In honor of the 50th anniversary of Roger Maris’ record setting 61 homeruns in 1961, The Captain’s Blog will be tracking his pursuit of Babe Ruth by listing each home run in the sidebar on the anniversary of the day on which it was hit. Details about each blast will be provided along with a running tally and a comparison to both Ruth and Mickey Mantle.
Long before Roger Maris took his first at bat in 1961, the baseball world was obsessed with Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record. Although no one had really challenged the mark since Hank Greenberg hit 58 long balls in 1938, everyone was talking about the possibility that the upcoming season would bring with it a new single season home run champion.
The impetus for the great debate was the American League’s decision to increase its schedule to 162 games (the National League would follow suit in 1962). The added games were needed to facilitate the league’s expansion to 10 teams, but that didn’t stop many in and around the game from fretting about the impact more contests would have on the record book.
There can be little doubt that with 388 games tagged onto the major league schedules each year due to the expansion, many records will be toppling faster than managerial jobs.” – UPI, October 27, 1960
Although concern was expressed about all of baseball’s individual and team records, only one was really on most people’s mind: the 60 homers belted by the Babe in 1927. Ironically, however, the general consensus among the informed was that although other marks might fall, Ruth’s home run record would persevere.
Everyone worries most about Ruth’s record of 60 in 1927, but adding eight games to the schedule wouldn’t threaten that mark, according to the recent trend.” – Seymour Siwoff, Elias Baseball Bureau, quoted by UPI, January 21, 1961
Even Commissioner Ford C. Frick directly addressed the prospect of Ruth’s record falling as a result of the expanded schedule. “My opinion on that is almost a conviction,” Frick told Arthur Daley of the New York Times. “I don’t think the Babe’s record is vulnerable.”
At the time, Frick did hedge his bet by stating that he might decide to use a separate category to list records set during the extra eight games, but no definitive ruling was established at the time. After all, Frick didn’t expect there to be an issue. Before too long, however, Maris would throw the controversy right back into his lap.
When the 1961 season started, Maris really wasn’t on the radar as a potential threat to Ruth’s record. After all, despite winning the 1960 MVP, the Yankees’ right fielder had never hit more than 39 long balls, so eight extra games wasn’t expected to make much of a difference. Not even teammate Mickey Mantle, who belted 52 homers in 1956, was perceived as having a shot. All that would change by the summer.
Mickey Mantle had 40 in 153 games and Roger Maris had 39 in 138. Obviously, the addition of eight more games wouldn’t help them make up the difference between that pace and Ruth’s record.” – Seymour Siwoff, Elias Baseball Bureau, quoted by UPI, January 21, 1961
Mantle busted out of the gate in 1961, hitting seven homeruns in the Yankees’ first 11 games. Maris, however, immediately squandered the head start. The reigning MVP went homerless in his first 41 plate appearances of the season before going deep for the first time against the Tigers’ Paul Foytack on April 26. It would be the only home run hit by Maris in the entire month of April.
By the end of June, Maris would eventually catch up to and then surpass Mantle in a riveting homerun race that captivated the nation. Then, at the end of July, the two sluggers stood nearly side-by-side in pursuit of Ruth. Maris had 40. Mantle had 39. Could it be that not one, but two men would surpass the immortal Babe?
Suddenly, everyone has become homerun happy. It seems no one can run home fast enough to turn on the radio and find out how many more homers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris have hit.” – John Drebinger, The New York Times, July 30, 1961
The Race to Ruth: Mantle and Maris Month-by-Month
|Roger Maris||Mickey Mantle|
Not everyone was excited. After slightly miscalculating when he forecast that Ruth’s home run record would be safe, Frick finally got around to acting on his idea about bifurcating the record book. With the country enthralled by the escapades of Maris and Mantle, Frick decided to throw a wet blanket on the excitement by ruling that any record not set within the first 154 games of the season would be affixed with an asterisk (although he eventually relented to a dual listing).
With one typographical mark, Frick had defined a new era: the Age of the Asterisk. Like the Steroid Era that would follow, there were two factions in the war over the record book. On one side, traditionalists argued that the sanctity of past performances needed to be upheld by ensuring that any new challenges met the same standards as the past. Meanwhile, more progressive observers argued that change existed within each era, and that the continuity of the record book was best maintained by accepting these differences. The Times’ Drebinger summed up this argument best when he wrote, “Ruth needs no asterisk to protect his place in baseball. If around today he’d probably grumble: ‘Why all the fuss? Let’s get going’” (a point worth noting by all who fret so much about the impact of steroids on the record book).
Mr. Ford Frick made one of his typically profound announcements the other day. You know who Mr. Frick is, of course. He is the man who presides over the baseball’s current ‘Age of the Asterisk”. – Bert Borrone, Park City Daily News Sports Editor, July 21, 1961
Maris eventually tied the record in game 158 and then broke it in the final contest of the season, but there wasn’t that much celebration…at least not as much as there should have been. Only 23,154 poured through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium to see Maris make a run at history on that final day, but who could blame the fans for their relative apathy. After all, when’s the last time anyone got excited over an asterisk?
It took almost 30 years for baseball to get around to removing the stigma attached to Maris’ accomplishment. On September 5, 1991, an eight-man panel called the committee for statistical accuracy finally lifted the asterisk and put baseball’s stamp of approval on 61. As a result, Ruth’s name was dropped from the entry listing the single season homerun record holder, leaving Maris all alone.
I didn’t make the schedule. And do you know any other records that have been broken since the 162-game schedule that have an asterisk?” – quote attributed to Roger Maris
Unfortunately, the panel’s decision came six years after Maris passed away, but the gesture probably wouldn’t have mattered much to a man who preferred to be out of the spotlight in the first place. However, it does seem a shame that the former slugger was never able to really enjoy one of the game’s most epic feats.
What’s more, it’s rather ironic that more people probably consider Maris to be the single season home run king today than at the time hit 61. In fact, the once cherished record now seems to be tainted by a permanent asterisk. Perhaps that’s baseball’s punishment for treating Maris so shabbily.