The Yankees headed into 1961 coming off the disappointment of losing the 1960 World Series in devastating walk-off fashion. They had seemingly dominated on the field in that Fall Classic, but the Pirates hung tough and outlasted them in Game 7 on the bat of Bill Mazeroski.
Yankees owners Dan Topping and Del Webb then implemented a mandatory retirement age as a way to move on from long-time manager Casey Stengel. In the Ol’ Perfesser’s place stepped former Yankees third-string catcher Ralph Houk, who had become minor league manager and assistant coach ahead of 1961. What followed was one of the most legendary seasons in baseball history as the team’s outfielders chased history.
Regular Season Record: 109-53-1
Manager: Ralph Houk
Top Hitter by WAR: Mickey Mantle (10.4)
Top Pitcher by WAR: Whitey Ford (3.7)
World Series: Yankees defeat Cincinnati Reds, 4-1
Coming off an MVP season in 1960, there was a lot of pressure on Roger Maris to follow up his debut campaign in the Bronx. Maris started slow, hitting his first home run in the 10th game of the season on April 24th. In that same game, Mantle went deep twice, giving him seven home runs quickly out of the gate. Mantle’s fast start immediately started the conversation about whether 1961 would be the season that Babe Ruth’s home run record would finally fall after 34 years.
After hitting his first home run, Maris’s play improved, but the team had trouble staying close to the Detroit Tigers, who were led by their future Hall of Famer, Al Kaline. The Yankees fell a season-high six games back on May 24th, but that would not last long. The team turned it around and went 86-36 from June 1st to the end of the season, leaving the American League far behind.
Behind the plate, Elston Howard — who had replaced Yogi Berra as the team's regular catcher in 1960 — broke out with a dynamic performance. He hit .348/.387/.549 with 21 home runs while also catching 111 games for the team. The veteran Berra played just 15 games behind the plate, as he moved primarily to the outfield, playing 81 games in left field while also being utilized as a pinch hitter throughout the year.
Another player on the team who also forced his way into the lineup and helped keep Berra from playing more behind the plate was Johnny Blanchard. After posting a .646 OPS in light duty during the 1959 and 1960 seasons, Blanchard had what would be by far his best season, backing up Howard and playing some outfield as well. In 275 plate appearances, he hit 21 home runs.
On the mound, the Yankees were led by their ace Whitey Ford who led the league and set a career high starting 39 games, pitching 283 innings and winning 25 games. He was able to work as often as he did because Houk put him on a new rotation schedule for more work (much to Ford’s delight), and he also frequently turned to relief ace Luis Arroyo late in the game that year. Arroyo is now credited with 29 saves that season while pitching 119 innings across 65 games. Arroyo finished sixth in the AL MVP balloting, even receiving one first-place vote.
The Yankees had an 11.5-game lead on September 12th, and the story around the team centered on Mantle and Maris as they chased Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season. Maris hit his 50th home run before September 1st, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat. He had passed Mantle in the home run race on August 15th and remained in front the rest of the way.
Maris would hit his 59th home run in the team’s 154th game and then entered the final day of the season tied with Ruth at 60. Facing Tracy Stallard and the Red Sox, Maris pulled a home run into the right-field stands at Yankee Stadium and set the standard for home runs in a season that would stand until 1998.
As the Yankees cruised to the AL Pennant, they suffered the loss of their star centerfielder. Mantle fell out of the home run race and was sidelined with an abscessed hip after getting a shot in his leg that he hoped would help him beat a case of the flu. After initially trying to play through the pain, he wound up with blood stains on his uniform and needing crutches to leave the clubhouse. He would miss the final three games of the season and the start of the World Series.
In said Fall Classic, the Yankees faced off with the Cincinnati Reds who were led by National League MVP Frank Robinson, a future Hall of Famer in his own right. He combined with his fellow outfielders Wally Post and Vada Pinson to provide the bulk of the offensive production as they outpaced the Los Angeles Dodgers by five games on the season.
Ford opened the World Series with a two-hit shutout. He was in complete control, and though the Yankees didn’t fare much better against Reds southpaw Jim O’Toole, they made their hits count. Howard and Bill Skowron both knocked solo homers, and behind Ford’s masterpiece, the Yankees won, 2-0.
The next day, the Reds were able to capitalize on three Yankees errors to score as many unearned runs in a 6-2 victory. It was an uncharacteristically shoddy outing from New York, though one that the prestigious club quickly shook off.
With the series tied heading to Crosley Field, Mantle attempted to come back from his injury, but went hitless in four at-bats before being replaced for defense late in the game. The Yankees needed a tie-breaking home run from Maris in the ninth inning to take the lead in the game and the series. The home run was Maris’s first hit of the Fall Classic.
Ford came back in Game 4 of the series and pitched five more scoreless inning, running his streak of consecutive scoreless World Series innings to 32, passing another of Ruth’s records — this time, one set on the mound during his Red Sox days. Ford was taken out of the game in the sixth inning with an ankle injury, but Jim Coates finished the 7-0 victory with four innings of one-hit ball.
The next day, the New York offense settled the series in a hurry. They plated score five runs in the first inning of Game 5 on their way to a 13-5 victory. Blanchard and left fielder Hector Lopez were the stars on the day, driving in a combined eight runs. Pitcher Bud Daley got the final out on a check-swing fly to Lopez, and the Yankees were champions again.
The 1961 Yankees will go down in history as one of the all-time best Yankees teams. They were led by a dynamic offense that set a record for home runs in a season that stood for 35 years. Numerous players put together their best seasons for the team that year and even without big contributions from their star Mickey Mantle in the World Series, the team comfortably won the franchises’ 19th World Series.