Sixty years ago yesterday, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season. Here’s looking back on that season and day, which went down in history as one of the great Yankee moments of all time.
In 1927, the Great Bambino, Babe Ruth set an MLB record with 60 home runs during a season that consisted of 154 games. It was a record that went unchallenged for 34 years until the Yankees fielded two players who would later go down in history as two of the greats: the M&M boys, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
Mantle joined the Yankees in 1951 and was joined by Maris in 1960. Rather different in demeanor, Mantle was gregarious, while Maris was more reserved. Still, the two were powerhouses and pillars of the team. Just the season before, Mantle hit 40 home runs, while Maris followed with 39. That same year, Maris won the American League Most Valuable Player Award vote with 67 percent of the vote. Mantle finished second, with 66 percent.
The ‘61 season started off with a bang for the Mick, who hit a total of 25 homers over the course of May and June. Over the same period of time, Maris slugged a total of 26.
At this point in the season, Ruth’s longtime friend and Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, deemed that unless the record was beaten within 154 games, an asterisk must be placed next to the new statistic. This placed even more pressure on Maris and Mantle, who overtook each other as home run leaders multiple times over the course of the year. As a favorite amongst the fans, Mantle received most of the support during this inter-team competition, especially as the two crept closer to the 60 home run mark.
Even so, at the beginning of September, Maris was in the lead with 56 to Mantle’s 53. At this point, Mantle was forced to withdraw from the running and the rest of the season due to an infection in his hip. Left to pursue the Babe on his own, Maris went into the 154th game of the season against the Baltimore Orioles with 58 home runs. After hitting an additional homer that game, he was still two short of 61 and would not pass Ruth in the number of games allotted by Frick.
Due to Frick’s statements, the Yankees’ relative nonchalance regarding the chase, and perhaps Maris’ own introversion, only 23,154 people were in attendance on October 1, 1961 as the club faced off against the Boston Red Sox for the final game of the ‘61 season. In the fourth inning and during his second at-bat, Roger faced off against Tracy Stallard. Maris laid off the first pitch, a fastball outside, as well as the second pitch, a ball low. Finally, he turned on the third and sent it all the way to the right-field stands:
Rounding the bases with his head down, Maris shook hands with teammates and returned to the dugout, only to be pushed out for an extended curtain call.
Out in the stands, Sal Durante caught the record-breaking ball. Though he offered to return it to the new home run king, Maris declined and recommended he sell it for some extra money. Durante sold the ball to a restauranteur for $5,000, who promptly returned the ball to Roger. Just 12 years later, he donated the ball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
While Maris was never elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Yankees retired No. 9 in his honor. Although his 61 home runs stood in the record books with an asterisk next to it for years, Fay Vincent, the commissioner in 1991, finally ruled that there should not be any delineation next to the record. As a result, the mark was removed.
After that day in 1961, Maris’ record stood for 37 years until 1998, Mark McGwire hit an astonishing 70 bombs. Even still, Roger Maris stands out in Yankees lore as an inimitable, stoic, yet god-like figure.
Decades later, Durante has rich memories of Maris. ESPN.com. (2021). Retrieved 2 October 2021, from http://www.espn.com/espn/wire?section=mlb&id=6113612.
Roger Maris Stats. Baseball-Reference.com. (2021). Retrieved 2 October 2021, from https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/marisro01.shtml.