The 1961 Yankees have a place among the most legendary teams in baseball history. Growing up there was a VHS tape in our house that my brothers and I watched on a fairly regular basis titled Pinstripe Power: The Story of the 1961 Yankees. Recently I found the 49 minute documentary about that legendary team on YouTube, and could not help but take a look.
The documentary is a blend of interviews with some of the key players from the 1961 team along with the highlights of the season. Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Moose Skowron, Johnny Blanchard, Clete Boyer and the team’s manager Ralph Houk all were interviewed in the 1980’s when the piece was put together. Another great part is listening to the play-by-play calls from Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto, Red Barber, Bob Wold and Waite Hoyt. Watching the clips of this team and their all time greats is enhanced by hearing the actual calls from the game.
The story of this team begins with the dismissal of Casey Stengel after the 1960 season. There is footage of Stengel’s press conference, where he describes the reasons for his dismissal.
Bobby Richardson and several others interviewed did not seem sad to see Casey go. He said about Casey that “He got the most out of you, but he did it in a way you didn’t appreciate, Ralph Houk was the opposite.” Richardson and Kubek emphasized how much they enjoyed playing in Houk’s more set lineups where they knew they would be penciled in up the middle everyday.
In a similar manner, Whitey Ford was excited to find out that he was going to be pitching every fourth day in 1961, rather than pitching on the days that Casey would choose. Whitey found out during a basketball game at Madison Square Garden when he happened to run into Ralph Houk shortly after the manager was hired. That decision helped Whitey win 20 games for the first time, and earn his only Cy Young award.
The team had Hall-of-Fame players Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, and also featured the 1960 MVP in Roger Maris. Somehow, this talented group produced the worst spring training record in baseball and was just 17-15 after 32 games, leading some to question if Houk was the right man to lead the team.
After that point the team turned it on in a big way, with the story becoming the M&M boys and their assault on Babe Ruth’s record. An interesting highlight from the season shows just what Mickey, a switch hitter, and other right handed hitters were up against, as he hit a home run in Yankee Stadium over a 402 feet sign in left field.
In a discussion that could be pulled from more modern times, an interview with Roger Maris shows him discussing how he has traded points on his batting average for more home runs and RBI. Other clips are shown that demonstrate the repetitive nature of the press corps questions to Maris as he began to approach Babe Ruth’s record. Johnny Blanchard said that members of the media crush would be inside his locker asking questions through the wire mesh to Maris in the next locker over.
The catching trio of Elston Howard, Yogi Berra and Jonny Blanchard was amazing in 1961. Elston saw the most action behind the plate and was leading the league in hitting at the All-Star break. He finished with a .348 average and was 10th in the MVP voting. All three catchers saw time at other positions, and between them they hit 60 home runs on the season.
Houk spoke about how he had one or two of these guys on the bench, and could always send up a big bat to pinch hit during the season. The team produced a 0.9 bWAR as pinch hitters on the season, when no other team in the league had a positive bWAR from that role.
For most of the season the Yankees battled the Detroit Tigers, led by their star player Al Kaline. It was not until an early September sweep in Yankee Stadium that the Yankees pulled away and locked up the American League. By the middle of the month they had grown their lead to 11 games before Mickey Mantle suffered an infection in his leg that ended his season at 54 home runs.
One player who is relatively unknown in Yankees history, but gets a tremendous amount of respect in this documentary is pitcher Luis Arroyo. Arroyo came out the bullpen and threw 119 innings while going 15-5 and finished sixth in the MVP voting. If saves had been a stat at the time he would have had 29. Ralph Houk, talking many years later, says that Arroyo made him feel that a guy who can close out games late is more valuable than a 20 game winner.
Throughout the piece, the producers splice in the current events of 1961 like John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space. These segments are quick and help the story transition to the next phase.
The regular season story culminates with Roger Maris hitting his 61st home run. The Yankees went on to win the World Series over the Cincinnati Reds and their star Frank Robinson in five games. During the series Mantle was limited, and when he did play he was bleeding through his uniform due to the infected leg. Whitey dazzled as he broke Babe Ruth’s consecutive shut out innings streak on the way to two victories and a World Series MVP.
The 1961 Yankees were a legendary team finishing 109-53, and won the World Series. Five members of that team finished in the top-10 of MVP voting, including Maris and Mantle finishing first and second. Pinstripe Power: The Story of The 1961 Yankees is a fun way to learn about one of the best teams in baseball history from some of the key people involved.