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Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris's Relationship During the Home Run Record Race of '61
If you believed what you read in the newspapers during the 1961 baseball season, you might think that New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were at each other’s throats. Mantle and Maris nursed a season-long “feud,” the papers claimed.
After all, the Mick and Rajah — the M&M Boys — were chasing each other and Babe Ruth’s record for home runs hit in a single season: 60. This contest between two of the Yanks’ most powerful bats seemed to have translated into personal and bitter rivalry.
The stakes of breaking one of the Babe’s superhuman records could hardly be higher. How could it not pressure the dueling home-run hitters into taking the on-field chase off the field?
Perhaps contributing to the perception (aside from reporters who stooped to fiction writing in the newspapers’ columns) was the new chapter for the dominant Yankee franchise. Long-time manager Casey Stengel was out and Ralph Houk was in. And the Yankees were eventually giving Houk a great inaugural year at the helm of the franchise’s major-league team.
The M&M Boys’ home run chase provided a secondary drama as the team vied for the pennant and maybe a 19th World Series title, following a tepid season start. But the truth is, Mantle and Maris became personally closer that season.
Rivals in the Bronx, Roommates in Queens
Roger Maris and his close friend, Bob Cerv, left Manhattan for an apartment in Queens. Cerv, with whom Maris had played on the Kansas City Athletics, was traded to the Yankees early in the ’61 season. Big Julie Isaacson, a New York institution who shepherded many a Yankee acquisition in negotiating life in the big city, landed a two-bedroom apartment for the players off the Van Wyck Expressway.
Mantle’s suite in the St. Moritz Hotel in Manhattan afforded him little escape from the press and public spotlight. It also cost him a nice chunk of his salary. And its central location made it easy to yield to the temptations that Mickey hardly made an effort to resist in the first place.
Mickey knew what Maris was going through, having faced the pressure of relentless booing from fans who didn’t understand how such a strong physical specimen rated a pass from his draft board on military service in the Korean War, yet he could perform magnificent feats on the baseball field as a top-earning professional ball player (he suffered from the effects of osteomyelitis since a high school football injury). Now, the fickle fans had shifted to loving Mickey and turned on the 1960 MVP, Maris.
Mantle approached Maris and Cerv about joining them in the Queens apartment, Cerv later recounted. “How would you like a roommate?” asked Mantle. Maris and Cerv agreed to take in the New York Yankees’ hot property. “I told him, ‘We’ve got rules, you know,’” Cerv said. “He went along with them.” The house rules, set by Mantle’s new roomies, included no girls or parties in the apartment. They warned that Mick would be out if he broke the rules.
A quieter home base during the ’61 season worked pretty well, even with just two bedrooms (Maris took the couch). Mantle, Maris, and Cerv kept their phone number unlisted, their neighbors remained low-key about everything, and no one squealed to the press where the Yankee trio was renting. Between taking in TV game shows and programs like The Andy Griffith Show, listening to Mantle’s country music and Maris’s eclectic record album collection, putting golfballs across the carpet and playing card games like hearts and gin rummy, the threesome got along fine.
The big “feud” story in the papers gave the guys ongoing laughs. They’d read the latest rumors of the supposed animosity at the breakfast table. Later, at the ball park, the roommates read it to their teammates for another round of laughter. There was zero truth to the allegation, but that didn’t stop the press from churning out its fiction.
“We all laughed that summer,” Cerv recalled. “‘Mantle/Maris feuding‘ — and we were living together!”
“Wake up, Mick, we’re fighting again!” Maris declared one morning that summer as he came back to the apartment with newspapers and coffee.
“Maris, I hate your guts!” Mantle would sometimes growl during pregame warm-ups, all for the benefit of nearby reporters. The more gullible writers bought it as part of the summer’s “drama” in the Yankees clubhouse.
In fact, the two teammates grew closer that season.
“That’s why the apartment was perfect for him, and it was good for me,” recalled Mantle. “He wanted to get away from everything, and I needed to get away from it all, too.”
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Friendship by Fire
The season of ’61, in which both superstars vied to beat the legendary Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, served to drive friendly competition as well as build the kind of friendship gained only by individuals going through a shared, high-pressure experience.
“It seemed the more pressure was on Maris, the closer he and Mickey became,” observed Yankee ace pitcher Whitey Ford. “. . . [T]he competition brought the best out of both of them.”
“. . . I never thought I’d outlive Roger Maris,” Mantle recalled. “I was asked the other day who was the best all-around player I’d seen, and I said Roger. . . . That year , we were so close because we roomed together.”
But it was more than that. The crucible of competition on the field, constant pressure from the public (including the ugly booing that escalated as Maris neared the Ruthian mark), never-ending hounding by reporters who excelled at posing what Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper has aptly labeled “clown questions,” baseball commissioner Ford Frick and his asinine asterisk, and the natural regrets of long separations from family drew Mantle and Maris together in their foxhole. Number Seven and Number Nine became life-long friends, respected colleagues, and honored competitors. And this all came together in ’61.