Sixty years ago, Americans were captivated by objects in orbit. The space race between the United States and Soviet Union was heating up as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to circle the earth and astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to journey into outer space.
And while President John F. Kennedy was telling the world our goal was to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, two muscular men in New York Yankee pinstripes were launching baseballs over outfield walls across the land at a prolific pace never witnessed before.
The great home run chase of 1961 between Bronx Bombers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle — and the ghost of late Yankee slugger Babe Ruth — became so enthralling that even non-baseball fans took notice. The “M&M Boys” were pictured on the cover of Life magazine, made appearances on prime-time television shows, and were asked to play themselves in the movie “That Touch of Mink,” starring Doris Day and Cary Grant. News organizations from England and Japan sent reporters to chronicle this very American sports phenomenon, and legendary television anchor Walter Cronkite provided nightly updates of Mantle and Maris on the CBS Evening News.
“It really was a transcendent event,’’ said Tony Kubek, an All-Star shortstop on that team who would later enjoy a long run as an award-winning baseball broadcaster. “As the summer progressed and it became apparent that one or both of them were going to break Babe’s single-season home run record, people couldn’t wait to grab the morning paper to see if Mickey or Roger had added to their totals.”
And like any great drama it gripped you to the very end.
At exactly 2:43 the afternoon of Oct. 1 in the final game of the ’61 season, the story achieved a Hollywood climax as Maris smashed home run No. 61 into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium to eclipse by one the most hallowed record in all of sports. Kubek was in the dugout with his teammates, and the scene remains vivid all these decades later.
“Unlike Mickey or Ruth, who hit these high-soaring, majestic home runs, Roger tended to be a line-drive hitter,’’ Kubek recalled. “So, when he hit it, you didn’t know if it was going to wind up being a single to right just over the second-baseman’s head or if it was going to rise and sail over the fence. It wasn’t until you got off the bench and onto that first step of the dugout that you realized Rog had gotten all of this one and it was going to carry into the seats.
“While he rounded the bases, you felt so proud of him because we had witnessed first-hand the incredible pressure he had endured. The thing I’ll remember most is that after he touched third and began heading for home, our third base coach, Frank Crosetti, shook his hand and slapped him on the back. Now, Frank never did that before with anyone. He would clap, of course, when one of us hit a homer, but that was usually the extent of it. But this was such a historic moment that he couldn’t resist doing more.
“And the thing that’s really neat about that gesture is that Crosetti had been a teammate of Ruth’s back in 1927 when the Babe set the original record. And Crosetti had been a Yankee ever since. So, he was the thread connecting the two. History had come full circle.”
And Maris felt a great sense of accomplishment — and relief.
“I couldn’t even think as I went around the bases,’’ he recounted after depositing a 2-0 pitch from Boston Red Sox starter Tracy Stallard eight rows beyond the right field wall. “I couldn’t tell you what crossed my mind. I don’t think anything did. I was in a fog. I was all fogged out from a very, very hectic season and an extremely difficult month.”
It clearly had been a tale of two seasons — the best and worst of times for Roger Eugene Maris, who died 36 years ago at age 51.
The shy, taciturn slugger from Fargo, N.D. had never wanted to be a Yankee in the first place. It didn’t matter to him that they were perennial World Series participants or that the Big Ballpark in the Bronx featured a short right-field porch tailor-made for his home run swing. The introverted Maris would have been content to remain with the Kansas City Athletics for the remainder of his career, but the Yankees were in need of a left-handed power-hitter to add the finishing touches to what would become one of the finest teams in baseball annals.
So, after the 1959 season, they traded a boatload of players, including World Series perfecto pitcher Don Larsen, to the A’s in exchange for Maris. These were the days before free agency, leaving the 26-year-old right fielder with just two options: play in New York or don’t play at all.
Reluctantly, he signed with the Yankees and wound up winning the American League MVP after batting .283 with 39 homers and 112 RBI in 1960. On his way to St. Petersburg, Fla. the following spring, his car broke down and there was concern his wife, Pat, had suffered a miscarriage. Those fears were allayed, but the strain of the ordeal may have contributed to Maris’ slow start in ’61.
In mid-May, Yankee President Dan Topping called him into his office. Maris was batting only .210 at the time with just four home runs, and the Yankees were only two games above .500, already trailing Detroit by five games. Maris figured he was going to be traded, but that wasn’t the case at all. Topping told him to settle down, to swing for the fences and not worry about his average.
Relieved to learn he wouldn’t be sent packing for the third time in four years, and batting third in the order, just in front of Mantle, Maris went on a tear. He clubbed seven homers in May and 15 more in June to raise his total to 27, putting him slightly ahead of Ruth and two in front of Mantle.
“Watching those two was like watching two thoroughbreds go neck and neck,’’ said the late Clete Boyer, the Yankees third baseman that season. “Roger would hit one, then Mickey would hit two. Then Roger would hit two and Mickey would hit one. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to watch those guys play their own game of home run derby.”
Several times that season, the M&M Boys homered back to back, prompting Yankee catcher Yogi Berra’s humorous “It’s déjà vu all over again” line.
But what should have been the most enjoyable season of Maris’ career wound up being the most stressful year of his life. Not only was he forced to battle AL pitchers, but also the commissioner of baseball and many sportswriters and fans who appeared to be rooting against him from that moment in late June when it appeared he and Mantle had a legitimate shot at the record.
The league had added eight games to the schedule that season to accommodate two expansion teams. This prompted Commissioner Ford Frick, Ruth’s former ghostwriter and friend, to decree in July that the Babe’s record would have to be broken in 154 games or else there would be two marks listed in the record book. Widely syndicated New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote that an “asterisk” would be used to distinguish a new record.
As the race gained steam, more and more fans and writers began siding with Mantle because he had been with the team for a decade, as opposed to Maris, who wasn’t perceived as a “true Yankee” because he was in just his second season in the Bronx. The media entourage covering the team swelled to nearly 100 reporters by the start of September, and the competition for exclusive stories became fierce. This led to erroneous reporting, including fabricated stories that the M&M Boys couldn’t stand one another.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth,’’ said Boyer. “Mickey and Roger became the best of friends. Why would they have lived together (in an apartment in Queens) if they didn’t like one another? I mean, come on.”
Mantle, who had felt the wrath of fans and sportswriters for much of his career, did his best to help Maris deal with the intense pressure. Near the end of the chase, Maris actually began losing clumps of hair because of all the stress.
“I’m going nuts, Mick,’’ he confided after one game. “I can’t stand much more of this.” The Yankees centerfielder put his arm around Maris’ shoulder and said: “You’ll just have to learn to take it, Rog. There’s no escape. You can do this.”
A hip infection took Mantle out of the race in mid-September, and although Maris didn’t break the record in 154 games, he did do it on the last day of the regular season, in front of a crowd of 23,154 fans, many of who crammed into the lower right-field stands.
Maris’ record lasted 37 years, three years longer than Ruth’s mark. Mark McGwire established a new record of 70 in 1998. And three years later, Barry Bonds extended the record to 73. But many believe those numbers, along with Sammy Sosa’s seasons of 66, 63 and 64 homers, are tainted because they occurred during baseball’s steroid era.
Regardless of what the record book says, Kubek will always look back on that summer fondly.
“I had a front-row seat for one of the greatest seasons and moments in baseball history,’’ he said. “It was truly unforgettable.”
Nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the author of more than 25 books, including the recently published, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” available in paperback and Kindle at amazon.com.