The greatest home run race of all time featured the M&M boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 and Mantle belted 54.
Growing up a Yankee fan in New York, every day was Christmas day in 1961. Home runs were stocking stuffers, wins were gift-wrapped presents under the tree.
Ten years old, a kid in White Plains, collector of baseball cards, I marveled at the exploits of this great team.
I watched the games on WPIX-TV Channel 11 on a small, black and white Philco, or listened on the radio. Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto and Red Barber provided the play-by-play.
On the nights when the games ran past my bedtime, my father kept score and would leave out the score sheet for me in the morning. IThey did lose now and then, but it seemed as if the Yanks won every night.
Now, nearly 50 years later, the 1961 Yankees remain the best baseball team I have ever seen.
Maris and Mantle
It was the year of Maris and Mantle and the greatest home run race of all time.
Every day, or so it seemed, the Yankees were hitting balls out of the park. And if it wasn’t Rajah or The Mick, it was Moose Skowron or Elston Howard or Yogi Berra or Johnny Blanchard, the reserve catcher and pinch-hitter deluxe.
Maris hit 61 HRs that year, Mantle a career-high 54, Skowron 28, Berra 22, and Howard and Blanchard 21 apiece. The Yankees set the major league record with 240 home runs; Maris and Mantle hit 115 between them, still the highest number ever for two teammates.
The Yanks had Kubek to Richardson to Skowron, one of the great double play combinations. And Clete Boyer, the vacuum cleaner at third.
The Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford, shown below, was 25-4 that season, a career year in a lifetime of career years. Ralph Terry was 16-3, Bill Stafford won 14 games and rookie Rollie Sheldon 11. Left-handed screwballer Luis Arroyo went 15-5 with 29 saves.
On September 1, 1961, the Detroit Tigers came into Yankee Stadium trailing the Bombers by just 1 1/2 games. The Yankees swept the three-game series, won 13 straight overall to bury the Tigers, and eased to 109 wins and the American League pennant..
Despite an injury to Mantle, they wiped out the Cincinnati Reds in five games to win the World Series.
I never did get to a Yankee game during that magical season. My Dad was going to take me to a game against Cleveland in early September, but I got sick the night before. I tried to hide a 102-degree fever, but was discovered and banished to the sick bed.
Had to watch the game on TV that Saturday afternoon when Maris hit homer #56 on the way to the American League record of 61 home runs in a single season. (Many would argue that Maris is still the single-season home run leader, and that the asterisk now belongs to people like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.)
That year, Maris won his second consecutive American League MVP, and Ford was the Cy Young Award winner.
The 1961 Yankees — still the greatest team I’ve ever seen.
Back in the 1970s, 48-year-old George Blanda was still playing an important role in the NFL in a sport where young men rule.
As an Oakland Raider, he played in his last game at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium on January 4, 1976, in the AFC Championship Game. That day Blanda kicked a 41-yard field goal and made one extra point as the Raiders lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers,16-10.
In September of 1970, George Blanda, turned 43, his career seemingly over, was cut by the Raiders in pre-season training camp. But Blanda bounced back to establish his 21st professional season as one of the more dramatic comebacks in sports history. Beginning with the Raiders October 25 game at Pittsburgh, Blanda put together five straight clutch performances.
Against the Steelers that day, Blanda threw for two touchdowns in relief of an injured Daryle Lamonica. One week later, his 48-yard field goal with three seconds remaining salvaged a 17-17 tie with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Repeating the thrilling finish on November 8, Blanda once again came off the bench to throw for a pass to tie the Cleveland Browns with 1:34 remaining, then kicked a 53-yard field goal as time expired for the 23-20 win. In the team’s next game, Blanda replaced Lamonica in the fourth quarter and connected with Fred Biletnikoff on a touchdown pass with 2:28 left in the game to defeat the Denver Broncos, 24-19.
Blanda’s incredible streak concluded one week later when his 16-yard field goal in the closing seconds defeated the San Diego Chargers, 20-17.
In the AFC title game against the Baltimore Colts, Blanda again relieved an injured Lamonica and had a superb performance, completing 17 of 32 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns while also kicking a 48-yard field goal and two extra points. He kept the Raiders in the game until the final quarter, when he was intercepted twice. Aged 43, he became the oldest quarterback ever to play in a championship game.
Bert Bell Award Winner
Blanda’s eye-opening achievements that year resulted in his winning the Bert Bell Award as pro football player of the year. Although he never again played a major role at quarterback, Blanda would serve as the Raiders’ kicker for five more seasons.
Amazingly, Blanda’s career spanned four decades. He came up with the Bears in 1949 after playing collegiate ball at the University of Kentucky, a 12th-round pick and number 119 overall that year.
Blanda was primarily a backup quarterback and kicker with Chicago throughout the 1950s, then went to the Houston Oilers for the inaugural 1960 AFL season.
There, at the age of 33, Blanda revitalized his career, leading the Oilers to the first two AFL championships and being named AFL Player of the Year by both the AP and UPI in 1961.
His career seemingly on the decline once again in the mid 60s, Blanda was released by the Oilers in 1967, but caught on with Oakland. That year, he led the AFL in scoring with 116 points as the Raiders advanced to Super Bowl II, only to lose to the Green Bay Packers.
Blanda finished his 26 NFL seasons having completed 1,911 of 4,007 pass attempts for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns. Blanda also held the NFL record for most interceptions thrown with 277, until Brett Favre broke it in 2007.
He rushed for 344 yards and nine touchdowns and kicked 335 of 641 field goals and 943 of 959 extra points, giving him 2,002 total points. He also had an interception, two kickoff returns for 19 yards, 22 punts for 809 yards, and 23 fumble recoveries.
Blanda’s Greatest Hits
Blanda holds the following NFL records:
- Passing TDs in a game: 7 (Tied with 4 others) 11/19/61 vs. New York Titans
- Most seasons played: 26 (1949-58, 1960-75)
- Most seasons scoring a point: 26
- Only player to play in four different decades; (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s)
- Most PATs made (943) and attempted (959)
- Most interceptions thrown, single season: 42 (1962)
- Held record of most pass attempts in a single game: 68 (37 completions, vs. New York Titans on 11/1/1961) until 1994, when Drew Bledsoe had 70
- Oldest person to play in an NFL game: 48 years, 109 days
- First player ever to score over 2,000 points
- Oldest quarterback to start a title game
- Most total points accounted for (including TD passes) in a career: 3,418
Blanda is the placekicker on the All-Time All-AFL Team, and was one of only 20 players to play all 10 years of the AFL, as well as one of only three who were in every AFL game their teams played. Blanda was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981, his first year of eligibility, and also was inducted into the University of Kentucky Hall of Fame.
He held the record for most professional football games played with 340 until September 26, 2004, when it was broken by another placekicker, Morten Andersen. Blanda is currently third in career points scored with 2002, ranking behind the aforementioned Andersen and fellow placekicker Gary Anderson.
It should be noted that this category doesn’t count the many passing touchdowns that Blanda threw, only his kicks and his nine rushing touchdowns. Also, both of the aforementioned players to surpass Blanda’s total were born outside the United States, thus Blanda continues to hold the record for most career points scored by an American-born player.
In 1999, he was ranked number 98 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
Casey Stengel always said the Mets would win when they put a man on the Moon. Both miracles happened in 1969.
The whole world didn’t stop on July 20, 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. It just seemed that way.
For even as astronaut Neil Armstrong was landing on the powdery surface of the Moon that day, uttering 11 of history’s most famous words — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — the sports world carried on.
That famous Sunday featured a full schedule of baseball games, with many teams playing doubleheaders as was the norm in those days.
In Montreal, Bobby Pfeil’s bunt single in the 11th inning scored Ron Swoboda and gave the Mets a 4-3 win over the Expos and a split of their doubleheader. Montreal won the opener, 3-2.
The Mets, who would go on to miracles of their own that October, fell five games behind the Cubs in the National League East. Chicago’s Ferguson Jenkins and Dick Selma both pitched complete games as the Cubbies beat the Phillies, 1-0 and 6-1, at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.
In Atlanta, Pat Jarvis pitched a six-hit shutout as the Braves maintained their one-game lead over the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West.
Orioles Rule AL East
Meanwhile, Syd O’Brien’s two-run triple in the eighth inning led the Red Sox to a 6-5 win over the Orioles. Despite the loss, Baltimore still led Boston by 11 names in the AL East.
And a shutout by Jim Perry, Gaylord’s brother, helped the AL West leading Twins to a 4-0 win over the Seattle Pilots and a four-game lead over Oakland.
The same day that Eagle landed on the Moon, Oakland left-hander Vida Blue, who went on to win the AL MVP and Cy Young award in 1971, was the losing pitcher in his major league debut. The A’s and Angels split a doubleheader that day.
In the Bronx, Gene Michael’s single drove in Roy White with the winning run as the Yankees beat the Washington Senators, 3-2, in 11 innings. Walk-off win was not yet part of the baseball vernacular.
This was the first year of divisional play in the majors. Four new teams — the Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals in the AL and San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the NL — joined baseball in 1969.
On that Sunday, July 20, Rod Carew of the Twins at .364 and Matty Alou of the Pirates at .354 and were the batting leaders. Oakland’s Reggie Jackson led the AL with 37 home runs; San Francisco’s Willie McCovey was tops in the AL with 30. Atlanta’s Phil Niekro led the majors with 15 wins.
Jacklin Celebrates British Open Win
In other sports, Tony Jacklin was still celebrating his win in the British Open the week before, first by an Englishman in 18 years.
And in football, Joe Namath and the rest of the Super Bowl champion New York Jets were gearing up for training camp at Hofstra University.
That same weekend, a car, shown above, driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy managed to escape the submerged vehicle, but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. (Kennedy subsequently pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended two-month jail sentence.)
In 1969, the average family income in the United States was $8,389.00, and the price of gasoline ranged between 29 and 35 cents a gallon. A six pack of Coca Cola was selling for 59 cents and Hershey bar was .10 cents. The cost for a new Ford Mustang was a whopping $2,832.00 for a standard model.
Richard M. Nixon was President of the United States, Woodstock was on the horizon and man was on the Moon.
Derek Jeter, left, and Mariano Rivera are sure bets for the Hall of Fame.
From this catbird’s seat, the SportsLifer sees nine active players heading for the Hall of Fame.
Criteria for consideration includes at least a 10-year, major league resume. Players linked to steroids, who might otherwise be Cooperstown bound, are instead banished to the Mark McGwire waiting room.
The list of nine HOFers includes three infielders, three outfielders and three pitchers, two of them relievers. There are three other players on the cusp who will merit strong consideration by voters.
Of note, Pedro Martinez will qualify for this list once he takes the mound for the Phillies. He’s currently on the disabled list and hasn’t pitched yet this year.
Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, each with nine years of service, will certainly be added to this list next year.
Lastly…and sadly…are five other players who would have made the list but for the needle and the damage done.
Hall of Famers
Ken Griffey, Jr, OF — Active leader, 5th all time with 621 HRs, 1798 RBIs, .286 BA, 184 SBs, 1997 AL MVP, played for Mariners and Reds, shown left
Vladimir Guerrero, OF — 396 HRs, 1289 RBIs, .322 lifetime BA, stole 175 bases, AL MVP with Angels in 2004
Trevor Hoffman, RP — All-time saves leader with 575, 2.76 ERA, played primarily for Padres, now with Brewers
Derek Jeter, SS — Captain of the Yankees, four-time World Champion, .316 lifetime BA, 216 HRs, 1039 RBIs, 292 stolen bases
Randy Johnson, P — The Big Unit, 303 lifetime wins, second all-time in strikeouts with 4867, five-time Cy Young award winner with Mariners and D’Backs
Chipper Jones, 3B — Played entire career with Braves, 417 HRs, 1416 RBIs, .310 BA, NL MVP in 1999, .364 NL batting champ in 2008
Mariano Rivera, RP — 505 saves, 2.29 lifetime ERA, post-season exploits with Yankees are unsurpassed, 34 saves, 0.80 ERA, 0.87 WHIP
John Smoltz, P — 211 victories, 154 saves, 3.27 lifetime ERA,, earned primarily with the Braves; 1996 NL Cy Young, record 15 post-season wins.
Jim Thome, 1B — 13th on the all-time home run list with 557 dingers, he also has 1545 RBIs for Indians, White Sox, Phillies
Pedro Martinez, P — Just signed with Phillies, three-time Cy Young Award winner with Expos and Red Sox, 214-99, 2.91 lifetime.
On the Cusp
Carlos Delgado, 1B — 473 home runs, 1512 RBIs for this slugger, who played for the Blue Jays and now Mets
Jorge Posada, C — Caught for the Yankees during their late 1990s dynasty, has 231 homers and 916 RBIs…276 BA
Johan Santana, P — 119-58 lifetime, 3.11 ERA, Cy Young winner with Twins in 2004, 2006, now pitches for Mets
Omar Vizquel, SS — Known as a slick fielder with 11 Gold Gloves, he has collected nearly 2,700 hits and 400 SBs
Nine Years And Counting
Albert Pujols, 1B — 353 HRs, 1066 RBIs, .332 BA, NL MVP 2005, 2008 with Cardinals, NL batting champion in 2003
Ichiro Suzuki, OF — 1936 hits, .332 BA, 334 steals, AL MVP in 2001 with Mariners, AL batting champ in 2001, 2004
Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval, Kung Fu Panda, was a sleeper pick in fantasy baseball drafts this year. Now if he ever gets a couple more games at catcher…
It’s been a topsy-turvy first half for the Sultans of Swat in the Nightcap Fantasy League, or NFL, of baseball. The team, co-owned by Dr. Larry G and the SportsLifer, set the pace in the early going before slipping near the bottom of the 10-team league.
However, a series of waiver wire pickups and smart trades rallied the Swingers, who now stand second at the All-Star break, primed for a second-half run at the pennant.
Here are the best and worst moves of the Sultans’ first half.
Five Best Moves
Drafting Pablo Sandoval, Kung Fu Panda, in the 21st round. Pandas can be sleepers you know.
Drafting closer Heath Bell in the 23rd round. He leads the National League in saves.
Trading Brett Myers (out for the year) for Jon Lester, who is rounding into form after a rocky start.
Trading Carlos Pena for Prince Fielder, the Home Run Derby champion
Picking up 11-game winner Tim Wakefield, the ageless knuckleballer, on waivers.
Five Worst Moves
Drafting Matt Holliday in the second round — he went from stud to dud and is on the trading block.
Drafting Clint Barmes in the fourth round — Clint Freakin’ Barmes. What were we thinking?
Releasing Rick Nolasco, who is rounding into form after being farmed out to New Orleans for a spell.
Trading Yunel Escobar and Mike Cameron for Erik Bedard, who immediately went on the disabled list.
Picking up valuable free agents like Freddy Sanchez and Russell Branyan, and not finding room for them in a crowded infield.
Jury Still Out
Trading Jorge Posada and Ryan Ludwick for Dan Haren. Got an ace, but gave up two hot hitters.
Taking Albert Pujols third overall in the draft. Fantasy or not, the best player in baseball.
Juan Marichal, left, gives Wilie Mays a playful hug after the Giants – behind Mays home run — beat Warren Spahn and the Braves, 1-0, in 16 innings on July 2, 1963.
Forty-six years ago today, July 2, 1963, Hall of Famers Juan Marichal of San Francisco and Warren Spahn of Milwaukee hooked up in one of the most memorable pitching duels off all time.The two future Hall of Famers battled for nearly 16 scoreless innings before a home run by Willie Mays over the left-field fence won the game, 1-0.
Marichal gave up eight hits and struck out 10; and Spahn allowed nine hits while striking out two batters. Spahn walked just one man in 16 innings, an intentional pass to Mays in the 14th. Marichal gave up four walks.
Each hurler threw more than 200 pitches, heresy in this modern era of pitch counts.
Counting Marichal and Spahn, seven future Hall of Famers played in the game. Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews played for the Braves and Mays,Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda for the Giants. Ironically, Mays homered against Spahn 12 years earlier at New York’s old Polo Grounds for his first major league hit.
A crowd of 15,921 witnessed the classic at chilly Candlestick Park. At one point in extra innings, Giants manager Alvin Dark asked Marichal if he wanted to come out. Marichal looked out at Spahn on the mound and said: “I’m not leaving while that old guy is still on the mound.” Spahn, right, was 42 at the time, enjoying his last great season.
Five days later Marichal matched the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson for six scoreless innings before Stan Musial finally broke his shutout streak with a two-run homer in the seventh. The Giants bullpen gave up three runs in the ninth as St. Louis won, 5-0.
Meanwhile, Spahn pitched a complete game, five-hut shutout in his next turn, beat the Houston Colt 45s, 4-0.
In 1963, Juan Marichal was 25-8 with a 2.41 ERA and 248 strikeouts. Spahn was 23-7 with a 1.88 ERA, And neither pitcher won the Cy Young Award.
That honor went to Los Angeles left-hander Sandy Koufax. who went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and struck out 306 batters. Until 1967 only one Cy Young Award was given; Koufax was also the National League MVP that year.