Roger Maris’s Home Run That Tied Babe Ruth’s Record
Babe Ruth had clobbered his 60 homers in 154 games back in 1927. In 1961, Major League Baseball expanded with two new teams and, consequently, added eight more games to the season.
Now, the baseball commissioner, Ford Frick — a confidant of Ruth and self-appointed conservator of the Ruth flame — acted as New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris neared the Babe’s single-season home run record. Frick proclaimed that, if the record were to be broken, it would have to happen within the 154th game of the longer season, or else the record books would note the distinction in season length.
Frick’s conflict-of-interest-induced deadline for the M&M Boys (and any other contenders who may emerge) stirred the already roiling waters.
The 154-game marker added unnecessary extra pressure to the guys in the home run race. It’s not like the end of the season — 162 games or otherwise — wouldn’t be nerve-wracking enough if Ruth’s record still stood by then.
And, for Maris, the pressure was worse. Most Yankee fans and the press were overtly pulling for Mantle, who’d been with the club for a decade, to overcome the sacred Ruth landmark. Maris had only been with the Yankees a couple of seasons.
Mickey was the successor of Joe DiMaggio as the embodiment of the pinstriped champions. He’d also acquired the skill of handling the New York reporters. Roger, on the other hand, was direct, honest, succinct, a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” guy — not the kind of personality that ingratiates itself with pompous, harried, pushy big-city sportswriters.
Frick’s deadline also diminished the titanic accomplishment that any tying or breaking of Babe Ruth’s record would represent, period. Frick’s move even risked delegitimizing a new single-season record that, if set by anybody, would be set by MVP-caliber players, superstars on a team of stars.
Game 154 for the New York Yankees occurred in an away series in Babe Ruth’s hometown, Baltimore. That day, a gale-force wind held Maris to one homer, his 59th. He came close to tying the record in the seventh inning, hammering a long fly ball far enough, but the strong wind carried it foul by about 10 feet. That was as close as Maris got within Frick’s stated limitation.
The consolation was that the Yankee win in that game secured the pennant.
The Tying Homer
Game 159 of the season. A dry, 72 degree Tuesday night in Yankee Stadium — the famed “House That Ruth Built.” The Yankees again faced the Orioles, following a 2-game stand in Boston.
Attendance slipped once the pennant was in hand. Fewer than 20,000 showed up for this September 26 game.
The home team’s Bud Daley faced the visitors’ Jack Fisher. The Yankee lefty had an ERA of 4.31, while Fisher’s ERA was 3.90. Yankee reliever Rollie Sheldon, with an ERA of 3.64, pitched the last three innings, while Fisher went the distance.
In the bottom of the third inning, the score stood at 2-0, Baltimore. Fisher retired the first batter of the inning, Billy Gardner, who was getting some late-season experience at second base while starter Bobby Richardson rested up for the World Series. One away.
Next came Kubek, the shortstop, to the plate. He flied out to center field. Two outs.
Up came Roger Maris for his second at-bat of the game. Fisher worked the count to 2 balls, two strikes, with Maris fouling off a fifth pitch. The power hitter slammed the 2-2 pitch from the right-handed Oriole hurler.
“[Catcher] Gus Triandos called for a curve ball,” Fisher later recounted. “I took a little bit off it and it just rolled right down the middle of the plate.”
Maris sent the curve ball down the right field line, watching it to see if the ball stayed fair. It did, towering into the upper deck facade and careening into right field. Outfielder Earl Robinson picked up the home run ball, then tossed it in.
Maris jogged around the bases in his usual workmanlike form, head down, arms swinging at his side. The crowd’s roar confirmed that he’d just tied the Babe.
Video of Roger Maris’s 60th Home Run in 1961
Pleasing the Crowd
The crowd gave Maris a standing ovation for his 60th homer of the ’61 season. That warm response contrasted with an ugly season of boos, items thrown onto the field, hate mail, and mean-spirited, biased sportswriting. But now that Mickey Mantle was injured and out of contention, those in attendance showered adoration on Roger Maris.
The cheers only got louder and continued after Maris had trotted around the base paths and made his way into the dugout. Broadcaster Mel Allen remarked, covering this then-unusual request, “Now this is something. They are standing and they are asking Roger to come out.”
After a few moments of this commotion, the reserved Maris finally climbed up the dugout steps, tipped his cap, paused briefly, then quickly stepped back into the dugout.
A Yankee had tied the single-season home run record of another Yankee. Not only that, but tied one of the best-loved Yankees of all time and with the Babe’s widow looking on.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees tied the score at two apiece on Johnny Blanchard’s RBI single, scoring Hector Lopez. In the next inning, the home team went ahead by a run on an error with two outs. A Lopez pop fly scored Gardner for an unearned run. That made it a 3-2 game.
Maris flied out in the fifth and seventh innings. Leadoff batter Gardner made the last out in the bottom of the eighth.
The hometown fans quickly realized that if the Orioles tied up the game, the bottom of the ninth would have to be played — and that Maris would be the second batter in that inning. And even if the O’s won, the Yankees had sewn up the title and were World Series-bound.
Either way, tie or Baltimore lead, it meant another shot at breaking Ruth’s record with a second home run of the night (which could give the Yankees what we now know as a walk-off win).
So, the New York fans started pulling for Baltimore in the top of the ninth! But it was not to be. In the ninth inning, Sheldon retired the Oriole batters in order, all on strikeouts.
The Briefest of Respites
The Yankees won the game, 3-2, before the home crowd. New York now had the American League pennant plus a Yankee tying the long-standing record that none other than Babe Ruth had set for the most home runs hit in one season.
Only five days remained in the ’61 season. Maris continued to bear the unrelenting pressure to outdo Ruth’s mammoth achievement. Time would tell whether he would. But this night, the beleaguered Midwesterner enjoyed a brief moment’s relief.
“This is easily the greatest thrill of my life,” Maris said after the game. “I stood and watched the ball because I wanted to make sure it stayed fair. I don’t know what to say, how to tell you what I feel. I was in a fog. I don’t remember what anyone said to me. All I know is that I’m happy.”