This day in baseball history

Here’s more from a long-time reader about the 1961 home run race.

On September 20, 1961, the New York Yankees played their 154th game of the season. Roger Maris had 58 home runs at the start of the day. This meant that he needed to swat two more to match Babe Ruth’s record for a 154 game season. Although the season had been expanded to 162 games, baseball commissioner Ford Frick decided that Maris would be saddled with an asterisk in the record book if he required the extra games to match or exceed Ruth’s record.

Maris had actually belted 59 homers prior to the September 20 game. However, one of them had been wiped out (along with homers by Mickey Mantle and Clete Boyer) when rain stopped a game in Baltimore earlier in the season before it became official. If that game (and the home runs) had counted, though, Maris would now be playing in his 155th game and definitely looking at that asterisk.

The odds, of course, did not favor Maris on September 20. Maris had produced two home runs in only seven of the 152 games he had played in so far (all of them starts). And only one of these games was away from Yankee Stadium. The September 20 contest would be played in Baltimore. As for breaking Ruth’s record that night, Maris had not hit three homers in a game all season.

Whitey Herzog, a teammate in Kansas City now playing for Baltimore, drove Maris to Memorial Stadium. According to Herzog, Maris was a nervous wreck. Manager Ralph Houk has claimed that Maris asked not to play. If so, it was a rare moment of weakness from this determined pro. As he neared the record, reporters would ask Maris, ridiculously, if he really wanted to break Ruth’s record. Maris’ standard answer was “damn right.”

The Yankees were facing 22 year-old Milt Pappas, one of the best pitchers in the American League (his ERA was fourth lowest in the league among starters in 1961). Pappas, though, gave up his share of home runs. In 1962, he would yield 31, third most in the league.

Maris’ first plate appearance came in the first inning with one out and one on. He hit the ball well, but on a line to Oriole right-fielder Earl Robinson.

Maris next batted in the third inning with one out and no one on base. This time, he smashed a 2-1 pitch on a line into the right-field bleachers. Maris now had 59 home runs and, in all likelihood, three more shots that night at number 60. With his 59th, Maris passed Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Only Ruth had ever reached 59 before (twice).

When Maris batted in the fourth inning, with two out and one on, the Yankees were leading 4-0 and Pappas had departed. Maris now faced Dick Hall, a Swarthmore graduate. Hall, who started out as an outfield for Pittsburgh, had been a journeyman until 1961. But that year, he found a home in the Baltimore bullpen, where he would excel for a decade.

Maris took two strikes before cracking a deep foul ball to right field. He then struck out.

Hall was still pitching when Maris batted in the seventh inning with one out and no one on. Hall had shut the Yankees down and the score was now 4-2.

Maris again hit a long foul. Then he flied out to Earl Robinson in right field. The seventh inning fly to right is sometimes described as a near home run. However, film shows that Robinson caught it comfortably short of the warning track.

Maris got his final shot in the ninth inning. Two were out and the bases were empty. The score remained 4-2.

Now, Maris would have to face Hoyt Wilhelm. The great knuckle-baller was the best relief pitcher of the era. When his specialty pitch behaved (or rather misbehaved) it was extraordinarily difficult to hit.

On the first knuckler, Maris checked his swing – a bad sign – and fouled the ball back. Maris moved away from the second knuckler, but didn’t take his bat with him. The ball veered into the bat and dribbled back to Wilhelm, who tagged Maris out.

The 4-2 Yankee win clinched the pennant, and the team celebrated after the game. Roger Kahn, who had been covering Maris’ quest for Sports Illustrated, thought that Maris, in his gray sweater and his crew-cut, looked like a West Point football player. In fact, Maris was only 26 years old. In their monumental home run seasons Ruth, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were, respectively, 32, 35, 29, and 37. Mantle was 29 during the ’61 home run chase, and had been in the limelight for a decade.

Maris told reporters, “I’m just sorry I didn’t go out with a real good swing, but that Wilhelm. . .” Then he shook his head and added “sometimes you have to be lucky.”

Word came that the Baltimore fan who caught home run number 59 was offering to sell it for $2,500. “I’d like to have it,” said Maris, “but I’m not looking to get rid of that kind of money for it.”

Ford Frick notwithstanding, Maris had eight games left in which to produce more valuable baseballs.

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