This day in baseball history

A long-time reader updates his coverage of Roger Maris and reflects on the history of his 1961 home run record.

On September 26, 1961, the New York Yankees played their 158th official game of the season. Roger Maris entered that contest with 59 home runs. He needed one more to tie Babe Ruth’s single season record.

The Yankees were at home against the Baltimore Orioles, facing Jack Fisher. Five days earlier, on September 21, Fisher had beaten the Yankees 5-3, allowing only three hits. Maris went 0-4 in that game.

Fisher, though, had given up one of the most famous home runs in baseball history just shy of a year earlier. On September 28, 1960, Ted Williams homered off of Fisher in Williams’ last-ever plate appearance (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and all that).

In the first inning of the September 26 game, Maris lashed a two-out single. Mickey Mantle followed with a walk but, due to injury, had to be replaced by a pinch-runner in what would be his last appearance of the regular season.

Fisher escaped the inning by retiring Yogi Berra. And by the time he faced Maris again, the Orioles were leading 2-0, with no one on base and two out in the third inning.

This time, Maris drove what Sports Illustrated described as a “high curve” into the third deck in right field. You can see the blast, and watch Maris kiss Babe Ruth’s widow, here.

Maris had two more shots at Fisher (who pitched a complete game), but he flied out to right field both times. The Yankees tied the game in the sixth inning on a Johnny Blanchard single, and won it in the seventh when Oriole center fielder Jackie Brandt misplayed a ball hit by Hector Lopez, who had replaced Mantle.

Now that Maris had reached 60, the question of how to treat this feat in relation to Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs was no longer academic. On July 17, baseball commissioner Ford Frick, a good friend of Ruth’s, had declared at a press conference:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.

Frick did not use the word “asterisk.” That word apparently was uttered by New York sportswriter Dick Young, who reportedly cried out “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.”

In the end, there was no asterisk. Instead, according to Phil Pepe in his book “1961,” Frick’s declaration was reflected this way in the “official” baseball record book:

Most Home Runs, Season.

61 Roger E. Maris, AL: NY, 1961 (162 G/S)

60 George H. Ruth, AL. NY, 1927.

However, Allen Barra of the Village Voice says there was no “official” record book at the time. Some record books stated the record for most home runs in a season in the manner quoted above. But according to Barra, other record books, including Gillette’s, did not.

In 1991, then-commissioner Fay Vincent expressed his view that Maris held the home run record, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record, even though there was no actual asterisk to remove.

According to Barra, baseball did not get itself an official record unil the late 1990s, when it assigned the task to Total Baseball. By then, whatever was left of the controversy ignited by Frick was (or was about to become) moot. For in 1998, Mark McGwire shattered both Maris’ record and Ruth’s mark for 154 games.

These days, however, some may see the controversy as relevant again, due to the use of steroids by McGwire and, it would appear, the others who have surpassed Maris and Ruth.

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