October 1, 1961-- It was the last day of the regular season. The Yankees were on their way back to the playoffs, but that wasn't the buzz surrounding the team on that particular day.
For most of the season, teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battled each other for Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. Since 1927 when Ruth hit sixty home runs in a single season, no one had really come close to breaking the record. Somehow in the 1961 season not only were two players on pace to beat the record, but two Yankees had a real shot at becoming the home run king(s).
The two stayed neck and neck for the most of the season. As a result there was even more of a media circus surrounding the Yankees than usual. It would seems that Yankee fans would've been really excited that two of their players were going for another Yankee's record--Wrong.
Roger Maris was traded to the Yankees in 1960 from Kansas City, while Mickey Mantle had spent his entire career in pinstripes. Maris was a quiet guy who simply wanted to play baseball and not be involved in the chaos that surrounded the team. Mantle had a charisma to him that made the media and the fans love him. Roger was portrayed as not caring about playing for a team like the Yankees or being cold toward fans, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Fans were rooting for Mickey because they felt he was a "real Yankee", and Maris was just a hick who didn't deserve to be spoken about in the same breath as Mantle or Ruth.
What many people didn't know was that despite the media making it out to seem like the two stars hated each other, during the '61 season Mantle and Maris shared an apartment together. Mantle's party habits were starting to take a toll on him. He lived in a suite at the St. Moritz, had women coming and going every night, and devoted a lot of his spare time to drinking. At Maris' suggestion, Mantle moved in with him and Bob Cerv, another teammate. The idea was that if Mantle wasn't left to his own devices he would stay healthy and perform better on the field.
The 1961 season should have been a time for really enjoying the game, but it was far from that. While the M&M boys were trying to help their team win, Roger was getting hate mail, death threats, and even a phone call with a threat to kidnap his kids. He got taunted on the road and at home, and he got booed whether he hit a home run or struck out.
All the fans that were hating on Maris had no idea the effect of their actions. Maris was already a heavy smoker, but the stress of the season upped his consumption to at least three packs per day. He developed hives all over his body and started to lose his hair. The guy suffered all this abuse while helping the Yankees win day after day simply because he wasn't what the people wanted.
Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time, had issued a statement saying that since the schedule now had eight extra games then when Ruth played, unless the record was broken in the same number of games there would be two separate records. Even if Maris managed to hit 61 home runs he still wouldn't be spoken about in the same breath as Ruth; just another tactic to try and keep him down.
Mickey Mantle ended his season early with a leg infection and fell six short of tying Ruth. By game 154, Maris had only hit 59 home runs, so there was no way he would own the same season single home run record as Ruth. Six days later he hit #60, but over the next two games he went without a home run.
October 1, 1961-- The last day of the regular season was being played at Yankee Stadium against who else but the Red Sox. In the fourth inning, Maris hit a deep fly ball off of Tracy Stallard into the right field grandstand for #61. It took 162 games to do it, but Maris had done something that no other player in the history of the game had been able to do all while be jeered and persecuted by the media and the fans. I'd like to think that those there when he hit the home run realized that they had unfairly judged him, and that he was more than deserving of the record. Maris received a huge round of applause from the crowd, and was even pushed out of the dugout by his teammates to accept a curtain call from the fans.
Forty-seven years later, all the details leading up to Maris hitting #61 tend to be forgotten. Even though it was so long ago, I can't help but wonder if he hadn't been so ostracized, or victimised by the fans and the media, he might have been able to enjoy his accomplishment. Sometimes as fans we forget that players are first and foremost people who aren't always able to perform how and when we want them to.
Maris breaking Ruth's record is more significant to me than when McGwire passed him, and then Bonds passing McGwire. Maris broke the record while going up against his teammate who went on to be a Hall of Famer. He kept plugging away despite the hate mail and the brutal taunting at the parks. #61 was about more than just breaking a record, it was about proving that no matter how great the odds nothing is ever really impossible.