New York Yankees right fielder Roger Maris was the Alex Rodriguez to Mickey Mantle's Derek Jeter 43 years before the big trade that brought A-Rod to New York. Like A-Rod, he was booed by the New York crowd simply for doing his job better than the already-established icon.
Maris's treatment at home got worse in 1961 as he bore down on the legendary single-season home run record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. After hitting his 60th homer, Ruth exclaimed, "60 Count 'em, 60! Let's see some son of a bitch try to top that one." That "son of a bitch" turned out to be Maris, a quiet unassuming fellow from North Dakota that took a strong liking to the right field short porch at Yankee Stadium, just like Ruth did. His lefthanded swing was perfectly suited to Yankee Stadium, and he belted 39 homers in his first season as a Yankee, 1960. Maris won the American League MVP and the Yankees won the pennant, though they lost the World Series. The next season turned out to be much more interesting though. Maris and Mantle, the "M&M Boys" made runs at Ruth's record in '61; entering September, Maris had 51 homers and Mantle had 48. Meanwhile, the Yankees romped in the AL, utilizing the power of the long ball to win 109 games on their way to the pennant. They hit 240 homers as a team, a record that stood for over 40 years.
The media and fans once decried Mantle for his perceived inferiority to predecessor Joe DiMaggio, but they came to Mantle's side as Maris threatened the home run record. People figured that if Ruth's record was to be passed, it was better for a homegrown Yankee veteran to do it rather than an import from the Kansas City Athletics (even if he was the defending AL MVP). Nonetheless, Mantle suffered a hip abscess from a bad shot that got infected, and he was out of the race despite a career-high 54 homers. Commissioner Ford Frick, Ruth's former ghostwriter, ruled that due to the expanded 162-game season, Maris's record would not be considered legitimate if he did not break it within 154 games (the old schedule that Ruth played under). Maris failed to do, though he did hit his 59th homer in his 154th game against Milt Pappas of the Baltimore Orioles on September 20th.
Maris faced those very same Orioles six days later still seeking number 60. In his first at bat, he lined a two-out single to center field. While good for the team, it was no homer. Mantle played his last game of the season that day, walking after Maris's single before being pinch-run for by Hector Lopez. Yogi Berra flew out to left field to end the inning. The Orioles were no slouch team; they had been in close competition for the pennant a year before, and they won 95 games in '61, albeit a mark 13.5 games behind the mighty Yankees. Facing Yankees starter Bud Daley, they loaded the bases with two outs for their young All-Star third base phenom, Brooks Robinson. He slapped a base hit to right field, scoring two runs to give Baltimore a 2-0 lead.
An inning later, Orioles starter Jack Fisher got two outs before Maris stepped to the plate again. Fisher had not allowed a hit to the potent Yankees lineup since Maris's first inning single. The right fielder took the count to 2-2, then lined up a Fisher pitch and crushed hit. The high, majestic drive was one of Maris's longest clouts of the year, and it bounced off a seat in the right field upper deck. Ruth now had company in the 60-home run club. There were no fights for the ball as it caromed back to the field and right fielder Earl Robinson passed it on to Maris in the Yankees' dugout. The crowd then embraced Maris, calling on him to come out for a rare standing ovation. "This is most unusual! They are asking him to come out of the dugout! Now this is something." remarked broadcaster Mel Allen on the telecast. Reluctantly, Maris briefly came out to doff his cap to the surprisingly sparse crowd of 19,401.
Although all anyone wanted to talk about after the game was Maris's homer, the Yankees went on to win the game. They still trailed 2-1 after Maris's homer, but back-to-back leadoff walks in the sixth inning turned into the game-tying run when catcher Johnny Blanchard grounded a single to right field, scoring Lopez. The Yankees took the lead an inning later when second baseman Billy Gardner and 22-year-old rookie shortstop Tom Tresh both singled and Orioles center fielder Jackie Brandt muffed a fly ball, allowing Gardner to score. Tresh's hit was the first of 1,041 he would have in a nine-year career spent mostly with the Yankees. In Maris's final two trips to the plate, he lifted two more fly balls to right field, but both easily settled into Robinson's glove. It would be a few more days before Maris broke the record.
Roger Maris became one of only two AL players in the 60-home run club 51 years ago today.