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THE WEEK THEY TRY TO CATCH THE BABE

Sept. 11, 1961
Sept. 11, 1961

Table of Contents
Sept. 11, 1961

Yankees
Walker Cup
Deane Beman
Hunting
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

THE WEEK THEY TRY TO CATCH THE BABE

A fanciful (but by no means unbelievable) look at what might happen when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris make their stretch runs at baseball's gaudiest record

No team, to be sure, plans a Maris shift in which all seven fielders array themselves against the right-field wall to cut off a 60th home run. And no pitcher intends to roll the ball to the plate when the M&M boys come up. But don't bet against either eventuality. The attack on Babe Ruth's record already has caused scores of oddities—not to say weirdities—on and off the playing field, and matters are going to reach a hectic crescendo in the week when the record stands or falls. There may be one or two more important things going on in the world as September ends, but only a few people will pay them much heed.

This is an article from the Sept. 11, 1961 issue Original Layout

TV and radio networks are arranging to break in with spot announcements as the magic 60th homer comes in sight. Garry Moore and Ed Sullivan and Perry Como are trying to sign Maris and Mantle for appearances (asking price: $15,000 the pair). Agents and hustlers are waiting in the wings with all sorts of contracts. Ghostwriters are oiling up their typewriters to compose How I Broke Ruth's Record, byline pending.

But first M&M have to break the record, and the pitchers' union says they won't. The pitchers' union, which can be tougher than the Teamsters, said the same about Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Jimmy Foxx and others who dared to assault Ruth's mark. In the final weeks of these gentlemen's big seasons they didn't see a pitch they could have hit with a surfboard. The same is already happening to Mantle and Maris. Mantle hit his 47th home run off a Jim Kaat curve that would have bounced in front of the plate if Mantle had let it. He hit his 48th off a blooper looped up by Jack Kralick. Maris sometimes goes a whole game without seeing a decent pitch; he has started swinging at bad balls, and every union member knows it. The most frequent strategy now is to go to three and nothing on him and then begin working the corners, teasing him with marginal pitches and daring him to pass them up. He is taking the bait and swinging.

At the Lindell Bar in Detroit, a watering spot for Tiger players, the pitchers who will be called upon to halt both M&M and the Yankees discuss their role. Said one, in a moment of disarming candor, "We'll be busting ourselves in half to keep from giving up the record home run. Nobody wants to be that kind of sap. Maris will have to have a junk dealer's license to get into the ball park."

Pitchers don't care—much

Interviewed for the record, however, American League pitchers almost to a man solemnly intone the cliché, "I don't care about the record; all that matters is winning the ball game." They also would have one believe that they are going to pitch to Mantle and Maris just exactly as they would if no record were at stake. Said Steve Barber of Baltimore, who will be working against the Yankees next week, "I wouldn't feel too bad if either hit No. 60 off me, unless it cost me a ball game." This is true, and Barber is the Queen of Rumania. A Midwestern sports editor has felt the collective pulse of pitchers and predicts that Maris will not break the home run record but will establish a new mark for being hit in the back. (This record must be set in the first 154 games of the season; otherwise it will be noted with an asterisk.)

Whatever happens, the M&M road show will go down in baseball history as a commercial success of huge proportions. There has hardly been an empty seat at a Yankee game in weeks; attendance records fell at Minnesota, Kansas City and Los Angeles. Four-dollar tickets that a scalper couldn't have sold for $3 a month ago are now going for $30 and $40 apiece. A White Sox official, Rudie Schaffer, gleefully anticipates a three-game series with the Yankees in Chicago, and—seeking the reverse publicity characteristic of these chaotic times—proudly points out that M&M have always fattened on the frail White Sox pitchers. The prospect will draw packed houses, and Schaffer's sole partisan hope is that Maris or Mantle will stride to the plate, point to a distant spot in the center-field stands and then strike out.

One reporter flitted among the crowd at a Kansas City-Yankee game recently and asked 30 folks why they came. Three said they go to all Yankee games in Kansas City; two said they came to see the Yankees lose; two were season box holders who consider nonattendance a waste; one was a Yogi Berra fan; one explained that he always attends Friday night games, and 21 said they came to see Mantle and Maris. If this sampling can be trusted, it means that two-thirds of the near-capacity crowd of 30,830 were drawn solely by M&M.

The magnetic appeal of the record assault has even had its effect on the gross national product. The city of Detroit, understandably not regarded as a summer festival site for vacationers, is looking forward to its forthcoming four-game Yankee series with delighted smiles and outstretched hands. The ball park has been sold out for weeks. Nightclub business, so slow that four top spots have filed bankruptcy proceedings, will get a financial boost. "I don't care if Maris hits 100 if it helps the business," said one to-his-own-self-be-true bistro owner. Cabbies are counting their fares already. "It's six bits to the ball park," said a grizzled old-timer. "I can make six trips up and six back. A man could get rich right there." Others who will benefit peripherally are the peddlers of miniature baseballs, pennants and assorted objets d'art, all of whom have laid in big stocks of Maris and Mantle bats and balls. While fans queue up for these souvenirs of the great sweep of history, mementos of home-town heroes like Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash are going like coldcakes.

Someone has computed that a new homer record would be worth half a million dollars to the hitter, a fact with which Baseball Agent Frank Scott, M&M's representative, muses himself to deep and peaceful sleep each night. (It will also be worth money to the fan who catches the 60th homer. Babe Ruth paid $50 for the ball he hit, and Mantle or Maris can be counted on to do at least as well, provided the right ball can be selected from the two dozen certain to be proffered by youthful con men.) At the moment, Scott is playing hard to get, and is idly sifting through offers from NBC (for the Today show), a CBS plan for a TV spectacular on M&M and the aforementioned bids from the top variety shows. He is riding high in a seller's market.

The idea of all this money waiting around for Mantle or Maris has not escaped the attention of the sporting public, which loves a winner, especially a rich winner. When Chicago Manager Al Lopez pitched three straight left-handers against the Yankees in a recent series he was soundly berated by fans. "They say I'm stealing thousands of dollars from Mantle and Maris," the baffled Lopez observed. The money motif has helped to make baseball fans out of nonfans, including a few little old ladies who are under the impression that the San Francisco White Sox are leading the American League by six games to love. After every Yankee game sports desks and radio stations are inundated by calls from people who are monumentally disinterested in the score of the game but simply must know if M or M hit one. The Kansas City Star has been taking 80 such calls a night. Not long ago a caller asked staffer Don Brewer how the Yankees were faring against Cleveland. "It's two to nothing Cleveland," said Brewer.

"Never mind that," said the caller. "Have Mantle or Maris hit any homers?"

Word from above

All of this frenzied interest has led certain experts to make more or less accurate predictions about the week the 60th homer is—or is not—hit. A New York tabloid, following its tradition of enterprising journalism and expenses be damned, sent a reporter to "heaven" to sound out the most expert expert of all—the Babe himself. Ruth allowed that Maris seemed to have a good chance to break the record, but Mantle's prospects were poor. Somebody else predicted that the total paid attendance at the Kansas City game in Cleveland on Sept. 20 will be zero. Everybody will be at home listening to the Yankees play the 154th game of the season at Baltimore. At least one bridegroom-to-be will carry a transistor radio into the church, hear the 60th homer reported through his earplug and answer "He did" instead of "I do."

Senators from every state where Mantle and Maris have been born or lived, which they have passed through or misspelled in school, will rush to the Senate floor to deliver congratulatory speeches about their native son. The Senators from New York will speak, on the grounds that North Dakotan Maris and Oklahoman Mantle ply their trade in that great state, and the Senators from Massachusetts will point out that the ball, after all, was made livelier in that great state. Somewhere a crafty employer will install a radio loudspeaker in the office, and for the first time since World War II nobody will take a coffee break.

It is even possible to predict the scene in the dressing rooms on the fateful day. Somebody will ask M or M what kind of pitch he hit. "A good fast ball," he'll say. Somebody will ask the pitcher what he threw. "A curve ball that hung," he'll say. Somebody will also ask the catcher. "It was a slider that sailed," he will report.

Not even baseball players have been exempt from the plethora of prognostication and opium dreams. In every dugout before every game players get together and work up the possibilities. One pitcher—whose jests may reveal his intentions—thinks it would be hilarious if Maris or Mantle tripped on a bat and broke a leg as he strode to the plate with 59 home runs and eight games to play. Another foresees Maris standing at the plate for his very last at bat, needing one homer to break the record. The score is tied and Kubek is on third. Maris digs in; the pitcher panics, drops the ball in the middle of his wind-up and the winning run is balked across the plate. The ball game is over, and Maris is left standing there—a failure.

Somewhere behind this mountain of conjecture, speculation and guesswork, a pennant race is going on, which brings up the most fascinating possibility of them all. It is expressed by Tiger Manager Bob Scheffing, that sage fellow who brought the Detroits from a sixth-place finish last year into contention for the pennant. Says Scheffing, a man who seems to see a lovely vision dimly through a thickening fog: "Imagine if Mantle and Maris both hit 65 homers, and the Yankees finished second. I'd be delirious." So would baseball.

ILLUSTRATIONMARC SIMONTILLUSTRATIONMARC SIMONTUndismayed by the prospect of giving up the 60th home run, a pitcher carefully works the corners against Roger MarisILLUSTRATIONMARC SIMONT"It's just another ball game to me," says Joe Zilch as he strides out to the mound to face M&M