This day in baseball history

A long-time reader filed this dispatch from the 1961 baseball season:

On July 31, 1961, at Fenway Park, baseball held the second of its two All Star games that year. After nine innings, the game was tied 1-1, and ended due to rain.

The American League scored its run in the first inning on a home run by Rocky Colavito off of Bob Purkey. The Nationals tied it in the sixth on an infield single by future NL president Bill White off of Red Sox rookie pitching sensation Don Schwall.

Jim Bunning contributed three innings of perfect baseball, as he had done in the 1957 All Star game. For his career, the future Kentucky Senator gave up only two earned runs in 18 innings of All Star pitching.

Camilo Pascual gave up just a walk in his three innings of work. And Stu Miller followed up his wind-blown performance in the first 1961 All Star game with three scoreless innings.

Baseball fans of the day were less focused on the All Star game than they were on two good pennant races and an epic battle for the American League home run crown. The home run race was a two-man affair. On July 31, Roger Maris led the league with 40 homers to Mickey Mantle’s 39 (Harmon Killebrew was next with 32). These numbers were interesting for two reasons. First, they nearly mirrored the entire 1960 output for both players – Mantle hit a league leading 40 that year and Maris belted 39 (Killebrew hit 31, so he too had reached his 1960 total).

Second, Maris’s 40 home runs put him exactly at two-thirds of Babe Ruth’s famous record number. But the Yankees had played only 101 games. That amounted to just about two-thirds of the old 154 game schedule, but seven games less than two-thirds of the new 162 game season.

Mantle’s overall numbers were more impressive than those of Maris. The Mick was outslugging Roger by .720 to .649 and also had a much better on-base percentage (.454 to .379). But because their comparative home run output had been identical over the course of more than a season and a half, an objective observer would have found no clear favorite in the home run race. And because two great sluggers were in hot pursuit of Ruth’s record in a year when home runs were flying out of American League parks in unprecedented numbers, the same observer would have thought that at least one of the two Yankees might well sustain a credible challenge for the remainder of the season.

The pennant races were also two-contestant affairs. In the American League, the Detroit Tigers had dropped three straight at home to the Minnesota Twins, but were only one and a half games behind the New York Yankees. The 1961 Yankees are remembered as one of the great hitting teams of all time. However, the Tigers would end up scoring more runs than the Yanks that year.

The Tigers were upstarts, having finished in sixth palace the previous year. In the National League, another sixth place finisher, Cincinnati, was neck-in-neck with Los Angeles for the lead. At the second All Star break the Dodgers held a half game led over the Reds.

Pitching was Cincinnati’s calling card. The team had three high-quality starters: Bob Purkey, Joey Jay, and Jim O’Toole, and also featured one the outstanding lefty-righty bullpen duos of the era in Bill Henry and Jim Brosnan, the writer.

The Dodgers were probably considered the favorites to hold off Cincinnati, since they had been champions as recently as 1959. In reality, though, they arguably were lucky just to be in the race. Three National League teams would have better run differentials than LA in 1961 and a fourth would have nearly the same one. But then, this wasn’t so different from 1959, when two NL teams had better differentials.

The Yankees and Tigers weren’t scheduled to meet again until September, but the Reds and Dodgers would play seven games in August. Those seven games, and the three-game Yankee-Tiger series in early September, would largely tell the tale.

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