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Roger Maris’s Record-Setting 61st Home Run in 1961
Sunday, October 1, 1961, marked the final day of major league baseball’s regular season. The New York Yankees had the American League pennant in the bag. They’d meet the National League champion Cincinnati Reds in the World Series in a couple of days.
Some 23,154 fans came out that afternoon to see the Yankees close out the regular season and a home series against the Boston Red Sox.
The remaining question at that point was whether Roger Maris would break Babe Ruth’s record of home runs hit in a single season.
Maris had tied Ruth’s record of 60 homers the previous Tuesday night, against the Baltimore Orioles in a 3-2 Yankee win.
The pressure had built up to such a level that Maris’s hair was coming out in clumps. “I expected to see him practically bald,” his wife Pat later wrote. “He caught me looking and we both chuckled, because his head did look as if a bad barber had slipped with his clippers. I told him he looked like a molting bird.”
Maris had even asked to be taken out of the line-up in the next to last series, as the opportunities to set a new record became fewer and fewer. But the intense pressure on him continued to build.
Could Roger Maris do it? Could he overcome the stifling stress and hit just one more home run?
Video of Roger Maris’s 61st Home Run in 1961
A New Record
In the final game of the season, with Maris locked up at 60 home runs on the year, this was his last chance to surpass the Sultan of Swat.
Maris’s roommates Bob Cerv and Mickey Mantle watched the final game on TV from the hospital, where both were inpatients. “I couldn’t believe how few people were in the stands,” observed Cerv.
California restaurateur Sam Gordon had made it known that he’d pay $5,000 for the baseball Maris hit to set a new record, if it happened. That publicity stunt helped boost game attendance, but not as much as the prospect of such a slugging accomplishment itself might have spurred.
The stands in right field were packed, though. Even the pitchers got in on the action. “Except for [right-hander Bill] Stafford, about the whole pitching staff was in the bullpen,” ace pitcher Whitey Ford said. “We all wanted a crack at catching the ball and getting the $5,000.”
Maris encouraged them in this. “If you catch the ball, don’t throw it to me,” Maris had told the guys in the Yankee bullpen. “Hang onto it. It’s worth five grand.”
The pitching matchup pitted Stafford for the Yanks against rookie Tracy Stallard, a Red Sox right-hander. Stafford retired the Boston batters in order in the top of the first.
In the bottom of the inning, Maris had his first at-bat. The lefty swung at a change-up on the outside part of the plate, sending it skyward to left field. He’d flied out.
Maris had his second chance at breaking Ruth’s record in the fourth inning of the scoreless game. Two outs. Nobody on base.
The first pitch to Maris was high and outside. Ball one.
Second pitch: low and inside. Ball two.
The crowd booed Stallard for not throwing Maris decent pitches. Despite not wanting to go down in history as the pitcher on whom Maris set a new home run record, Stallard found himself behind in the count, 2-0. He didn’t want to walk him, either.
Stallard wound up and threw a fastball, right over the plate. Maris sent the ball sailing beyond right field. It landed several rows up in the lower right field porch.
“I got goosebumps when he hit it,” Mantle said about watching Maris’s homer on the hospital TV.
Maris trotted around the bases, in his typical unassuming, steady manner. No showboating, even on this august occasion when anyone might be forgiven some celebratory antics.
When he reached third base, Maris heard, “Nice going, Roger,” from Boston third baseman Frank Malzone. Maris smiled at him.
The former Yankee star and then coach Frank Crosetti, who usually patted his home run hitters on the back, shook Roger Maris’s hand as he turned the corner for home plate. That was the first of two such Crosetti handshakes — the other went to Mantle when he notched his 500th career home run.
Crosetti did something else unusual. He jogged down the third base path behind Maris. “I shook his hand, I slapped his back, and then I followed him right down the third-base line, touching home plate right behind him,” Crosetti later told Tony Kubek. “I felt like I had hit that home run, too.”
At home plate, Maris shook hands with the next batter, Yogi Berra, and batboy Frank Prudenti. Before he could get to the dugout, an anonymous fan met Maris with congratulations.
Out in the right field stands, 19-year-old Sal Durante, a Brooklyn delivery boy, came up with the ball.
As was the custom then, Maris’s New York teammates remained in the dugout to congratulate him on his feat. Maris jogged down the dugout stairs. But the crowd was on its feet cheering for the new record holder.
“Roger was in the dugout, and the fans were screaming and pounding their feet,” Hector Lopez said. “They wanted Roger to come out. Roger seemed sort of in a daze, but he didn’t want to leave the dugout. Finally, me, Moose Skowron, and Joe DeMaestri pushed him onto the field.”
Maris made his appearance at the top of the dugout steps and tipped his cap to the animated fans. Back in the dugout, all of his teammates, including many of the pitching staff who had hustled over from the bullpen, congratulated Roger.
“We did it, Freddy,” Maris told batboy Fred Bengis, his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “We did it.”
Then, the dugout got quiet. Maris found a seat. Teammates stared, in awe of his accomplishment. Roger put his head back against the dugout wall. Then came out an audible sigh. The long, lonely home run race was finally over.
The record-setting hit
Mel Allen’s 1961 Interview with Roger Maris About the Home Run Derby
Maris’s solo homer scored the only run of the game, giving the Yankees a 1-0 victory. This was the Yankees’ 109th win of the year.
Maris and Mantle, the M&M Boys, combined for 115 home runs, of the team total of 240 that season.
Sal Durante tried to give Maris the ball, but Maris told him to cash it in for the $5,000. Durante did that and married his girlfriend, 17-year-old Rosemarie Calabrese, who’d bought the tickets and insisted on their attending that game. Sam Gordon also paid for the couple’s honeymoon trip to California to trade the baseball for the money.
Learn More About Maris and His Record Home Run
Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero is a truly excellent biography of one of the main characters of 1960s baseball.