From a long-time reader, we received this update on the 1961 baseball season.
Although the issue is controversial (and a good subject for a future post), the 1961 New York Yankees are generally considered one of baseball’s all-time greatest teams. So it may surprise some to learn that, when play began on September 1, 1961, the Yankees found themselves only a game-and-a-half ahead of the visiting Detroit Tigers. New York’s record stood at 87-45; Detroit’s at 86-47.
This meant that a Tiger sweep of the three games at Yankee Stadium would vault them into first place. But the key was to win at least two, so as not to fall two-and-a-half (or more) games behind the Yanks. For although the Yankees had 27 games remaining after this series (and the Tigers 26), including four with each other, ground would probably be difficult to make up given the torrid pace New York was setting. For example, coming into this series, Detroit had won 22 of 31 games in August without improving its position at all – the Yankees had matched their August record.
Both teams had their top three starters ready to go. For the Yankees that meant Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, and Bill Stafford; for Detroit it meant Don Mossi, Frank (“Yankee killer”) Lary, and Jim Bunning.
Southpaws Ford and Mossi – the starters on Friday, September 1 – were the two most successful starting pitchers in the American League. Ford, one of the very best pitchers in baseball history, was in the midst of his winningest season. His record going into the game was 22-3. Mossi’s was 14-3 and his 2.68 ERA was lower than Ford’s.
Mossi wasn’t overpowering. For the season, he yielded almost a hit per inning. However, his walk total (47 in 240 innings) was superb, especially for that era. And, as befitted a converted relief ace, he knew how to pitch out of trouble.
Both Mossi and Ford were working with four days rest. Thus, there was every reason to expect a pitchers’ duel.
The crowd of 65,566 got its pitchers’ duel, though not exactly along the expected lines. Ford had to leave the game, after pitching five scoreless innings, due to what was described as a “mild strain of his left hip muscle” (he did not miss his next scheduled start). He exited with the score 0-0.
Manager Ralph Houk replaced Ford with another lefty, Bud Daley. He did so mainly out of necessity. Jim Coates was normally the Yankees middle inning reliever, with the additional virtue of being right-handed. The Tigers had started only two left-handed hitters against Ford, and Daley, a curve ball specialist, tended to struggle against righties (they batted .285 against him over the course of the season). But Coates had pitched three innings against the Twins the day before, as had Hal Reniff, who might otherwise have been Houk’s next choice. That left Daley.
Daley took over where Ford left off, allowing his share of base runners, but no runs. Daley even picked off a runner (the veteran Bill Bruton, who had singled to lead off the seventh inning), just as Ford , who was famous for his move to first base, had picked off Mike Roarke in the third.
The Tigers may not have been playing heads-up baseball, but Mossi was upholding his end. Through seven innings, the Yankees managed only four hits, all singles, with only one runner reaching second base. Clete Boyer led off the bottom of the eighth with a double, and advanced to third on a groundout by Hector Lopez (pinch hitting for Daley). But Mossi retired Richardson and Kubek to preserve his shut-out.
Luis Arroyo, on for Daley, set the Tigers down in the top of the ninth, allowing only a one-out walk to Bruton. Now, Mossi would have to face Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to begin the bottom of the ninth. But neither had managed a hit all day.
Maris flied out and Mantle struck out for the third time. But Howard and Berra followed with two-out singles, Howard reaching third base on Berra’s.
With the right-handed hitting Moose Skowron up next, Tiger manager Bob Scheffing might have been well-advised to remove Mossi and bring on right-hander Terry Fox, with his 1.44 ERA. True, Fox had only recently come off the disabled list. But in four appearances since then, covering six innings, he had not allowed a run. Any modern manager in this situation surely would make the switch to Fox.
But Scheffing stayed with Mossi, and Skowron won the game with a single to left. So the pressure would be mostly on the Tigers for the rest of the series.