hank Thompson [first black baseball player to play in both the National and American leagues] and other black players in the National League—even that marvel on our arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers, the dignified and daring, Jackie Robinson.
I spent hours tossing a pink Spalding rubber ball off the peak of the garage to perfect my hero’s trademark “Basket Catch.” A generation of white kids, who loved baseball and idolized black players, were imbued with values that were carried forward into the Civil Right Movement in The Sixties.
In his induction speech in 1966, one of the greatest modern era baseball icons of white society, Ted Williams, after reading the obligatory list of those who helped him toward the Hall of Fame, used his remaining moment in the spotlight to recognize and celebrate black players.
“The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ‘em, Willie.”
Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game.
I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
Perhaps we National League fans were more objective about who might break the Babe’s venerable home run record of 60 HRs in 154 games. When Mantle went down with a hip injury late in the season and was out of the chase, we rooted just as hard for Roger Maris.
Far away from Yankee Stadium and New York City a few myths have arisen about the Summer of ’61 and they need to be dismissed by facts:
FALLACY: Maris had an unfair advantage, because the 1961 baseball season had eight more games than it did in Ruth’s day.
Truth: Though Maris had more games to chase the goal, he ended up breaking the record in fewer plate appearances than Ruth did:
Maris hit his 60th homer at his 684th plate appearance in 1961,
Ruth hit his 60th homer at his 689th plate appearance in 1927.
FALLACY: The fences at Yankee Stadium were shorter for Maris than they were for Ruth.
Truth: The shortest point of the outfield wall was the same for both Ruth and Maris: 296 feet.
FALLACY: The two new expansion draft teams that joined the league in 1961—the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators—”watered down” the pitching that season and thus made it easier for Maris to hit home runs.
Truth: The league-wide batting average remained the same between 1960 and 1961, indicating that more teams did not make things easier for batters.
FALLACY: There was an oft-repeated nonsense by sportswriters, who didn’t like Maris, that Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch was responsible for many of Maris’s “cheap” home runs.
Truth: The right field fence at Yankee Stadium was as short or shorter in Ruth’s time. Maris actually hit 30 home runs in Yankee Stadium and 31 in the other 9 American League ballparks. The Babe hit 28 of his 60 home runs in Yankee Stadium in 1927 with 32 in the other 7 AL parks.
FALLACY: Then MLB Commissioner Ford Frick placed an asterisk in the official baseball record next to Maris’ 61 HR stat to indicate it was not the same as Ruth’s record.
Truth: No “official” MLB record attached the infamous asterisk, but some unofficial stat books did attach it and the title of the famous Billy Crystal movie was “61*.”
In his official autobiography, Ford Frick wrote:
“No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” Frick, though,in the spirit of the law, couldn’t resist reminding us that: “His [Maris's] record was set in a 162- game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.”
“In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record.
Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.”
“The shot at the record breaking 61st home run came down to the final three games of the 1961 season. It was Yankees-Red Sox. It was Maris-Ruth. The player they called “Rajah” was shut out in the first two games by Boston pitchers determined not to be the one to be linked with him in the record books.
It was October 1st. A tired, bedraggled Maris faced 24-year-old Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard who got Maris out in his first at bat. The 23,154 roaring fans at Yankee Stadium were quieted.
In the fourth inning, Maris came to bat again.
“They’re standing, waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit Number Sixty-one.” The voice of Phil Rizzuto broadcast the moment. “We’ve only got a handful of people sitting out in left field,” Rizzuto continued, ” but in right field , man, it’s hogged out there. And they’re standing up.
Here’s the windup, the pitch to Roger. Way outside, ball one…And the fans are starting to boo.
Low, ball two. That one was in the dirt. And the boos get louder…
Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris.
Here’s the windup. Fastball, hit deep to right! This could be it! Way back there!
Holy Cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! ”
The ball traveled just 360 feet, went over Red Sox outfielder Lu Clinton’s head and slammed into box l63D of section 33 into the sixth row of the lower deck in right field. And a melee broke out as fans scuffled and scrambled, fighting for the ball and the $5,000 reward.
Roger Maris stoically trotted out the historic home run. A kid grabbed his hand as he turned past first – Maris shook hands and then did the same thing with third base coach Frank Crosetti, as he turned past third base and headed home.
His Yankee teammates formed a human wall in front of the dugout, refusing to let him enter. Four times he tried to no avail. Finally, Maris waved his cap to the cheering crowd who gave him a standing ovation. His teammates finally let him into the dugout.
“He threw me a pitch outside and I just went with it,” Maris would say later:
“If I never hit another home run – this is the one they can never take away from me.”
McGwire and Sosa and Bud Selig did try to take it away from Roger Maris, but now it is clear that that there are only two undisputed “Home Runs in a season” record holders:
Babe Ruth, 60 Home Runs in a 154-game season.
Roger Maris 61 Home Runs in a 162-game season.
Someday the truth about Barry Bonds will see the light of day, but, until then, he is the alleged “162-game Home Run” leader for Major League Baseball. But until some future player hits more than 61 HRs in the “Senior Circuit,” Roger Maris remains the record holder for “HRs, 162-game season, American League.”
And, from a Giants’ fan who witnessed Maris’s historic feat in that Summer of 1961, this:
In 1982, Maris received a vote for Hall of Fame induction from just 16.6% of the “voters” [members of the BBWAA union]; during his final three years of eligibility he received 41.6%, 42.6%, and 43.1%.
The Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee may yet correct the egregious misrepresentation of Maris perpetrated by a bunch of hack writers in New York City in the Sixties, who couldn’t carry Roger’s game-used jock.
Here is the opinion of “The Hebrew Hammer”–the notable HR slugger of his era:
“(Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer) Hank Greenberg grew tired of people saying Maris didn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because hitting 61 home runs was all he ever did.
Greenberg’s incredulous response was “All he ever did?” It was like saying that all Jonas Salk did was develop a polio vaccine, or all John Glenn did [four months later] in 1962 was orbit the earth more than any other American in history…”
Roger Maris grew up in Fargo, North Dakota [pop. 134,000] in the shadow of his older brother, Rudy, Jr., who was expected to be the star athlete, but his athletic career was cut short by polio and Roger carried the burden of expectation when he became a Major Leaguer.
Mickey Mantle grew up in Commerce, Oklahoma [pop. 2,500] as the oldest brother of four and ordained a future Major Leaguer by his father “Mutt,” a miner and semi-pro ball player.
In the Summer of ‘61, when Mickey had his HR chase cut short by a hip infection, Roger carried the burden of expectation and broke Babe Ruth’s HR record.
Despite the press-created image of two jealous players battling each other in an angry struggle to beat the Babe, as the film 61* represented accurately, they were roommates and as close as brothers throughout that summer and Mickey, watching on a TV in his hospital room, was cheering on his younger brother Roger during the 4th inning of the final game of the season when rookie Red Sox starter Tracy Stallard released the historic 2-0 fast ball toward Maris at the plate.
In the Summer of ’85, when Mr. Mantle was promoting his book, “The Mick,” I had the rare privilege of spending fifteen minutes, alone with him, in a small, two-chair “green room” at KGO-AM radio station in San Francisco.
After he graciously signed two baseballs, I showed him an 8×10, black-and-white photo of him, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris standing on the steps of the Yankee dugout. He held it in his large hands and stared and his eyes seemed to focus on a long ago place of remembered beauty. He looked up, tears in the corners of his eyes and, then, he carefully penned “Best Wishes, Mickey Mantle” and said: “He was a great friend and a great man.”
Mr. Mantle also had a ball, signed by a great player:
“Roger gave me a baseball just before he passed away and it had his picture on one side and on the other side he wrote:
To Mickey, the greatest of them all, your friend, Roger Maris.
That’s my favorite treasure,” said Mantle.
If someday an American League player “naturally” hits more than 61 HRs in 162 games, that’s baseball. Until then, Roger Maris is the indisputable American League HR Champ [162-game season] and they can’t take that away from him.
Until then, I will return to that Summer of ’61 with the “M&M Boys,” and bear witness again to Roger Maris, the reluctant hero, catching and passing The Babe, setting the Major League Baseball [162-game season] HR record and, like Roger said: this is the one they can never take away from me.”