Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 2, 2011

The Home Run Kings Who Will Always Reign

It is now fifty years on; yet the grainy archival black and white footage still evokes the moment, still never fails to mesmerize. Perhaps that is because it recalls what we like to think of as a simpler time. A time when information traveled far more slowly and fans went to the game dressed in their Sunday best. October 1, 1961 was indeed a Sunday, and a little over 23,000 were on hand at the old Stadium for the final day of the regular season, the men mostly in suits and ties and the women in dresses and hats. The Yankees had already wrapped up the American League title, but in an otherwise meaningless game against the Red Sox, there was still one item of unfinished business.

All season long, the M&M boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, had been leading a team of sluggers that had caused sportswriters to dust off the sobriquet “Murderers Row.” New York hit 240 home runs in 1961, a record that would stand for 35 years until the age of the designated hitter. Six Yankees, Maris, Mantle, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Johnny Blanchard, and Moose Skowron accounted for 207 of the balls into the seats. But the focus of course was on Maris and Mantle, as it became apparent by mid-season that both had a chance to top a record many thought unbreakable, Babe Ruth’s single-season mark of 60 home runs.

In the 34 years since Ruth set the record in 1927, topping his own mark of 59 set six years earlier, only three players had hit more than 55 homers in a season. Half a century later, it is easy to forget how fiercely traditionalists guarded the accomplishments of the Great Game’s slugging immortal. Some vilified both Maris and Mantle for daring to assault Ruth’s mark. Mantle was derided for his frequent strikeouts and for lacking the grace of his predecessor in the old Stadium’s spacious center field, Joe DiMaggio. Maris meanwhile was scorned for his journeyman batting average. A lifetime .260 hitter, Maris hit .269 in 1961.

In support of the traditionalists, commissioner Ford Frick, who had been a close friend of Ruth’s, announced in mid-season that unless the record was broken within the first 154 games of the newly elongated 162 game schedule, both records would continue to be shown along with the number of games in which they were set. While never actually declaring that an asterisk be placed next to the new mark, Frick’s declaration amounted to the last wheezing defense of the old traditionalists.

As Maris began to pull inexorably ahead of an injured Mantle, he was subjected to a different type of assault. Mantle was a product of the Yankees farm system, a player who would spend the entirety of his career in pinstripes. While he had had his share of difficulties with the New York press, Mantle was now seen by the scribes as the “true” Yankee, an appropriate heir to the Babe if one must come. Maris, who had been traded to New York prior to the 1960 season after starting his career with Cleveland and Kansas City, was cast as the interloper. Press accounts frequently characterized the shy and laconic Midwesterner as surly.

In truth of course, both Maris and Mantle were just doing their best to deal with the unimaginable pressure of chasing an iconic record on the game’s biggest stage. As the season wound down Mantle was felled by an abscessed hip, and acknowledged that his pursuit of the record was finished. Through 154 games, Maris had 58 home runs, preserving Ruth’s mark for the traditionalists; as if the Babe was somehow going to be forgotten.

On September 20, in a game against the Orioles, Maris collected home run number 59. Six days later, again against Baltimore, he tied Ruth. So it came to that final Sunday. In the bottom of the 4th, Maris faced Boston right hander Tracy Stallard. The afternoon shadows were creeping across the field, covering home plate and the first base line, and just beginning to move up onto the pitcher’s mound. Stallard’s first two pitches were balls. On his third offering, Maris swung and launched a drive toward the right field seats. Knowing on contact that he had done it, Maris fell immediately into a home run trot down the first base line, watching the ball disappear into the stands as he did so.

In those stands, then 19-year old Sal Durante, at the game with his fiancé and four friends, jumped onto his seat and snared a bit of history with his right hand. Doing radio play-by-play, Phil Rizzuto screamed “Holy cow, he did it! Hooooly cow! One of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen at Yankee Stadium!” Announcing for the newer medium of television, Red Barber let the pictures tell the story, saying only “There it is,” as the ball sailed toward the seats; and then “There’s the man with 61,” as the camera panned back to Maris rounding the bases. After Yogi Berra greeted him at home plate, Maris disappeared into the dugout and had to be pushed back up the steps by his teammates to receive the plaudits of the fans.

Half a century after that October afternoon, and nearly 8 ½ decades since the Babe set his mark, 61 and 60 are officially the 7th and 8th most home runs ever hit in a single season. But in an ironic twist on the “asterisk” controversy of 1961, all six higher totals came in a four season stretch from 1998 to 2001. The three players who hit more than 61 homers during that span, Sammy Sosa (3 times), Mark McGwire (twice), and Barry Bonds, are all either acknowledged or widely presumed to be poster boys for the game’s lamentable steroids era.

The old Stadium is long gone. In its footprint is the soon to be completed Heritage Field, which will offer Little League and softball layouts in addition to a regulation diamond for use by community groups and leagues. Along the western boundary of the new park runs a broad promenade used by thousands of fans at each Yankees game who make their way from a new Metro North rail station to the south up to the successor Stadium on the other side of 161st Street. Among the thousands of flagstones that pave the walkway are many inscribed with the dates and descriptions of historic events at the old Stadium. The stone commemorating October 1, 1961, bears a quote from Maris, “This is the one they can never take away from me.”

As the Great Game has moved away from the period when too many players and fans were enthralled by the power produced with chemical assistance and too many in management were happy to look the other way, home run totals have predictably declined. As they have done so, the enormity of what Ruth and Maris did has become all the more apparent, and two truths have emerged. The first is that the Babe will always be the Babe.  The second is that 61 in ’61 will always be the real thing. Roger was right.

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