My knowledge of Mickey Mantle’s achievements and feats are limited to my reading, photos and some videos I’ve seen online, plus seeing his jaw-dropping stats, and I am in awe. I can only imagine what those who watched him play in his prime would feel. I wish I could have seen him play.
One of my favorite books is called Sluggers: History’s Heaviest Hitters, and the authors write that Mantle was “the greatest player on the greatest team in the nation’s biggest city, the true successor to Yankee legends Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.”
And then there was Roger Maris. Unlike Mantle, he wasn’t built for the spotlight. He was a private, quiet man that didn’t enjoy any minute of the pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in one season.
Maris wasn’t Ruth... but who was?
The previously mentioned book said that Maris’ problem was, well, that he wasn’t Babe Ruth. “But who ever was? During his assault on the Ruthian 60-homer record in 1961, Maris was tortured. The effort of the feat was shoved aside by critics who claimed he was lazy, surly, and arrogant.”
He wasn’t Ruth, and that’s fair. He wasn’t even Mantle. But Maris sure didn’t deserve the treatment he got. He was a talented slugger himself: in the previous season, he belted 39 home runs and drove in 112 runs to claim the American League’s MVP trophy.
During the season, Maris felt the pressure at nearly all times. His hair began falling out in clumps, and he said afterwards that “as a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual I doubt if I could possibly go through it again.”
My personal observation, having read their story, is that Yankees fans at the time, and the baseball industry in general, would have been happy if Mantle was the man who broke Ruth’s record instead of Maris. He was the face of the franchise. And he was close, too: he hit 54 home runs in 1961. He was on pace to surpass Ruth, as well, but he suffered a flu infection in September and went to an unconventionally eccentric doctor who injected him with something unusual in his hip. His side abscessed, and he missed his chance to pursue the record.
Recovering the pace
Maris was batting at a very slow pace in May, having hit only three home runs with a .218 average. Fans were already being hard on him, but as the story goes, Yankees president Dan Topping told the slugger not to worry about his average and people’s boos, and instead focus on hitting homers. It paid off — by the end of May, he was at 12 round-trippers. By the end of June, he had 27.
After successful months in July and August, he got to September with 51 home runs, and he hit a couple more on September 2 to reach 53. By that date, Mantle was still playing and had 50 of his own. The race was on.
After 153 games, Maris had 58 home runs despite suffering from insomnia and nightmares. To get to Ruth’s record without an asterisk (the 1961 was the first with 162 games) he needed to hit at least two on that 154th game. He only hit one, but the season wasn’t over. He still had a chance to tie or surpass the record with an asterisk next to it.
Maris hit his 60th long ball in the season’s 159th game. By that point, New York’s pressure-cooker had worn him down. He took a game off and went shopping in Manhattan with his wife to decompress. And it worked. He later said, according to Sluggers: History’s Heaviest Hitters, that it was the most relaxing day of the season.
It was over, at last!
Maris hit his 61st home run in the final game of the season against the Red Sox, in Yankee Stadium. He practically had to be forced out by his teammates for a curtain call. It was a sad development that the new home run king — he wasn’t dethroned until 1998 — couldn’t even enjoy his achievement the way he should have.
That season, Maris won his second straight MVP award and had a .269 average with 61 homers and 142 RBI. His 132 runs also led the league.
Maris and Mantle were actually friends. They shared an apartment in Queens and were roommates on the road. During the pursuit of the record, the two sluggers had a friendly rivalry. It was a physically painful road for both players, but the journey created a tight bond for the pair of teammates.
Thankfully, Mark McGwire — the man who broke Maris’ record in 1998 — had a warm spot for his family when he did it. Soon after hitting number 62, he went to the stands and embraced with Maris’ family in one unforgettable hug. Big Mac later said, “I told them that their father was in my heart.”