#1 Greatest HR in Yankee History
Roger Maris | #61 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 10/1/1961
There have been a myriad important home runs hit in the history of the New York Yankees, but none was as scrutinized or controversial as Roger Maris’ 61st long ball of 1961.
Maris was the outsider. The shy Minnesotan came to the Yankees in 1959 from Kansas City and was never fully accepted in New York. The media found him unapproachable and surly and the Bronx faithful did not consider him a “true Yankee.” Despite winning the 1960 American League MVP award, he was seen as merely a hired gun in Mickey Mantle‘s town.
Before the start of the season the American League expanded from 8 to 10 teams and the schedule was extended from 154 to 162 games, leaving some to ponder whether Babe Ruth‘s single-season home run record was in danger of being eclipsed. On January 23rd Maris weighed in on the debate, telling an Associated Press reporter, “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.”
Maris’ prediction appeared accurate after he finished the first month of the season with a single home run, coming off of Detroit’s Paul Foytack on April 26th. But by the end of May he had 12 and after 15 long balls in June and another 13 in July he had 40 by the beginning of August.
As Maris continued his assault on baseball’s most hallowed number, he was assailed on all sides. Ruth was a revered icon and Mantle was a living hero and a lifetime Yankee, and it was apparent in the media that if anyone was going to shatter the Babe’s untouchable 60 it should be The Mick. Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame Cardinal, himself lamented, “It would be a disappointment if Ruth’s home run record were bested by a .270 hitter.” As if Maris wasn’t under enough pressure, MLB Commissioner Ford Frick controversially stated in July that if Maris did not break Ruth’s record in 154 games, the same number that the Bambino was afforded, the record would be illegitimate. As a result an asterisk would be attached to Maris’ 61 for nearly 30 years.
Maris struggled under the bright lights. For a man who, in his own words, wanted to simply “be a good ball player and hit twenty-five or thirty homers, drive in a hundred runs, hit .280 and help my club win pennants,” encroaching on a sacred record was more than he ever desired. He would later recall in 1977, “Every day I went to the ballpark in Yankee Stadium as well as on the road people were on my back. The last six years in the American League were mental hell for me. I was drained of all my desire to play baseball.” It was the tragedy of one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history.
Amid all of the attention and vitriol, in the wake of losing his hair from the stress, the batter’s box became Maris’ stillpoint in a frenetic world. His teammate Tony Kubek recalled a moment in Detroit on September 17th when Maris seemed at peace in the whirlwind. He remembered Maris stepping out of the box against Terry Fox and gazing up at a flock of Canadian geese as they soared above the right-field roof for an inordinate length of time. When he stepped back in and cracked his 58th home run of the year. “He always said, the only peace he ever got that year was when he was at the plate,” said Kubek.
The 154th game came and went and Frick’s unwarranted ruling robbed Maris and the fans of some of the magic in the days that followed. On September 26th Maris tied Ruth with his 60th, but went without a long ball over the next 3 games, leaving one game left in the regular season.
The Boston Red Sox were in town for their final series of a disappointing season. The Yankees had already clinched the pennant and their rivals to the north were 32 games behind them, meaning the only drama on October 1st was whether or not Maris would eclipse the Sultan of Swat. His moment came in the 4th inning off of Tracy Stallard when he blasted one of the most historic home runs in baseball history into the seats in right field, providing the only run in a 1-0 victory.
During a season in which he often felt like he was doing something wrong, in which sportswriters acted like he was poisoning the record book, Roger Maris displayed incredible courage and fortitude in accomplishing a transcendent feat that will forever be remembered.
As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again.
| Roger Maris, when asked if he would do it all over again |