It is possible that someday Roger Maris will be able to walk across a street without shaking a dozen hands, speak a simple sentence without being quoted from coast to coast or swing a bat without having his picture taken. But last week such privacies were not possible. Everywhere he went he was engulfed in a fury of excitement.
There was little privacy, either, for Mickey Mantle, but as the week passed and he failed to gain ground on his teammate, the focus of attention slowly shifted from the two of them to Maris alone.
For both, the week began in Chicago in the rain. It rained all Tuesday (the edge of Hurricane Carla), and by evening much of Comiskey Park was under water. But this would be the Yankees' last series in town, and the park was sold out. So sand was scattered on the field, and the game went on. Although White Sox pitchers had given up 17 home runs to Maris and Mantle, Manager Al Lopez gave his staff no special instructions before the first game. "Most pitchers try the same thing," he said. "Fast balls high and tight, curves low and away. If you can get the ball where you want it, you're all right. If you can't...." Lopez threw up his hands.
Most of the White Sox said they hoped Maris or Mantle would break the record—somewhere else. "Nobody wants to hear his name brought up all the time with something detrimental," said Billy Pierce. "I don't think the guy who gives up the 61st home run will be kidded so much by other players as by the press and fans," said Frank Baumann. Don Larsen said he didn't give a damn whether or not either made it, but Russ Kemmerer did. "They're of our generation," he said.
September 24, 1961
The Tuesday night game was stopped after five and a half innings when the rain started again. Against Left-handers Pierce and Baumann, Maris walked, struck out, singled and fouled out to first. Mantle struck out, drove a ball deep to center and singled on a 3-0 pitch. It was the first of several 3-0 pitches that Maris and Mantle were to swing at during the week. "I wouldn't say they're always on their own," said Manager Ralph Houk. "We've still got a pennant to win and that's our first concern. I can't worry about records, and I'm not going to move them up to the first two spots in the batting order. I don't want to upset the balance of the team."
It continued to rain on Wednesday. The game was started but had to be stopped in the third inning, so the next day there was a double-header. It was cold and gray and windy, but at least it had stopped raining. The anemometer in the Chicago press box registered a 30-mile-per-hour wind blowing from the northwest straight at the right-field stands. "If I can just get some good wood on the ball and get it up," Maris said just before the game. "That's the problem."
It was a long, depressing afternoon for both Maris and Mantle. The first game started at 1:30, and the second game was not over until after 7. The Yankees lost both. Maris hit three singles, but not once did he get the ball up into the strong wind. Mantle did, twice, but each time the ball was caught just short of the fence. Maris struck out once, fishing for a bad pitch. "He's so tight up there he can't move," Umpire Hank Soar was quoted as saying.
That night the Yankees flew to Detroit in a chartered plane, arriving after midnight. Not many hours later, they were back on the field, ready to play another double-header. It was a sunny day and the Yankees were able to take batting practice for the first time since they left New York. Maris drove several balls deep into the upper grandstand. "I can do it in batting practice," he muttered tensely.
The Yankees did better than they had the day before, winning one of the two games, but once again Maris and Mantle hit no home runs. Maris went out eight straight times, hitting the ball well only once, before getting a single the last time up. Mantle again hit the ball hard but was unlucky. Three times he drove balls to deep center field, and one might have been a home run in Chicago the day before. In Detroit it was only a double, and the other two were caught. Detroit pitchers walked Mantle three times. Ron Kline did it twice; the day before, he had said, "I think the guy who gives up the 61st home run will make a lot of money."
In their dressing room the Yankees were sullen. Maris, bothered by his lack of home runs and a verbal brush with a belligerent Detroit fan, sat in the training room, off limits to reporters, talking with his brother. When one of the reporters spoke to Houk, challenging the brother's right to be in the training room, Houk lost control of his temper.
"Look," he said, "I'm going to give you the whole story right now. He didn't hit a home run. He did hit one single, broke one bat and cussed out one fan. That's it." Then he began untying his shoelaces furiously.
Mantle was taking his disappointment with grace. He had needed a big day, two or three home runs, to have a chance at the record. Now, with 53, he needed eight more in the five games remaining in the 154-game limit set by Ford Frick.
"I'm out of it," he said.
"Willie Mays hit four in one game this year," a reporter said.
"O.K.," Mantle said. "If I hit four tomorrow, I'm back in it. But Lary's pitching tomorrow and he doesn't throw underhand."
Frank Lary did pitch for Detroit the next day. "I hope Maris breaks Ruth's record," he had said the day before. "That would shut up some of those oldtimers who think we can't play the game as well as they did."
In the first inning Lary walked Maris on four straight pitches. Although Lary has beaten the Yankees for Detroit many times over the years and although he has won 20 games this year, the large crowd exploded with boos.
The next time Maris came to bat, it was the third inning and there were two out with a runner on first. Lary threw another ball, his fifth straight, and again the boos began. Maris smoothed the dirt around the plate, took his stance and waited. Lary threw again, a fast ball, and this time Maris swung. There was a loud, rich crack and the ball rose up and out toward right field. Al Kaline, Tiger right-fielder, took one step back and then turned to watch. The ball hit the green facade a few feet below the roof of the stadium and bounded back on the field. Kaline picked it up and threw it toward the Yankee dugout, a souvenir for Maris of his 57th home run of the season.
After the game the Yankee dressing room was cheerful again, even though the team had lost. Reporters surrounded Maris. On the other side of the room Ralph Terry watched the scene. "You know," he said, "someday I'm going to be telling everybody that I was on the same team with that guy. It'll really be something to talk about."
On Sunday the Tiger pitcher was Jim Bunning, who had said, ominously, that Maris would not hit any home runs off him. The Bunning method was simple: he walked Maris twice. But in the 12th, against Relief Pitcher Terry Fox, Maris hit his 58th, and the Yankees won 6-4.
At the end of the week, because of his quick recovery, Maris was in fair position to catch Ruth within Frick's arbitrary limit of 154 games. In any case, he now had an excellent chance to set a new season's record in home runs, which is undoubtedly what baseball fans would remember.