As you might imagine, I have spent the better part of the day watching playoff baseball. I have now tuned into Game 1 of the ALDS between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees after the Texas Rangers have evened their ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays. The broadcasters at TBS have just mentioned it was 50 years ago today that Roger Maris hit his 61st homerun of the 1961 season, breaking Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 homeruns which he set in 1927.
It is astonishing to think there were barely over 23,000 in attendance at old Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season to see Maris take Tracy Stallard deep. At the time, Yankee Stadium’s capacity was more than 67,000. So yes, Yankee Stadium was two thirds empty when Maris supplanted Ruth.
In 1961, the American League expanded with the addition of the Los Angeles Angels and a new version of the Washington Senators (the original Senators moved north to become the Minnesota Twins.) Consequently, the schedule was expanded from 154 to 162 games. While Commissioner Ford Frick never actually affixed an asterik to Maris’ record he did indicate such a notation would be made Maris didn’t hit his 61th by the 154th game.
The New York media also didn’t kindly to an upstart passing a mythical figure. Of course, for much of that season both Maris and Mickey Mantle had a shot at surpassing the record. The New York media intimated there was a feud between Mantle and Maris but they were actually living together at the time. Maris would joke with Mantle when he would hand him a morning paper and say, “Mick, we’re fighting again.” Of course, Mantle would miss the final weeks of the regular season due to ill health with only Maris having a shot at the record.
When Maris did pass Ruth, he ran around the bases as fast as he could and had to be cajoled to accept a curtain call. By the time the World Series came around, Maris was a spent force going 2 for 19 with a homerun. The Yankees, however, beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games to win their first World Series under manager Ralph Houk.
Despite hostility from the press, Maris would win his second consecutive American League MVP. He did drive in 100 runs in 1962 along with another World Series title but his productivity fell off after that. Maris was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals following the 1966 season. He was more comfortable in low key St. Louie and appeared in back to back World Series with the Cardinals in 1967 and 1968 before announcing his retirement. Maris moved to Florida where he ran a Budweiser distributorship which was awarded to him by Cardinals owner Auggie Busch. He died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 1985 at the age of 51.
It should be noted that while Maris’ record has been eclipsed by the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, Maris still holds the American League single season record for homeruns. In light of the manner McGwire, Sosa and Bonds attained their records there are those who make the case that Maris should still be recognized as the record holder for both leagues. When Maris was passed by McGwire in 1998, Maris held the record longer than The Bambino. Well, record holder or not, Roger Maris’ accomplishment half a century ago becomes more impressive with each passing year.