9/12/2011

The Golden Anniversary of Maris's Remarkable Season is Being Forgotten

No one seems to be noticing that 50 years ago this month, Roger Maris was closing in on one of Major League Baseball's most revered records.
By September 12, 1961, Maris had hit 56 home runs and was within sight of the legendary Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60, which Ruth set in 1927.

But Maris's phenomenal home run production had suddenly tailed off as the 1961 season was drawing to a close. On September 12, he went homer-less against the Chicago White Sox and was in the middle of a seven-game dry spell. He wouldn't hit home run number 57 until September 16 against the Detroit Tigers.

Maris was feeling the pressure of his run on Ruth's record. Teammate Mickey Mantle also was in the chase for the record with 53 home runs, and he'd become the sentimental favorite among fans and sportswriters to break the record. But an injury would shorten Mantle's season, and he'd finish with 54 home runs.


Maris, 26 at the time, was a quiet, no-nonsense man who'd grown up in Fargo, North Dakota. (Click here to see an essay about a family connection to Maris.) He was unaccustomed to the intense public scrutiny that came with playing baseball in New York City and was annoyed by the constant presence of reporters. He'd been labeled by reporters as surly and uncooperative during post-game interviews. He was losing sleep, and was in such a state of anxiety that his hair was falling out.

And although there were still 16 games remaining on the Yankees' 1961 schedule after the game of September 12, Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick announced that same day that unless Maris or Mantle hit 61 home runs by the 154th game of the season, it would not count as a new single-season record.

The reason for Frick's ruling was because in 1961, the American League had added two new teams and extended its season to 162 games. So Mantle and Maris would play eight more games that season than Ruth's Yankees had played in 1927.

What Frick did not announce with his ruling was that he'd been a good friend of Ruth's and did not want to see the Babe's record eclipsed.

Maris had raised his home run total to 58 when the Yankees took the field in Baltimore September 19 for a double-header against the Orioles that would be games 153 and 154. He went hitless in the first game and managed only a single in the second game. So in the eyes of Ford Frick, Ruth's single-season record was still intact.

Maris hit homer number 59 the following day against Baltimore, and he hit number 60 when the Orioles came to Yankee Stadium on September 26.

Maris's final home run of the 1961 season came on October 1 against pitcher Tracy Stallard of the Boston Red Sox. In the fourth inning, Maris took two pitches outside the strike zone. But he connected on Stallard's third pitch, a knee-high fastball on the outside corner.

"There it is," announcer Red Barber said the moment the ball left Maris's bat and sailed into the right-field stands. "Sixty-one."

Maris rounded the bases with his head down and went straight to the Yankees' dugout after touching home plate. He seemed surprised at the lengthy ovation from about 23,000 fans who attended the game, and, with a big smile on his face, stepped out of the dugout twice to acknowledge the cheers.

No one would approach Maris's accomplishment until the steroid-riddled seasons of the late 1990s. (Click here for a Drye Goods essay about that.) Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds all shattered Maris's single-season record, but all of them later were linked to using performance-enhancing steroids when they were piling up their astronomical home run totals.

In my mind, that makes Maris's feat all the more remarkable. Even though he had eight more games than Ruth, he did it without cheating. I've watched a lot of baseball games this season, and I don't recall hearing any mention of the golden anniversary of this achievement. And that seems wrong. Why isn't Major League Baseball officially observing this milestone? Could it be that they don't want anything that might remind fans of the absurd number of home runs hit during the steroid era?