Fifty years later, Sal Durante has rich memories

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NEW YORK (AP) - Fifty years later, Sal Durante was back at Yankee Stadium _ the new one _ and thought about the afternoon that made him a little bit famous.

Roger Maris hit home run No. 61, breaking Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old record that had been thought to be unbreakable, and the ball went into the right-field seats and landed in the palm of Durante’s right hand on that October afternoon in 1961.

Maris‘ record lasted until 1998, when Mark McGwire hit 70. Three years later, Barry Bonds hit 73.

“How ‘bout if I just say Roger deserved it,” Durante said Friday. “He did it on his own, you know, the skill. He deserved it. Roger I still think holds the record.”

McGwire admitted last year he used steroids when he broke Maris‘ record, and Bonds goes on trial next month on charges he lied when he told a federal grand jury he didn’t knowingly use performance-enhancing drugs.

Durante, now 69, walked around the ballpark for the first time Friday, looking at pictures on the wall of the suite level of himself posing with Maris a half-century ago. In the Yankees Museum, he examined the locker once used by Maris and later Thurman Munson, and out in Monument Park on the chilly morning he read the words on the plaque put up in Maris‘ honor in 1984, a year before his death.

Frankie Prudenti, a Yankees batboy from 1956-61, also came along for the tour along with Rosemarie Durante, Durante’s fiance at the time of the catch and now his wife.

Sal Durante remembered back to that Sunday morning Oct. 1, the final day of the regular season. The powerhouse Yankees, led by Mickey Mantle and Maris, already had clinched their 11th AL pennant in 13 years.

Durante lived in Brooklyn at the time. He recalled it as a quiet morning.

“It was like kind of boring,” Durante said. “How ‘bout if we go to the Yankee Stadium? I said it’s the last game. I’d like to catch something in practice, that’s really what I wanted to do, catch any baseball in practice. It wound up that she paid for the tickets, because I had no money.”

Years earlier, a foul ball had glanced off his hands at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He wanted another chance.

“Turns out I didn’t get anything in practice,” he said with a smile, “but I got the big one.”

When they got to their seats, three were together in one row, with one in the row behind. Sal and Rosemarie went with Sal’s cousin and the cousin’s girlfriend at the time. Rosemarie originally took the solo seat.

“Just before Roger hit it, I guess it was the inning before, I said, ‘You know what _ switch seats with me. Let me sit up there, I know the game. And that’s what we did. We just happened to switch in the nick of time.”

There was a sparse crowd of 23,154 that day. Maris‘ fourth-inning smash off Boston’s Tracy Stallard went to Durante’s hand on a line drive.

“Didn’t hurt,” he said. “I can’t explain it. I didn’t feel a thing.”

Two security cards took him through the right-field bullpen to meet Maris _ so fast that Durante didn’t even have time to tell Rosemarie where he was going.

“I turned around, and he was gone,” she said.

A few weeks later, Durante sold the ball for $5,000 to Sam Gordon of Sam’s Original Ranch Wagon restaurant, who as part of the deal gave the ball to Maris. The hitter donated it to the Hall of Fame in 1973.

“I was taking home $60 a week. That was like almost a year-and-a-half’s pay if you figure it out,” Durante said. “So I gave my parents $2,500 of it because they were in debt, and I wanted to help them out. I always wanted to help them out as a kid.”

Sal and Rosemarie married that Oct. 29, and the rest of the money was used to help set up their home. They live now on Staten Island, and he retired about three years ago after 29 years as a school bus driver.

There was a commotion over Maris‘ home run _ baseball commissioner Ford Frick said the record book should list it with a special mark, such as an asterisk, because his season was eight games longer than Ruth’s. That seems simple compared with the effect of steroids.

Famous home run balls have soared in value. Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn comic books, paid $3 million for McGwire’s 70th of 1998, with 26-year-old genetic researcher Phil Ozersky getting $2.7 million after the auction commission.

Durante is happy with his rich memories. He thought back to when he was whisked to the television booth that day to be interviewed by Mel Allen.

“Phil Rizzuto comes out of the booth,” Durante said, speaking of the Hall of Fame shortstop and Yankees broadcaster. “He goes, ‘Hey, congratulations. I’m glad you’re a paisano.’ Those were his first words.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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