This day in baseball history

A long-time reader writes about one of the biggest days ever in baseball history:

On October 1, 1961, the New York Yankees played their 162nd (and final) game of the regular season. Going into that game, Roger Maris had hit only one home run in the previous seven contests, meaning that he needed one more to break Babe Ruth’s record of 60 for a season. A crowd of 23,154 showed up at Yankee Stadium to see if Maris would accomplish this.

The Yankees faced the Boston Red Sox. Boston’s starter, Tracy Stallard, came into the game with a record of 2-6 and an ERA of 5.08. His lack of success was due mainly to poor control – he had walked 95 in 125 plus innings. The quality of Stallard’s “stuff” was evident from the fact that he had struck almost as many batters (104) as had produced hits against him (105). But he was susceptible to the long ball, having yielded 14 home runs in the innings-equivalent of about half a season.

Maris flied to left field in the first inning. When he next faced Stallard, in the fourth inning with one out, the Yankees had managed just one hit and no walks.

Here, via Harvey Frommer, is Phil Rizzuto’s account of Maris’s at-bat:

They’re standing, waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit Number Sixty-one. We’ve only got a handful of people sitting out in left field, but in right field , man, it’s hogged out there. And they’re standing up. Here’s the windup, the pitch to Roger. Way outside, ball one…And the fans are starting to boo. Low, ball two. That one was in the dirt. And the boos get louder…Two balls, no strikes on Roger Maris. Here’s the windup. Fastball, hit deep to right! This could be it! Way back there! Holy Cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris!

Later Rizzuto said, “When he hit the 61st home run I screamed so loud I had a headache for about a week.”

By contrast, Red Barber, broadcasting the game on television for the Yankees, gave Maris’s home run an understated call. And when the ball landed, Barber seemed more interested in the $5,000 that had been promised for it, than in the reason why the ball commanded that price.

Barber had criticized Russ Hodges’s famous, over-the-top call of Bobby Thompson’s 1951 “shot heard round the world” (“THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT”). Ten years later, Barber’s call seems to presage the journalism of the counterculture age (no heroes, follow the money) which, mercifully, made only a slight impression on play-by-play sports broadcasting. No wonder Barber ended up on NPR.

Home run number 61 traveled 360 feet, landing in the sixth row of the right field bleachers. A 19 year-old fan named Sal Durante caught the ball. Restaurant owner Sam Gordon paid Durante the promised price and gave the ball to Maris, who donated it to the Hall of Fame in 1973..

Maris betrayed no emotion as he circled the bases. No standing and admiring, and no jumping, fist-pumping, or high-fiving — just a standard home run trot. Eventually, he came out of the dugout and waved his cap. However, it is said that he did so only under pressure from his teammates.

Maris’s home run won the game for the Yankees, giving them 109 victories for the year. That total has been surpassed only twice since – by the 1998 Yankees (112) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (114).

Maris hit his 61 home runs in 161 games (over a 162-game schedule) and 590 at-bats. Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927 in 151 games (over a 154-game schedule) and 540 at-bats. Maris also had more plate appearances than Ruth, but the difference is small (691 to 677). Both played their home games in the same stadium. Maris hit 30 of his homers there; Ruth hit 28.

If one wishes to disparage Maris’s record by reference to Ruth, the most fruitful approach is probably to note how common home runs were in 1961 compared to 1927. As has often been noted, Ruth hit more home runs in 1927 than every team in the American League except for his New York Yankees. In 1961, no American League team hit fewer than 90 home runs.

In 1927, moreover, Ruth and Lou Gehrig (48) were the only American Leaguers to hit 20 home runs or more. In 1961, 21 American Leaguers accomplished this, with six reaching the 40 home run mark (Maris, Mickey Mantle, Jim Gentile, Rocky Colavito, Harmon Killebrew, and Norm Cash).

Finally, though this doesn’t go to the issue of home runs, Ruth indisputably was the best hitter in baseball in 1927, but this was not true of Maris in 1961. These days, perhaps the most commonly used measure of hitting proficiency is the statistic that adds on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In 1961, Maris ranked fifth in this category, behind Gentile and Killebrew and way behind Mantle and Cash, the league leader.

But no one was paying attention to walks or total bases in 1961, and none of baseball’s other sluggers grabbed the sport’s brass ring. It was Maris who accomplished this, under the most intense scrutiny any baseball player had ever been subjected to and as much as any player has been subjected to since. And he did so unassisted by performance enhancing drugs.

Universally described as a nervous wreck during the final month of the season, Maris kept his nerve right down to the final game, 50 years ago today. As baseball came to realize, his record should be celebrated, not disparaged.
You can watch Maris’s home run, as called by Red Barber, here.

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