1961 New York Yankees
109 – 53 (0.673)
Manager: Ralph Houk
Won AL pennant by eight games over the Detroit Tigers.
World Series: Beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games.
Although best remembered for Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle‘s pursuit of Babe Ruth‘s single-season home run record, the 1961 season also displayed one of the greatest teams in baseball history: the same Yankees for whom Maris and Mantle played. The “M & M Boys” hit 115 of the Yanks’ then-record 240 home runs, while Cy Young Award winner Whitey Ford and major league saves leader Luis Arroyo were the stars of a fine pitching staff. After spending virtually the entire first half of the season in second place, the Yankees blasted past Detroit in mid-season and had effectively sealed their second consecutive AL pennant by Labor Day. They finished the season eight games ahead of the 101-61 Tigers and had little trouble overcoming the Cincinnati Reds in a five-game World Series for the 19th World Championship in franchise history.
When Roger Maris hit his first homer of the year against the Detroit Tigers‘ Paul Foytack on April 26th, he began an odyssey which concluded on October 1st, when home run #61 found Yankee Stadium’s right field seats. Just as the Yankees began slowly — they were 9-19 in spring training and just several games above .500 through the end of May — so did Maris. The man whose first Yankee manager Casey Stengel said had “more power than Stalin” batted seventh during the first month of the season. Maris soon moved to the middle of the order, and hit four home runs in a double-header against the White Sox at the end of July, giving him 40. Mantle’s 39 was close behind.
Mantle and Maris weren’t the only outstanding individual performers on the Yankees. 6′ 2″ catcher Elston Howard led the team with a .348 average, and joined Yogi Berra, Bill “Moose” Skowron, and third-string catcher Johnny Blanchard with more than 20 home runs. Bobby Richardson and Clete Boyer, both of whom Casey Stengel had platooned the year before, blossomed while playing full-time for Houk. Tony Kubek made a career-high 30 errors, but had a decent year at the plate.
Everybody’s gaudy offensive numbers were inflated by the addition of expansion teams in Washington and Los Angeles that year. And despite the Yankee’s offensive firepower, they didn’t lead the league in either runs scored or batting average; Detroit was tops in both categories. But the ’61 Yankees were a balanced club whose claim to greatness rests as much on their pitching as their prodigious longball talent. Also lost in the celebration of their monstrous offensive achievement is the performance of a defense which led the league in fielding percentage and double plays.
Ralph Houk‘s first season with the Yankees was also a breakthrough season for Whitey Ford. The two developments were not coincidental. Houk’s predecessor, Casey Stengel, had used Ford erratically, saving him for key games. Houk, on the other hand, hired pitching coach Johnny Sain and enforced a strict four-man rotation. Ford responded with an incredible 25-4 record and a Cy Young Award. (He had never before won 20 games in his eleven-year career.) Ford also led the AL in starts (39) and innings pitched (283). The future Hall of Famer broke another record of Babe Ruth‘s by extending his streak of scoreless innings in the World Series to 32.
Even though the Yankees’ ERA ranked second behind the Baltimore Orioles, Houk’s staff knew how to win. Ralph Terry‘s .842 winning percentage ranked second in the majors behind (who else?) Ford. Bill Stafford and Rollie Sheldon, Houk’s number three and four starters, had pitched a combined 60 innings in the majors before 1961, but both proved their worth with winning seasons. And screwballing closer Luis Arroyo enjoyed his finest season as a pro, appearing in 65 games, winning 15 and saving 29.