In 1961, the American League expanded from eight to ten teams….and during the expansion draft….the newly created Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators….were restricted to drafting players from AL rosters…..to which the perceived result was that American League team rosters had become watered down….as players who would otherwise have been playing at AAA, if not lower, were now in the AL. The Yankees, however, were left mainly intact….so, In order to maintain a balanced schedule….AL owners extended the season from 154 games to 162 games….when on January 23, 1961, an Associated Press reporter asked Yankees Roger Maris whether the schedule changes might threaten Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record….to which Maris replied, “Nobody will touch it… Look up the records and you’ll see that it’s a rare year when anybody hits 50 homers, let alone 60.”
Yankee home runs began to come at a record pace…creating a very famous photograph of a line up of six 1961 Yankees including Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, John Blanchard, Elston Howard and Bill Skowron….under the nickname “Murderers Row“….all due to the fact that they hit a combined 165 home runs the previous season…..while the title “Murderers Row” was originally coined in 1918….but had most famously been used to refer to the 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzerie. As mid-season approached, it seemed quite possible that either Maris or Mantle, or perhaps both, would break Ruth’s 34-year-old home run record….and unlike the home run race of 1998….where both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were given extensive positive media coverage in their pursuit of Maris’ record….sportswriters in 1961 began to play the “M&M Boys” against each other….while inventing a rivalry where none existed ….as Yogi Berra would tell multiple subsequent interviewers.
The fact is that five years earlier, in 1956, the New York press had been protective of Ruth….when Mantle challenged it for most of the season…..to the degree that when Mantle fell short by finishing with 52….there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief from the New York traditionalists. The New York press had not been kind to Mantle in his early years with the team….cuz the kid struck out frequently…..was always injury prone…..was truly a “hick” from Oklahoma….and was perceived as being distinctly inferior to his predecessor in center field, Joe DiMaggio. Mantle, however, over the course of time….and with a little help from his friend and teammate Whitey Ford….who was a native of New York’s borough of Queens….had gotten better at “schmoozing” with the New York media….and consequently gained the favor of the press….which was a talent that Maris, a blunt-spoken Upper Midwesterner, never attempted to cultivate….so, Maris was perceived as surly during his time on the Yankees.
More and more, the Yankees became “Mickey Mantle’s team” and Maris was ostracized as an “outsider” and “not a true Yankee.” The press at that time seemed to be rooting for Mantle and belittling Maris. Mantle, however, was felled by a hip infection causing hospitalization late in the season after having reached 54 home runs….thus leaving Maris as the single remaining player with the opportunity to break Ruth’s home run record.
On top of his lack of popular press coverage, Maris’ chase for 61 homers hit another roadblock totally out of his control….for along with adding two teams to the league….Major League Baseball had added eight more games to the schedule. In the middle of the season, baseball commissioner Ford Frick….who was one of Babe Ruth’s closest friends….announced that unless Ruth’s record was broken in the first 154 games of the season….the new record would be shown in the record books as having been set in 162 games while the previous record set in 154 games would also be shown. It is an urban legend that an asterisk (*) would be used to distinguish the new record, sparked by a question given to Commissioner Frick from New York sportswriter Dick Young.
Nash and Zullo argued in The Baseball Hall of Shame that Frick made the ruling because the former newspaper reporter had been a close friend of Ruth’s. Furthermore, Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby….who was himself a lifetime .358 batter…. compared Ruth’s 1927 batting average of .356 to Maris’ .269 clip of 1961 and said, “It would be a disappointment if Ruth’s home run record were bested by a .270 hitter”. Hornsby, however, was not easy to impress….as his report on Mickey Mantle while scouting the Mets….although being the best report he could muster for any current player was “Looks like a major-leaguer.” ….to which Maris downplayed the challenge, saying, “I’m not trying to be Babe Ruth; I’m trying to hit sixty-one home runs and be Roger Maris.” This sentiment would be echoed in 1973–1974, when Hank Aaron, in pursuit of Ruth’s career home run record, said, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”
Maris had 59 home runs after the Yankees’ 154th game….and therefore failed to beat Ruth’s 60 home runs within the original season length. Maris hit his 61st home run on October 1, 1961, in the fourth inning of the last game of the season, at Yankee Stadium in front of 23,154 fans….on a pitch given up by Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard….which was caught by fan Sal Durante in the right field bleachers. No asterisk was subsequently used in any record books; Major League Baseball itself then had no official record book, and Frick later acknowledged that there never was official qualification of Maris’ accomplishment. The Guinness Book of World Records did, however, differentiate the two records as distinct and separate for a number of years. However, Maris remained bitter about the experience. Speaking at the 1980 All-Star Game, Maris said, “They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.” Despite all the controversy and criticism, Maris was awarded the 1961 Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year….and won the American League’s MVP Award for the second straight year. It is said, however, that the stress of pursuing the record was so great for Maris that his hair occasionally fell out in clumps during the season. Later, Maris even surmised that it might have been better all along had he not broken the record or even threatened it at all.
Any way you cut the pie….this is priceless footage…and we at ImaSportsphile are overjoyed to honor the awesome accomplishment of New York Yankees OF Roger Maris….when the great Yankee outfielder broke a record that many thought would never be broken….and the piece on the outstanding season that Dodgers P Sandy Koufax had in 1961….makes this video herewith simply “pure gold” in our treasure chest of memories.