Roger Maris Finest Hour

Roger Maris Finest Hour

October 1, 1961

There was little at stake for the New York Yankees when they took the field at Yankee Stadium to face the Boston Red Sox on Oct. 1st, 1961. An early September surge had broken wide open what had been a tense, summer-long pennant race with the Detroit Tigers. As right-hander Bill Stafford took his warmup tosses before the season’s final game, the team had long since clinched its sixth pennant in seven years, and was merely tuning up for a World Series showdown with the Cincinnati Reds.

For right fielder Roger Maris, however, history was at stake. In his second season with the Bronx Bombers, Maris had blasted an astonishing 60 home runs, a figure matched only by the legendary Babe Ruth of the 1927 Yankees. With one more round-tripper, Maris would pass the Bambino as baseball’s most prolific single-season slugger. But the pressures of chasing the record, facing the unrelenting media assault and handling the debate over the potential record’s validity in the new 162-game season — eight more games than the schedule afforded Ruth — had all taken their toll. After storming to 58 home runs by Sept. 17, Maris had hit just two over the previous two weeks.

Surprisingly, a crowd of only 23,154 showed up that Sunday afternoon for a chance to see the reigning AL MVP swing for the fences one last time. In fact, the stadium would have been almost empty if not for the right-field stands, which were packed solid. Sam Gordon, a Sacramento, Calif., restaurant owner, had made a standing offer of $5,000 for the record-setting ball. Motivated by the twin American passions of baseball and profit, fans had filled the bleachers — the preferred landing site for many a Maris longball that year.

There was no score in the bottom of the first, when Maris, batting in his traditional third spot in the lineup, dug in against Red Sox hurler Tracy Stallard. It had been a difficult year for the rookie right-hander, who had won just twice against six losses. Now he faced the unenviable task of trying to keep his name out of the history books alongside Tom Zachary (who had served up Ruth’s 60th) and Ralph Branca (who gave up Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer in 1951).

Maris swung at a changeup, and lofted a fly ball towards left field. For a moment it looked like he had confounded the bleacher fans and hit number 61 into the all-but-vacant left field seats. The ball didn’t carry however, and fell harmlessly into the glove of left fielder Carl Yastrzemski.

The game was still scoreless in the fourth inning when Stallard fell behind Maris 2-0. Boos began to sound from the crowd, who hadn’t come to see Maris walk. Stallard threw a fastball low, but over the plate. Maris uncoiled his powerful left-handed swing and connected solidly, sending a high fly deep toward right field. Stallard recalled, “When Roger made contact, I knew he hit the hell out of it, but I didn’t think it was going out. I turned around and saw the thing going up and up.”

As the ball approached the hometown bullpen located behind the right field fence, the entire Yankees pitching staff scrambled for a chance to snag the valuable horsehide. Ace Whitey Ford said, “We all wanted a crack at catching the ball and getting the five thousand dollars.” None of Maris’ teammates would get that chance, though, as the ball sailed over their heads and into the anxious throng eagerly awaiting it.

The beneficiary of Stallard’s gopher ball proved to be 19-year-old Coney Island native Sal Durante, who had come to the game with his fiancee, Rose Marie Calabrese. A fan seated in front of Durante actually smothered the blast in his coat, but Durante reached down and snatched it away before he had a chance to secure it. Durante’s quick hands not only won him the $5,000 dollars, but also a honeymoon trip to California paid for by Gordon.

As Maris jogged around the bases to the thrilled cheers of the crowd, third base coach Frank Crosetti eschewed the traditional slap on the back he bestowed upon home run hitters and instead shook hands with the new record-holder. Only one other time, when Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run, would Crosetti repeat the gesture.

When he returned to dugout, his exultant teammates twice had to push the shy and unassuming Maris back onto the field to acknowledge the fans’ ovations. As infielder Joe DeMaestri remembered, “We were so happy for Roger, but there was also a sense of relief. I had a feeling that Roger thought it was about time that he hit that last home run. It was like he said, ‘I hit it, and now it’s over. Thank God.'”

The rest of the game passed with little incident. Maris had two more chances to reach 62, but struck out and popped out. His solo shot stood up as the only run of the day. Stafford threw six scoreless innings to pick up his 14th win of the season, while Stallard saw his record drop to 2-7 despite a valiant seven-inning effort. The win was the Yankees’ 109th of the year, a total bettered at that time in league history only by Ruth’s ’27 Yankees and the 1954 Indians. A five-game thrashing of the Reds in the World Series would ensure their status as one baseball’s greatest teams.

Maris, of course, had already won his spot in history, but he was more than happy to finally escape from the trials and tribulations of recent weeks. Hours after the game, when a reporter asked him for the umpteenth time, “Hey, Rog, what did you hit?”, the new home run king replied, “A baseball. Yeah, I hit a baseball.”