Note the suits, shirts, and ties on the fans. Something I say.
One of the greatest feats in baseball history was accomplished at 1:46 pm on October 1, 1961, as Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season record. That’s when Maris walloped his 61st home run at Yankee Stadium in the year’s final regular game. A dramatic race for the record had taken place throughout the season between Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle, who ended the season with 54.
The season did not start well for Maris. He hit .204 in April, with 4 RBI’s and only 1 home run. By that time, Mantle already had 7. A month into the season, on May 16, Mantle was batting .309 with 10 homers and 26 RBI’s, while Maris continued to struggle, hitting a full hundred points lower with only 3 round-trippers.
But at that point, Roger Maris found his timing. He hit 4 home runs in the next 4 games and by the end of May had 12. Then in June, the Yankee star hit 15 homers in less than 3 weeks. In the same month, the team’s ace pitcher Whitey Ford went 8-0, and the team was well on its way to the pennant. Maris found himself ahead of Babe Ruth’s record pace, and 5 in front of his teammate Mantle.
As the “M & M boys” began knocking the ball out of the park with regularity, an increasing number of writers began gathering around their lockers after games. Maris was not comfortable around the press and was portrayed more and more as an arrogant whiner. It did not help him that Mantle was a media darling who would hold court with the press and tell hilarious stories as he recounted his exploits.
In early July, Mickey Mantle caught up with his fellow slugger and thus began a back-and-forth race between them that linked them together in a shared experience that few others could understand. By the All Star game, Maris had surged ahead again, by 4 homers. He was 12 games ahead of Ruth’s pace, while Mantle was just 1 game behind it.
On July 17, both men hit home runs in Baltimore against the Orioles, but they were nullified when the game was rained out before it became official. On that very day, baseball commissioner Ford Frick, self-appointed guardian of Babe Ruth’s record, announced that if Ruth’s record was broken after 154 games (the number of games in a season when Ruth hit 60), then a “distinctive mark” would be placed in the record book to note that 60 home runs was still the true record. Roger Maris was getting accustomed to a lack of respect.
Roger Maris fell into a slump while Mantle got red-hot. He hit 7 home runs in 7 games while his teammate struggled. But then, in a remarkable doubleheader on July 25 against the Chicago White Sox in Yankee Stadium, Maris slugged homers #37, 38, 39, and 40, knocking in 8 runs. It put the outfielder 24 games ahead of Ruth’s pace! He was 1 four-bagger ahead of Mantle. More importantly for the team, they had surged into first place, ahead of Detroit. The Yankees had won 20 of 29 in July.
Maris suffered through another slump from July 26 to August 10 while Mantle advanced past him. In a weekend series in Washington, baseballs flew off both their bats with power that awed even their teammates. They both left the capitol with 45 home runs. In his own book, Roger Maris wrote,
The pressure was beginning to hit both Mickey and me. It became difficult for either of us to deny that the record was on our minds. …The fans talked about it, the papers were full of it. Now we not only had the New York writers who travel with the club, but magazine writers began to come aroud while the out-of-town writers were constant visitors. From here on it became quite a struggle.Before August ended, he had reached 50. On August 15, Maris homered in his fifth straight game and Mantle would not pass him again. By September 9, he had 56, which tied the record number Hack Wilson had hit in the National League in 1930. #57 and #58 came against the Tigers after a week-long drought. Three days later, in Baltimore, he hit #59 off of Milt Pappas, and six days after that, when the Orioles visited Yankee Stadium, Roger Maris tied Babe Ruth’s record by hitting home run #60.
He had not done it in 154 games like Ruth did, but it actually took Roger Maris three fewer plate appearances to hit his 60 homers. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 687 appearances, while Maris did it in 684.
By the end of September, all the games had been played but one.
On Sunday, October 1, with two outs in the fourth inning, at 1:46 pm Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard grooved a 2-0 fastball that never reached the catcher’s mitt. As soon as he connected, Roger Maris knew it was #61. Then he jogged around the bases without celebration as was his custom. Watching the video, one who has seen what sports has become is amazed at how low key the moment was. The stands were not even full that day.
After the game, Roger and his wife Pat joined a few friends for dinner. Across the street from the restaurant a Catholic church was holding Sunday evening mass. While their friends waited at the table, the Marises went to the service. However, they left when the priest recognized the ballplayer and began talking about his home run.
After a relaxed celebratory dinner, they visited Mickey Mantle and another teammate who were in the hospital. Mantle laughed when he saw Maris. “I hate your guts!” he kidded.
What a year. What a player. What a feat.
Source: Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero, by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary