With the toppling of home run records and the “juiced” controversy seemingly now a part of baseball’s culture, with all kinds of opinions being uttered in various quarters about the validity of accomplishments - it is now nostalgic to flash back to a simpler time, to a simple man - New York Yankee Roger Maris - the man who broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record - - in a game against the Red Sox of Boston.
“When Roger Maris was going for the home run record he would eat only bologna and eggs for breakfast,” his friend Julie Isaacson recalled. “Every morning we would have breakfast together at the Stage Deli. We had the same waitress, and I’d leave her the same five dollar tip every time. After, I would drive Roger up to the Stadium.”
In 1956, Mickey Mantle had smashed 52 home runs for the Bronx Bombers. And there were many who saw him as the man to break Babe Ruth’s season record of 60. Mantle was the favorite; Maris who had come to the Yankees in a trade with Kansas City was the outsider, the loner.
In 1961, Maris did not homer in his first ten games, but by the end of May he had recorded a dozen. There were 27 by the end of June. By the end of July Maris had 40 home runs - and was six ahead of the Babe Ruth record total that had stood since 1927.
“My going off after the record started off such a dream,” the Yankee outfielder said. “I was living a fairy tale for awhile. I never thought I’d get a chance to break such a record.” Reporters lined up by the Maris locker in ballparks all over the American League. “How does it feel to be hitting so many home runs? Do you ever think of what it means?” “How the hell should I know,” Maris, short-tempered, surly, shot back.
There were all kinds of commercial capitalizations. An enterprising stripper went by the name of Mickey Maris. The sales of M&M candy skyrocketed - a tip of the cash register to the “M &M Boys” who had not endorsed the confection. Newspapers printed endless stories and charts comparing Mantle and Maris, Maris and Ruth, Ruth and Mantle, etc., ad nausea. Over-reaching journalists invented stories that bickering and animosity existed between Mantle who earned $75,000 that season and Maris, paid $42,000. The stories were completely untrue. “Roger,” Mantle insisted, “was one of my best friends. The two shared a Queens apartment with Bob Cerv. The three young Yankee outfielders rode in Maris’ open convertible back and forth from Yankee Stadium.
Media scrutiny was unrelenting. Photographers insisted on pairing Mantle and Maris together in all kinds of posed shots. Maris was irked; Mantle was bemused. “We’ve taken so many pictures together,” he smiled, “that I’m beginning to feel like a Siamese twin.”
Against his former Kansas City teammates on August 26th in his 128th game of the ‘61 season, Maris mashed Number 51, eight ahead of the Ruth pace. It was about that time that Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that an asterisk would be placed next to Maris’ name in the record books if he broke the Babe’s record. Frick pointed out that Ruth set the record in a 154 game season. Maris was playing in a season with a 162-game schedule.
The “Mick” managed but one home run from September 10 on - Number 54, With Mantle a shell of himself and no longer a factor in the home run race, with the Yankee having clinched their 26th pennant, the pressure was now totally on Roger Maris.
On September l8, the Yankees arrived in Baltimore for a four-game series. Maris had 58 home runs. His chance to “officially” break Ruth’s record was restricted by the Ford Frick edict to the first three games. They fell within the l54-game schedule. Accomplishments after that date, the ruling read, would be designated by an asterisk.
In a twi-night doubleheader, games l52 and l53, Maris was shut out. On September 20, a night game, Maris faced Milt Pappas of the Orioles. It was a media circus with reporters from all over the country converged on the scene. But there were only 21,000 or so in the stands. The man they called “Rajah” lined solidly to right field his first time up. In the third inning, Maris caught a Pappas pitch and blasted it almost 400 feet into the bleachers in right field - home run Number 59! He had passed Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Maris had three more chances that night to tie the Babe Ruth record. But he struck out, flied out and grounded out.
Five days later on September 26 in Game Number 158 for the Yankees in the third inning - Jack Fisher of Baltimore threw a high curve ball. “The minute I threw the ball,” Fisher moaned, “I said to myself, that does it. That’s Number 60.” The record tying home run pounded onto the concrete steps of the sixth row in the third deck in Yankee Stadium.The ball bounced back onto the field and was picked up by Earl Robinson, the Oriole right fielder who tossed the ball to umpire Ed Hurley who gave it to Yankee first base coach Wally Moses who rolled it into the Yankee dugout. The ball and Maris, running out the 60th home run, arrived in the dugout of the Bronx Bombers at about the same time.
Maris picked up the ball and barely looked at it; cheering fans kept calling for him to come out and take a bow. Finally, Maris emerged. Standing sheepishly on the top step of the dugout, he waved his cap. An especially interested onlooker was Mrs. Claire Ruth, widow of the Babe.
In the Yankee bullpen in right field the pitchers and the catchers watched as the action played out. A $5,000 reward had been promised to the one who caught the ball. “I told them,’ Maris said, “that if they got the ball not to give it to me. Take the $5,000 reward.”
The shot at the record breaking 61st home run came down to the final three games of the 1961 season. It was Yankees-Red Sox. It was Maris-Ruth. The player they called “Rajah” was shut out in the first two games by Boston pitchers determined not to be the one to be linked with him in the record books.
It was October 1st. A tired, bedraggled Maris faced 24-year-old Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard who got the powerfully built Yankee out in his first at bat. The 23,154 roaring fans at Yankee Stadium were quieted. In the fourth inning, Maris came to bat again.
“They’re standing, waiting to see if Maris is gonna hit Number Sixty-one.” The voice of Phil Rizzuto broadcast the moment. “We’ve only got a handful of people sitting out in left field,” Rizzuto continued, ” 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! ”
The ball traveled just 360 feet, went over outfielder Lou Clinton’s head and slammed into box l63D of section 33 into the sixth row of the lower deck in right field. And a melee broke out as fans scuffled and scrambled, fighting for the ball and the $5,000 reward.
Roger Maris trotted out the historic home run. A kid grabbed his hand as he turned past first - Maris shook hands and then did the same thing with third base coach Frank Crosetti as he turned past third base and headed home. His Yankee teammates formed a human wall in front of the dugout, refusing to let him enter. Four times he tried to no avail. Finally, Maris waved his cap to the cheering crowd who gave him a standing ovation. His teammates finally let him into the dugout.
“He threw me a pitch outside and I just went with it,” Maris would say later. “If I never hit another home run - this is the one they can never take away from me.”
” I hated to see the record broken,” Phil Rizzuto said. “But it was another Yankee that did it. When he hit the 61st home run I screamed so loud I had a headache for about a week.”
Harvey Frommer is the celebrated author of 37 sports books, including the classics: “New York City Baseball,” “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,” “Rickey and Robinson” “The New York Yankee Encyclopedia,” “A Yankee Century,” and the best selling “Red Sox Vs. Yankees: The Great Rivalry” (with Frederic J. Frommer). He is now in his 31st consecutive year of writing sports books. “BASEBALL NAMES” comes from his newest book: THE SPORTS JUNKIES BOOK OF TRIVIA, TERMS, AND LINGO.