Monday, October 01, 2018


A Roger Maris 1959 Topps baseball card. Yes, it's mine.
It's October 1.

There are numerous ways that I can think of today. Some aren't pretty.

I'll always think of Roger Eugene Maris. The pride of Fargo, North Dakota (long before Frances McDormand), Roger was a baseball and football star who made good. He met his wife Pat there, and wanted to be the best ballplayer he could be.

Raj would make the Cleveland Indians in 1957 before being traded to the Kansas City A's in 1958.

In December 1959, Maris was traded to the New York Yankees, and his life would never be the same.

Maris bloomed into a full-blown star in 1960, hitting 39 home runs, winning the American League MVP and leading the star-laden Bronx Bombers to the World Series, where they would lose in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs won the title on a ninth inning home run in Game 7 by Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.

With manager Casey Stengel jettisoned at the age of 70 following 1960, Maris, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Blanchard, Elston Howard, Bill "Moose" Skowron, and Yogi Berra led a barrage of home runs as the Bombers launched 240 in 1961. New manager Ralph Houk used ace Whitey Ford to perfection, and "The Chairman of the Board" responded with a 25-4 Cy Young-winning year.

The Yankees would win 109 games and steamroll the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Honestly, that was an afterthought.

This year was all about 61 in '61.

Mantle, the golden boy in his tenth year in New York, hit 54 home runs in that magical year, and was seen as the popular choice to break the mythical record of 60, established by one Mr. George Herman Ruth in 1927.

Maris, the quiet guy from Fargo -- the man whose hair would fall out as the pressure increased -- the man so unlikely to break the record of Babe Ruth, did just that.
"I don't want to be Babe Ruth. He was a great ballplayer. I'm not trying to replace him. The record is there and damn right I want to break it, but that isn't replacing Babe Ruth."
Maris answered every question that year (and after) but he wasn't glib. He was a largely simple midwestern man. Mantle, Ford, and other Yankees were more fit for that life.

Roger, somehow, made it work.

Even the commissioner, Ford Frick, was anti-Maris. Frick (yes, the very same man who the Hall of Fame broadcasting excellence award is named after) was a ghostwriter for -- wait for it -- Ruth. Thus, the commissioner set the rule that if Maris (or anyone else) didn't reach 61 home runs within 154 games (the number that Ruth set the record in), then it would exist in a separate category.

That's where the mythical asterisk came in (which never truly existed). To that extent, Billy Crystal made a movie about it.

(Damn good movie by the way. Historical inaccuracies aside, the film is gorgeous.)

Mantle would fade due to an injury in September, leaving Roger to carry the torch. Rumors existed that the two feuded through '61, though that was false.

Maris missed the magic 61 in 154 games, but tied the record with his 60th on September 26th against Jack Fisher of the Orioles. The great Mel Allen, once and forever "The Voice of the Yankees" was on the call.

That brings us to October 1. It was the last day of the season.

A mere 23,154 fans were at cavernous Yankee Stadium on that Sunday afternoon. It was 71 degrees, and most fans filed into the right field seats, hoping to catch the magic 61st home run. Sam Gordon, a restauranteur from Sacramento, CA offered $5,000 to the fan who secured the magic ball.

Sal Durante, a truck driver from Staten Island, was the lucky man. Mr. Durante, who attended the game with his fiancee, paid $2.50 for his ticket.

The Yankees broadcast was carried, as always, on WPIX TV (channel 11) with Red Barber (mentor of one Vincent Edward Scully) on the call. Yankees legend Phil Rizzuto -- the 1950 MVP and former shortstop -- was on the radio side on WCBS (880).

The opponent? The Boston Red Sox, on their way to finishing 76-86 and drawing under 900,000 fans to Fenway Park. Tracy Stallard, a 23-year-old who would lost 20 games with the Mets in 1964, was the pitcher.

The final score was 1-0. Obviously the Yankees won, and won on the 61st home run hit by Roger Eugene Maris.

YouTube user "YankeesAtShea" paired the WPIX video with the famous radio call by Rizzuto.

The full radio broadcast is here. Barber, who seems to not be as regarded as he should be in this era, has his call here, where Allen joins him (color analysts weren't as prominent). To be sure, Red was a stern taskmaster, and his call, while exciting, lacks the elation of Rizzuto. Still, it's the basic difference between a TV and radio call.

On a personal level, it's one of my favorite Yankees/baseball history moments. Maris was horribly underrated, known primarily for the 61 home runs. Obviously that was a lofty number that he would never come close to approaching again. Roger would "only" hit 33 in 1962, leading the Yankees to a second-straight Series title (part of a run of five-straight appearances in the Fall Classic).

Maris was a brilliant defender, extraordinary baserunner, and fine hitter. Things came together for him in 1961, as he took advantage of hitting in front of Mantle, as well as substandard pitching.

Still, fans were horrible to Maris, as he could never live up to 61 in '61.

Maris would head to St. Louis following 1965, where he was a part of two appearances for the Cardinals in the World Series, winning it all in 1967.

It was there where Maris rediscovered his love of baseball, before retiring after 1968. He would run a beer distributorship in Gainesville, Fl (a byproduct of him playing for the Cardinals, owned by the Busch family).

Thanks to George Steinbrenner, Maris would return to the Yankees family in the late 1970s, appearing at Old Timers Day and other ceremonial moments. Steinbrenner retired his number nine in 1984.

Just over a year later, Maris died of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma on December 14, 1985.

He was only 51.