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The Magical 1961 Baseball Season

The sport of baseball has seen some magical seasons. One’s with record breaking moments or some with crazy stats. We recently, just witnessed one we all will never forget. In 2022, New York Yankees superstar Aaron Judge, broke the AL single season home run record, blasting an outstanding 62 home runs. The man Judge was chasing, was none other than Roger Maris. 2022 gave us flashes of the unforgettable season of 1961. The season of 1961, two men chasing the ghost of Babe Ruth for his single season home run record. Of course, those two men being Yankees, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Mantle and Maris were the two leaders of that extraordinary Yankees team. Maris was brought to New York in 1960 after a breakout year in Kansas City, but nobody expected what would happen by season’s end.


Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris via Pinstripe Alley

The start of the 1961 season saw ten new expansion teams enter the league as well as extending the regular season from 154 games to 162 games. However, this was only implemented into the American League (AL) as the National League (NL) stuck with the 154 games until following suit in 1962. With those eight extra games, Ruth’s cherished record would be put into question. Who in the world could hit more than 60 home runs in a single season? Everyone’s head than turned to none other than Yankees leader, Mickey Mantle. If anybody had a shot at Ruth’s record, it had to be Mantle. Quietly lurking in the background, away from the reporters and media, was Roger Maris. The AL MVP just a season ago. From the very beginning, besides Maris’s family, only one man had faith in Maris, which was Milt Kahn. Milt was a legendary baseball journalist who paved the way for many inspiring journalists. By June, the two generational talents, were neck and neck with each other. The hot pursuit of Ruth’s astonishing record was now taken seriously with Mantle and Maris both ahead of Ruth’s 1927 pace. With the two Yankee greats neck and neck, belief of a rivalry between the two began to rise. Mantle and Maris shut down the rumors by forming the M&M boys. The two were taking baseball by storm and having fun with it. Commercials, aired TV, and newspapers were just the start for the M&M boys. By the end of the month, the two Yankee outfielders were still in a very tight race. Roger had 27 compared to Mickey’s 25. The Bambino having 25 by that date in 1927. Mickey was used to the bright lights and rabid reporters of New York City; Roger however was not. With Roger having constant questions shoved down his throat, the pressure got to him throughout the season.

"I never wanted all this hoopla. All I wanted is to be a good ball player and hit twenty-five or thirty homers, drive in a hundred runs, hit .280 and help my club win pennants. I just wanted to be one of the guys, an average player having a good season."

- Roger Maris

Most of the media took Roger’s words and twisted them to beyond belief. Maris was severely misunderstood leading to him receiving backlash and even death threats. A quick trip home for Roger made it clear these reporters made it personal. As Roger was having dinner with his family as well as Mickey, the phone rang. It was a threat stating someone will kidnap his newborn baby. Thankfully, the threat turned out to be a fluke, Roger was irate. Roger devoted the rest of the season to shut out the media and focus on what he did best, play ball. During this memorable baseball season, Ford Frick was the commissioner of baseball. He along with thousands of others, cherished and loved Babe Ruth’s home run record. Frick might have loved that record even more than Ruth. On July 17th, Ford Frick called a press conference, seeming to take a shot right at the M&M boys. Frick made a ruling addressing that any home run total surpassing Ruth’s 60 would have to be accomplished in 154 games as Ruth did in order to be the official record. Failing to do so in 154 games, would result in the new record having an asterisk next to it in the record book. Frick insisted this new ruling was not in any relation to the M&M boys but, nobody believed him. Ironically, the same day Frick announced this new rule, Mantle and Maris were both on track to eclipse Ruth’s record in 154 games. In addition to Frick’s ruling, the M&M boys were battling against history. Playing in the “house that Ruth built” felt the ghost of the bambino was following their every footstep. Several Hall of Famers, such as Rogers Hornsby, and Claire Ruth, widow of the late Babe Ruth, didn’t want that record to ever be broken. Even some members in the Yankees organization were rooting against Mantle and Maris. Once September came, Mantle and Maris were still on the top of their games with no sign of slowing down at the record. The M&M boys kept it close all season until mid to late September. Mickey Mantle was known all throughout his career as the man who was constantly in pain. September of 1961 is when all the injuries caught up to the Yankee great. Mantle was in severe pain with a pulled forearm muscle, a heavy head cold, a respiratory infection, and an eye infection. To top it all off, the man was constantly wrapped like a mummy, as Whitey Ford would always say, when it was game time. Mel Allen, announcer for the Yankees, recommended Mantle to Dr. Jacobson. A well-known and famous doctor who even aided numerous celebrities as well as President John F. Kennedy. Dr. Jacobson was known as “Dr. Feelgood” for his shots. With Mantle battling a nasty cold, Dr. Jacobson gave Mickey a shot in his hip to cure the cold. Not too long after, Mantle broke out in a hip infection that would keep him out of the rest of the 1961 season, ending his shot at the Babe’s record. By September 28th, Mantle would have to be taken to the hospital, which was his home for the rest of the regular season. Terribly enough, “Dr. Feelgood” would later have his medical license revoked. With Mantle in the hospital, only one man was left to go get that record. The man from Fargo, North Dakota, Roger Maris. Was the record really meant for the guy who wasn’t liked by fans or the media? There’s no way this Roger guy could beat out the great Mickey Mantle for the most prized record in all of baseball, right? The Yankees traveled to Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, to play the Orioles for a three-game set. Games 153 and 154 were played in a double header with game 155 being played the day after. This was it, Roger’s last shot at the record in Frick’s new ruling. Maris had some rough AB’s while hitting no homeruns. Going into the second game of the doubleheader, Roger was stuck at 59 homeruns on the year. It was a cold and very windy night in Baltimore. During this second game of the double header, Roger hit a ball that on any other night, would’ve been a homerun into right field. Instead, the wind stopped the ball giving Baltimore’s right fielder, a weak fly ball. Some say on that windy night in Baltimore, that wind just might have been Babe Ruth’s ghost pushing that ball back into the field. At the end of the night, Ford Frick was a happy man. His prized record would stay in Ruth’s name. At least, that’s what he thought. The Yankees would travel back home to the Bronx for the last five games of the season. Two games against Baltimore and three games against Boston. In the first game with Baltimore, game number 157, Maris would tie the Babe at 60. Roger made sure if he would break Ruth’s record, it would be done in dramatic fashion. That’s exactly what happened when Maris wouldn’t hit a single homerun in the next four games. Then, history was made. On October 1st, 1961, Roger went deep on a fastball that soared into the second deck in right field. Against Boston, in the house that Ruth built.


Newspaper Clippings From The New York Daily News of Roger Maris via Pophistorydig.com

Through all the trials and tribulations that Roger Maris endured during the 1961 baseball season, he pushed through. He proved to everyone that he was just as capable at that record as Mickey was. After the last game of the season, Roger visited Mickey at the hospital who was still recovering from his nasty hip infection. They shared a moment together that bonded the two for life.

“You would have done it to Mickey” – Roger Maris “Ah, bullsh*t. It was you Rodge. You did it, you son of a b*tch. Nobody can ever take that away from you. No matter what bullsh*t they try to tell you. That record’s yours. You’re a good man, Roger.” -Mickey Mantle

The two shook hands and tried their best to put all the pressure from the regular season away to focus on the postseason. Afterall, the Yankees finished 1961 with a 109-53 record as well as holding an eight-game lead on the 2nd place, Detroit Tigers. In the end, Roger took home that year’s AL MVP award with Mickey coming in 2nd place.

 

Roger Maris 1961 stats 161 G, 159 H, 61 HR, 142 RBI, .269 BA

Mickey Mantle 1961 stats 153 G, 163 H, 54 HR, 128 RBI, .317 BA

 

The Yankees would go on to win the 1961 World Series defeating the Cincinnati Reds, 4 games to 1. Neither Roger or Mickey would be huge factors in the Series as Mantle was still recovering from his hip and Maris was fatigued. In 1991, Fay Vincent, MLB commissioner, and the committee would vote to officially give Roger Maris the record with no asterisk next to his 61 homeruns. Roger Maris sadly passed away in 1985, never knowing he was the official holder of the single season home run holder.

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