- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

“Fastball hit to right — this could be it! … Holy cow, he did it! … One of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!”

— Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto,

Oct. 1, 1961

Much else was happening in sports and elsewhere on that cool Sunday afternoon 44 years ago. In Washington, for example, the Redskins were playing the first game ever at D.C. (later RFK) Stadium and losing to the New York Giants 24-21. But for many fans in the United States, the world seemed to stand still as New York Yankees right fielder Roger Maris took his last shot at a legend.

It had been 34 years since Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run of the 1927 season, breaking his own major league record set just six years earlier. For most of the 1961 season, Maris and popular Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle had threatened the mark together. But Mantle’s bid ended at 54 in mid-September when a staph infection in his hip put him on the bench. Now Maris was going it alone, and many wanted him to fail. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby sneered at him as a “bush leaguer” who had never hit .300. Maris finished the season with a just .269 average.

Mantle, a star for a decade, had learned to handle the fame and acclaim that accompanied sports stardom in New York. Maris never learned. An unsophisticated small-town boy from Fargo, N.D., he just wanted to be left alone to play ball. That had pretty much happened in 1960, when he batted .283 with 39 home runs and was named the AL MVP in his first season with the Yankees. But now everything was different.

As Maris continued to smash home runs with his level left-handed stroke — he had 27 at the end of June, 40 at the end of July, 51 at the end of August — the pressure and questions mounted apace. Maris grew surly. He chain-smoked in the dugout runway between innings. His hair fell out in clumps because of nerves. By September, all he wanted to do was go home to his family. Never was a superstar more miserable.

Because the league had increased the schedule from 154 to 162 games in 1961 following its expansion to 10 teams, commissioner Ford Frick ruled in mid-September that a Maris record would bear an asterisk if he did not top 60 in 154 games. Roger gave it a good try. On the chilly, rainy night of Sept.20 in Baltimore — the Babe’s hometown — he slugged No.59 in game No.154 but stopped there.

Six days later, Maris hammered his record-tying 60th off Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher. But he was blanked during the next three games, so it came down to the last day of the season against the Boston Red Sox on Oct.1.

Somewhat surprisingly, a crowd of only 23,154 trooped into cavernous Yankee Stadium to watch the final assault. Ralph Houk’s first Yankees team had long since clinched the pennant with Maris and Mantle pounding away and Whitey Ford winning 25 games, the Red Sox were terrible and there was pro football on television.

The Boston starter was Tracy Stallard, a 24-year-old right-hander with a 2-6 record. In the first inning, he fooled Maris with a changeup on which the slugger flied to left field.

Now it was the fourth inning, and the scoreboard clock read 2:42 as Maris came up with one out and none on in a scoreless game. For some reason, Stallard threw nothing but fastballs this time. The first two pitches were balls as the fans booed. The third was over the plate waist high, and Maris walloped it toward the right-field stands to the right of the Yankees’ bullpen 360 feet from the plate. It was caught six rows deep by a 19-year-old Brooklyn man named Sal Durante, who posed for pictures with Maris after the game but did not give him the ball. Later, Durante sold the ball for $5,000 to a California restaurateur who presented it to Maris.

Unlike latter-day hitters who stop and admire the flight of their home runs, Maris simply circled the bases, shook hands with the next hitter, Yogi Berra, and disappeared into the dugout. When the crowd refused to stop cheering, his teammates pushed him out into view for a curtain call, and he managed to smile and wave his cap to the fans. Then the long, long chase finally was over.

The epic homer was the only run in the Yankees’ 109th victory of the season, one less than the number achieved by the 1927 team. In two subsequent at-bats, Maris struck out and popped out, but it didn’t matter. The unthinkable deed had been done.

In the clubhouse afterward, Maris told a media mob he was happy, but that was a lie. He wouldn’t really be content until he could get home to his family in Kansas City, Mo., after the World Series (which the Yankees ultimately won against the Cincinnati Reds in five games).

“I want to get away from people,” Maris said. “I want to be alone with my wife and four kids. They don’t hardly know they’ve got a father.”

In the Red Sox clubhouse, Stallard angrily denied “grooving” the pitch to Maris and then added, with a smile, “I know one thing — my price for appearing at banquets just went up.”

Despite his fine defensive skills and clutch hitting, Maris was forever defined by two identical numbers — 61 in ‘61 — though he never again hit more than 33 home runs in a season (in 1962) before retiring in 1968 after two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. He finished his 12-year major career with 275 homers.

Maris’ 61st home run seemed a record for the ages — but in 1961, nobody had heard of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or the use of steroids. And he said, it might have been better if nobody had heard of him.

“It would all have been a lot more fun if I had never hit those 61 homers,” Roger Maris insisted shortly before his death from cancer at 51 in 1985. “Some guys love being a celebrity, but all it brought me was headaches.”

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