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Maris' legend will live on
07/30/2003 10:21 PM ET
No. 61
Radio broadcast

It was Oct. 1, 1961, the last day of the Major League Baseball season. The sun was shining bright at Yankee Stadium, and the 23,154 fans who showed up on this day were not interested in the longtime rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox. There was nothing at stake between the two teams.

The Red Sox were having another disappointing season, going 76-85, 32 games behind the first-place Yankees, who were 108-53 and headed to the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Yankees right fielder Roger Maris was the man they wanted to see and for good reason: He already had 60 home runs for the season, and if you don't include the asterisk that Commissioner Ford Frick stuck on him -- and most baseball fans didn't -- he was tied with Babe Ruth for most home runs in a single season.

Maris had one last shot to break the record and would face Red Sox starting pitcher Tracy Stallard, a rookie who was 2-6 on the season.

The right-hander knew that Maris, who bats left-handed, was a fastball hitter. Unfortunately for Stallard, he didn't have another pitch in his arsenal, according to batterymate Russ Nixon, to neutralize Maris.

"Everybody knew that (Maris) was a fastball hitter," said Nixon. "Unfortunately, (with) Tracy Stallard, that was about all that he could throw and get it over the plate."

Maris had to feel good about facing the Red Sox that season; he hit six home runs against them entering the last game.

"Heck, I thought we had given up more than that," Nixon said. "Mediocrity was our pitching staff and, naturally, they were going to give up some home runs."

In the bottom of the first with the game scoreless, Stallard actually got Maris to fly out to left field to end the inning.

But three innings later, Stallard wasn't so lucky. With one out, Maris let two pitches go by before he clocked -- you guessed it -- a fastball into the lower right-field seats for his 61st home run, a Major League record.

Unlike Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, Maris didn't watch the flight of the ball or pump his fists in the air. Heck, Maris didn't even shake hands with the opposing players. He just had his head down and simply circled the bases.

For the people who saw the moment on TV in New York, they will never forget the call by Yankees play-by-play announcer Phil Rizzuto.

It seemed like he was screaming at the top of his lungs when he said, "Fastball, hit deep to right, this could be it! Way back there. Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Roger Maris. Look at them fight for that ball out there. Holy cow, what a shot. One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium."

As Rizzuto was making his famous call, the fans in stands were giving Maris a standing ovation.

After he stepped on home plate for the first run of the game, Maris quickly tipped his cap and went into the dugout. But the fans wanted Maris to come out for a curtain call, a rare occasion in those days.

Maris, a humble man, was reluctant to acknowledge the crowd. However, his teammates pushed him out of the dugout and you could hear a roar that was deafening. Maris could be seen trying to get back in the dugout, but his teammates made him stay out on the field a few seconds longer.

"In those days, we did not have high-fives and we didn't meet (Maris) at home plate," said Bobby Richardson, who was the regular second baseman for the '61 Yankees. "But we felt enough emotion that we pushed him back out of the dugout to at least tip his cap to the fans."

One of those fans, Sal Durante, then a 19-year-old truck driver, was in the lower right-field stands and caught the record-setting ball and it paid off for him in a big way: After the game, he got a chance to meet Maris and posed for pictures with the new single-season home run king.

A few weeks later, Durante received $5,000 for giving the home run ball to Sacramento, Calif., restaurateur Sam Gordon, who in turn gave the ball back to Maris as a souvenir.

"I knew (the record ball) was going over my head," Durante said in the documentary "Pinstripe Power: The Story of the 1961 New York Yankees." "I jumped on my seat, reached as high as I could go -- right (in my hand). ... It has to be the happiest day of my life."

Stallard, himself, didn't feel so bad about giving up the record-setting home run.

"I don't feel badly about it at all," Stallard said after the game. "Why should I? The guy hit 60 home runs off a bunch of other pitchers in the league before he got me today. ... I gave him what I feel was my best fastball and he hit it."

It seemed that Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, set in 1927, would never be broken. Since that time, several players, including Hank Greenberg, Hack Wilson and Jimmie Foxx, had a shot of tying the record but came up short.

At the start of the '61 season, there was no indication that Maris might break the single-season home run record.

He got off to a slow start and didn't hit his first home run until April 26 against the Detroit Tigers. In fact, he hit only one home run that month.

But by the end of June, Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle not only found themselves battling for the home run championship but on pace to break Ruth's record.

According to Richardson, the Yankees at first were pulling for Mantle because he came up through the team's farm system and was the heir apparent to Ruth in the home run department.

Meanwhile, added pressure was placed on Mantle and Maris.

They were fighting against an asterisk that Frick placed on the two sluggers in July. In '61, the season was increased from 154 games to 162. Frick, who was Ruth's ghostwriter, ruled that the record had to be broken before the team's 155th game. Ruth hit his 60 homers in '27 during a 154-game schedule.

The ruling didn't stop Mantle and Maris from battling for home run supremacy. By August 31st, Maris had a slight lead over Mantle in the long ball race, 51-48.

Mantle, however, bowed out of the race in mid-September because of a leg injury. Mantle ended the season with 54 home runs.

So Maris was by himself in chasing Ruth's record and he finally received support from his teammates.

The media, on the other hand, was another story. They were asking the same questions about possibly breaking Ruth's record on daily basis. To make matters worse, Maris was losing his hair and there were people who thought he wasn't worthy of the record.

"There was no organized system to get the media all at once," Richardson said. "So Roger was meeting individual reporters and the questions were the same. He's modest, he's shy, he's from a small-town atmosphere -- Fargo, North Dakota -- and he's also very truthful and he would finally say, "Hey, you're annoying me."

But the reporters didn't stop Maris from reaching immortality.

He had a chance of at least tying Ruth's record before the 154th game. Maris hit home run No. 59 in that game against the Orioles but fell short.

The asterisk remained intact, but that didn't stop Maris from accomplishing one of the greatest achievements in baseball history.

Maris hit home run No. 60 off Baltimore's Eddie Fisher at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26 and five days later smashed No. 61 off Stallard.

There were several things that were forgotten since that record-setting day: Maris had two more chances to add to the record but struck out and popped up to the second baseman. Stallard received a standing ovation in the fifth inning when he came up to bat. Stallard and Yankees starter Bill Stafford both had great outings that day. Stallard pitched seven solid innings and gave up the one run, while Stafford won his 14th game by pitching six shutout innings.

"Maris just wanted to get (the record) over with," said Ralph Houk, who managed the team at the time. "He was more interested in getting into the World Series and winning ballgames than breaking the record."

Maris would never come close to duplicating his feat. His season-high after that was 33, which he reached the following season. His single-season record stood until 1998 when McGwire, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, hit 70 home runs.

Most important, Maris was a winner. In '61, he helped the Yankees beat the Reds in the World Series.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for Reporter Ed Eagle contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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