The 1961 baseball season could be classified as the year of the greatest home run chase. Unlike 1998, when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were challenging the record that had been set on the last day of the 1961 season, or a few years later when McGuire’s record was broken again so quickly, the original home run chase was unique for several reasons.
- The record of 60 home runs in a single season had been held for more than 30 years by baseball legend Babe Ruth.
- Ruth had set the record as a New York Yankee, breaking his own 1921 record of 59 home runs. When he hit 60, only three American League teams (Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers) other than the Yankees hit a total of at least 50 home runs.
- The chase came from teammates who also were star Yankees. Mickey Mantle arrived during the 1951 season as a hot prospect for a team that dominated the game. He succeeded Joe DiMaggio as the Yankees star centerfielder. He also had won a Triple Crown award (league leader in batting average, home runs and runs batted in for a season). Roger Maris had been traded to the Yankees during 1959 and he had won the American League Most Valuable Player Award during 1960.
Mantle always was in the spotlight and enjoyed the fun. Maris was a quiet guy from North Dakota who was shy and introverted. When Maris broke Ruth’s record with his 61st home run on the last day of the regular season (in the newly expanded 162-game season versus Ruth’s old 154-game season), teammates had to push Maris up the steps of the dugout to take, at that time, a rare baseball curtain call for the cheering fans.
Compared to the sell-out crowds and jacked-up ticket prices to games this season as part of the farewell for star Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, only about 23,000 people attended the October 1 Sunday game when Maris hit his Ruth-breaking home run. While the home run chase had been covered in more than a dozen daily and weekly newspapers that followed New York City sports at the time, along with the hundreds of other newspapers and broadcast stations around the country, the immediacy of the Internet, ESPN SportsCenter and the MLB Network were years away. So were steroids.
The Final Month Of The HR Chase
Many Yankee fans and teammates were rooting for Mantle to set the home run record. He clearly was the all-American boy, the Yankee franchise at the time and a talent whose on-the-field star still was on the rise. Maris also was well-liked, but fans considered him an outsider who was traded to the Yankees. Not liking the media spotlight and suffering under the stress of the chase, fans openly rooted for his teammate to pull ahead.
On September 20, that all changed. Mantle was pulled from the line-up due to a hip infection caused by an ill-advised flu shot. He did not play another regular season game that year and his home run total was frozen at 54. All eyes, along with teammate and fan support, turned to Maris.
Besides the pressure of the home run chase, Maris had to face a ruling issued by baseball’s commissioner, Ford Frick, who wanted to protect the legend of his old friend Babe Ruth. Frick indicated that any record broken in more than 154 games, including if Maris passed Ruth, Major League Baseball would consider the new total as having occurred during a season that featured eight more games.
During game 154, Maris hit is 59th homer. Actually, that shot could have been his 60th to tie Ruth, but an early season game that was canceled by rain during the early innings cost him a home run. All records from that game, including the home run, had been wiped from the scorebook.
Maris eventually hit his 60th homer during game 158. He wasn’t in the lineup for game 159 but played all three games against the Boston Red Sox that ended the season at Yankee Stadium.
The chase then came down to the final day of the season. Maris made an out during his first plate appearance. Then, during his second turn at bat, he lined a 2-0 pitch from Tracy Stallard into the lower right field stands. To this day, the excitement of the moment that was captured on the New York City broadcast of the game can be heard in the voice of former Yankee star shortstop and then broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. “Holy Cow!”
Maris Honored 23 Years Later
On July 21, 1984, after years of refusing to visit Yankee Stadium and feeling that the fans did not appreciate his 61 in ’61, Maris returned to a hero’s welcome at The Bronx baseball cathedral.
The Yankees retired Maris’ uniform number (9) during an Old-Timer’s Day celebration. A plaque presented to Maris was placed in Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium. Today, it can be found in Monument Park in the current Yankee Stadium. It reads —
Roger Eugene Maris, “Against All Odds” — In 1961 he became the only player to hit more than 60 home runs in a single season. In belated recognition of one of the baseball’s greatest achievements ever, his 61 in ’61. The Yankees salute him as a great player and as author of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of major league baseball.