NEW YORK – On October 1, the anxiety felt in the right field Sections 25, 27, 29, 31 and 33 of the grandstands – as well as the right field corner bleachers – in Yankee Stadium must have been palpable. After all, it was the last chance for fans in that part of the Stadium to win $5,000 on behalf of Sam Gordon.
The proprietor of a Sacramento restaurant, Gordon had offered the sum – as well as a round trip ticket to his eatery – for the baseball that was to be hit for Roger Maris’ 61st home run of the 1961 season. On that cool fall afternoon, in a Stadium that seated over 67,000, only a crowd of 23,154 spectators viewed history being made in the Bronx.
In the bottom of the fourth frame, at precisely 2:43 PM, Maris became the first player in Major League history to hit more than 60 home runs in a single season. The last day of the ’61 campaign, after months of tension, suffocating media coverage and even death threats, the 27-year old from Fargo, ND had overtaken Babe Ruth’s record of 60. The Great Bambino had set that mark on the second to last day of the 1927 season – the same year of the Yankees’ famous Murderer’s Row lineup, perhaps the greatest and most potent in the game’s history. That year, Ruth had only to compete with himself, as the high mark of 59 homers had been set six years prior by his own hands. With the new total of 60, Ruth had hit more home runs than any other team in the American League during the ’27 campaign.
Since then, there had been a few serious contenders to Ruth’s hallowed record. Philadelphia’s Jimmie Foxx and Detroit’s Hank Greenberg both hit 58 home runs in 1932 and 1938, respectively, but neither could reach 60. Additionally, Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle had made a run for it during his Triple Crown season of 1956. He bottomed out with a total of 52.
With pitching thinned out in both leagues because of expansion, Roger reached, and had been sitting on number 60 since September 26. Tensions were high. The strain brought on by the chase started months earlier, but had grown exponentially. As early as the second week of June, it was clear that Maris and his teammate Mantle were on pace to compete for Ruth’s record. For the rest of the season, they traded homer after homer. Soon, the two teammates were seemingly pitted against each other by the New York press, despite their close friendship off of the field. At the time, Mickey Mantle had been with the Yankees for 10 years, and in the eyes of reporters and fans, had grown to be the darling of New York City, and maybe even the whole country. Roger, however, was only in his second year in pinstripes. Though he had won Most Valuable Player honors the year before, he was labeled as a surly newcomer, an outsider, and even worse in their minds, not a ‘true’ Yankee.
Despite growing scrutiny from newspapers and fans around the country, Maris continued on hitting. In mid-September, Mantle dropped out of the race. He had developed an abscess in his hip after taking a doctor-administered shot for a nagging virus, and he’d be out for the remaining games of the season. He was done at the 54 home run mark. The record was now only Roger’s to beat.
Facing Maris and the Yankees in that final regular season game of October was the 24-year old Boston rookie right hander, Tracy Stallard. In the first inning, Roger was fooled by an outside pitch that he stroked to left field for an out. With shadows from the triple-deck facade enveloping the field, the fourth inning saw Roger facing Stallard again, with one out and no one on base.
The Boston pitcher’s first offering was high and outside, the second, low and inside. Both pitches were greeted by a chorus of boos. Stallard’s next offering was a waist-high fastball, right down the middle. In a flash, Roger’s swift swing connected with the ball, sending it through the sun soaked blue sky that overtook the Stadium. The smack was met with a roar from the crowd, and Roger stood at home plate for half of a second, seemingly spellbound after what he had just done. As the ball flew into the lower deck of the right field stands, Maris rounded the bases with his head down, shook hands with Yankee coach Frank Crosetti at third, and then touched home plate. He was greeted at home by on-deck hitter Yogi Berra and the batboy, and then by a young fan who ran onto the field to congratulate him. When he trotted into the dugout, he was mobbed by the entire Yankee team. Though he had been reluctant to acknowledge the crowd after hitting his 60th homer on Tuesday night, his teammates made sure that he did this time. They demanded a repeat performance from Roger. He climbed up the steps of the dugout and out onto the clay, all the while, smilingly doffing his cap for the ecstatic crowd. Maris’ teammates refused to let him back into the safety of the dugout until he took a few more bows.
Sal Durante, a 19-year old truck driver from Brooklyn, sat in Section 33, Box 1963 D that afternoon, and was hoping to come away with the prize. He had purchased tickets to the game for himself and his fiancée Rosemarie Calabrese after going to Tuesday’s contest, one that gave him a great clue as to where to expect the home run ball to land. Their seats that night were located in Section 21, the first in fair territory on the right field side of the park. Durante noticed that that night, all of the practice balls hit by the players, including Maris, were landing to his right Section 33. When they arrived at the ballpark at 12:30, they were able to purchase seats for that section without hassle. They were eight rows from the outfield wall, and ten feet to their right was the Yankee bullpen.
When that ball flew his way in the fourth, like the fans around him, he excitedly jumped onto his seat and lunged for the projectile. Falling into a heap with a number of other fans, he avoided punches from those in the pile-up, and had come away after a few seconds with the trophy in hand. Screaming, ‘I got it, I got it,’ he was quickly whisked away to the Yankee bullpen by police, as he was both in danger of having the ball taken forcefully by other reward-hungry fans, and was officially slated to meet with television cameras, reporters, and Roger Maris himself, whom he just wanted to give the ball to. When the Yankees came to bat in the fifth, Maris left the dugout to meet Durante.
In addition to the monetary reward and the roundtrip to Sacramento courtesy of Mr. Gordon, Durante also was given tickets to the World’s Fair in Seattle, WA, as well as two Yankee season passes from club president Dan Topping. Each was good for a seat at every single home game of the 1962 season.
Durante and Maris posed for several photographs of them holding the home run ball, as well as a Yankee home jersey with number 61 on the back. When Roger returned to the game, reporters, broadcasters and photographers had already swarmed around the ballpark, creating a circus-like atmosphere a regular season game rarely afforded.
In the end, Ruth’s record was not to be erased. In the middle of that 1961 season, Baseball Commissioner Ford C. Frick ruled that Babe’s record would stand unless it was broken in the same 154-game schedule that Ruth had set it in. The record books would show that any new number that had been accomplished in the new 162 game schedule would be distinctly separate from those of the 154-game era. In those first 154 games, Maris had hit 59 homers. His 60th had come four days later.
While sitting at his locker after the game, Maris sipped a beer and answered every question reporters threw at him. “Nobody knows how tired I am,” he said. “Naturally, I’m happy I got past that 60 during the season. And now that the 61st wasn’t hit in 154 games, I’m happy. That’s the way it was to be and that’s the way it is.”