Looking back in time through the eyes of a 10-year-old kid growing up a Yankee fan in New York, I have fond memories of the summer of 1961 and the great home run chase.
And this kid remembers July 25, 1961, 50 years later. That was the night the home run chase became real.
On 7/25/61, Roger Maris hit four home runs in a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, two in each game, to become the fastest player to reach 40 home runs.
The fireworks began in the second inning when Maris hit a two-run shot off the right field foul pole off Chicago’s Frank Baumann to tie teammate Mickey Mantle for the home run lead with 37. Mantle immediately broke the tie with a home run off the left field foul pole for his 38th.
Mantle was done for the night, but Maris was just warming up. He hit another home run in the eighth inning of the opener against former Yankee Don Larsen, “the imperfect man who pitched the perfect game” and part of the trade that brought Maris to the Yankees prior to the 1960 season. The Bombers won 5-1 as Whitey Ford ran his record to 18-2 and Luis Arroyo recorded his 20th save.
In the nightcap, Maris, pictured below, hit a solo shot in the fourth and a three-run blast in the sixth, for his 39th and 40th home runs of the season. Elston Howard also homered in the second game and Clete Boyer homered twice as the Yanks won 12-0 behind the shutout pitching of Bill Stafford. The sweep edged the Yankees a half-game ahead of the Detroit Tigers.
25 Games Ahead of Babe’s Pace
“Roger is running away from Babe Ruth like a scared kid in a graveyard,” wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “With 40 homers, Rogers is 25 games ahead of Ruth’s pace….Oh, Clete Boyer had two homers and now is only 80 games behind Ruth.”
Maris finished the day with four home runs and eight RBIs. Mantle would retake the home run lead in early August before Maris got hot again. Roger passed the Mick for good when he blasted his 46th home run of the year – against the White Sox — on August 15.
Mantle wound up with a career high 54 home runs that season, his body breaking down over the final weeks of the season. Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60, set in 1927, with his 61st home run against the Boston Red Sox on the final day of the season.
Nearly 50 years later, Maris (162 games) and Ruth (154 games) continue to hold the American League single season record.
And if you discount the steroid-juiced and hyper-inflated home run marks of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris is still baseball’s all-time single season home run king.
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.
Johnny Blanchard, right, Yogi Berra, left, and Elston Howard split catching duties with the World Champion 1961 New York Yankees.
In the long and storied history of major league baseball, no player has ever homered in five successive at bats.
Johnny Blanchard, the former Yankee who passed away earlier this week, may have come the closest.
On July 21, 1961, Blanchard hit a pinch-hit grand slam with two outs in the ninth inning to give the Yankees an 11-8 victory against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
The following night, Blanchard, again hitting for Clete Boyer, hit another home run in the ninth to tie the score, helping the Yanks rally for an 11-9 win.
After a couple of days off, Blanchard homered in his first two at bats against the White Sox on July 26 at Yankee Stadium in a 5-2 win. His bid for a record fifth straight homer landed in the glove of Chicago right fielder Floyd Robinson a few feet shy of the short porch in right.
Only 34 players in history have homered in four straight at bats. Notable accomplishments include the following:
- Robert Lowe (1894), Lou Gehrig (1932), Rocky Colavito (1959), Mike Schmidt (1976), Mike Cameron (2002) and Carlos Delgado did it in one game.
- In addition to Blanchard, three other Yankees performed the feat: Gehrig, Mickey Mantle (1962) and Bobby Murcer (1970).
- Another Yankee, Reggie Jackson, hit four homers in a row against the Dodgers in games five and six of the 1977 World Series.
- Schmidt also hit four in a row over the course of two games in 1979, the only player to do it twice.
- Blanchard and Baltimore’s Jeff Manto(1995) are the only players to hit four straight over three games.
- Ted Williams hit four in four games with the Red Sox in 1957, the only player ever to do that.
- Jimmie Foxx (1933), Hank Greenberg (1938), Stan Musial (1962) and Barry Bonds (2001) are among others who did it.
- Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire are among those who didn’t.
Blanchard, a native of Minnesota, had a brief stint with the Yankees in 1955 before coming to the majors to stay four years later.
A catcher, first baseman and outfielder, Blanchard was a valuable utility man on five straight Yankee pennant winners (1960-64), and played on both the 1961 and 1962 champions.
Blanchard had a career year in 1961, batting .305 with 21 homers and knocking in 54 runs in just 243 at bats.
He batted .345 in five World Series, including .400 in 1961 against the Reds. In that Series, Blanchard hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of game three and a two-run shot in the game five clincher.