It was 51 years ago today that a potent Yankee team won a crucial game against a very close second-place AL rival to spark a winning streak that guided them to the title. Let's see the 2012 Yankees do that today against the Orioles.
A common misconception emerged over the years about the 1961 New York Yankees--the idea that because they were so dominant, they had no problems winning the American League pennant. They finished one win shy of the legendary 1927 Yankees' then-franchise record of 110 victories and through the efforts of the "M&M Boys," Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, they became one of the baseball's greatest teams. While other dominant teams like the '27, '39, and '98 Yankees romped to the top of the division though, the '61 group spent the majority of the season fending off the dangerous Detroit Tigers. The Yankees never had sole possession of first place until July 7th and through the end of August, the biggest lead they had on the Tigers was four games. In any other year, that Tigers team would have won the AL pennant with ease since they won 101 games, but they finished eight games behind the Yankees. Despite the deficit, they stayed close with the Yankees until early September, and this September 1st matchup was the first of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium between the two teams that would help decide the race.
The Tigers were just a game and a half behind the Yanks entering the series, so a sweep would put them in first place. Whitey Ford took the hill for the Yankees in the middle of a Cy Young Award-winning season, wherein he regularly pitched every four days for the first time. New manager Ralph Houk gave Ford this freedom that he never enjoyed under Casey Stengel, and he rewarded the team with 25 wins and a 3.21 ERA in a career-high 283 innings. At the time, the Cy Young Award was only given to one pitcher throughout baseball, making the prize even more prestigious. Lefthander Don "The Sphinx" Mossi started for the Tigers, and he was having a fine season himself with a team-leading 2.96 ERA in 240.1 innings at a more difficult park for a pitcher to succeed, Tiger Stadium. In fact, his 139 ERA+ was much better than Ford's 115--the wins and innings were undoubtedly the deciding factors in Ford's favor. The largest Yankee Stadium crowd of the season, 65,566, watched as both pitchers stayed on top of their game in this pivotal showdown.
Ford gave up a two-out triple to future Hall of Famer Al Kaline in the first inning, but stood his ground with 45-home run hitter Rocky Colavito at the plate, getting him to harmlessly ground out to shortstop Tony Kubek. Through four innings, Mossi allowed the Yankees just one hit, a single in the first by Kubek. Mossi was not intimidated by this Yankees lineup that set a record that lasted 35 years with 240 home runs. Ford matched him with shutout baseball of his own, but with two outs in the fifth inning, Ford abruptly left the game with a strained hip muscle. Now was the Tigers' chance--the Yankees' best pitcher was out of the game and though reliever Bud Daley was no slouch, he was hardly Ford. Daley got the last out anyway, and the Yankees finally got their first man into scoring position against Mossi with two outs in the fifth. Yogi Berra singled with one out and moved to second on a very deep fly ball to center field; however, Mossi intentionally walked third baseman Clete Boyer to pitch to Daley, and the pitcher grounded out.
Kaline hit a one-out single in the sixth and moved to second on a passed ball by normally reliable catcher Elston Howard. Daley faced his first test with Colavito at the plate, and he got the left fielder to ground out. He walked first baseman Norm Cash, a 41-homer hitter himself, then induced a force at second from third baseman Steve Boros. A leadoff single against Mossi was wasted in the sixth when Kubek flew out to right and Maris grounded into a double play. The scoreless game moved to eighth, and a one-out walk to Bruton brought Kaline to the plate against Daley. The right fielder slapped a hit down the right field line, then made the turn to second base. Berra was in left that day, and he made the play of the day by playing the carom off the fence perfectly and firing to second base to snuff out Kaline. His manager Houk later said, "Yogi's throw saved the game." With Bruton on third and two outs now, the southpaw Daley intentionally walked the righty Colavito to face the lefty Cash, and Cash fouled out to Howard behind the plate.
Another opportunity to score off Mossi went by the wayside in the bottom of the eighth when Boyer failed to advance at all after a leadoff double. Pinch-hitter Hector Lopez, Bobby Richardson, and Kubek went down in order. With much appreciation for Daley's 3.1 inning scoreless relief, the Yankees turned to closer Luis Arroyo in the ninth inning of a scoreless tie at home (modern-day managers should take notes). The Puerto Rican lefty was quite the weapon out of the bullpen for the Yankees, as he pitched to a 2.19 ERA and 169 ERA+ with 29 saves in 119 innings. He sent the Tigers down 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, giving the Yankee hitters a chance to win the game in their last at bat.
Yankees first baseman Bill "Moose" Skowron had a promise to keep. When Arroyo entered the game, Skowron told him, "If you hold them this inning, Looie, I'll drive in the winning run." It did not appear as though Skowron would be able to though since Maris and Mantle were both retired to begin the frame. Mossi had now pitched 8.2 shutout innings of five-hit ball, an incredibly impressive feat considering the power of the Yankees' lineup. Suddenly, his performance began to unravel. Howard and Berra lined back-to-back singles with two outs, and the winning run was at third base for Skowron. Arroyo turned to Skowron and told him, "Here's your chance." Sure enough, Mossi hung a curveball to Skowron a little higher than intended on the inside part of the plate, and Moose beat Mossi by grounding a single to left field to score Howard and win the game 1-0.
The Yankees now held a 2.5 game lead on the Tigers as Mossi groaned about his "stinking" curveball, saying, "I never pitched a better game. The only bad pitch I made was the one Skowron hit." Houk said with relief, "This was the toughest game of the year for us. It was a battle between two hard-nosed clubs, each refusing to give an inch." The Yankees went on to sweep the Tigers in that series and in fact won a season-high 13 games in a row. By the time the streak ended with a loss to the White Sox in Chicago, their lead over Detroit was 10.5 games with 14 to go. The pennant was theirs for the taking.