Day 11 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews for spring/summer 2020: At least 61 new things to learn about Roger Maris’ 61 homers in ’61

Billboard
There’s no doubt in Fargo, N.D., who should lay claim to the MLB single-season home-run record. Excellent pix by Trevor Saylor: https://trevor365photo.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/claim-to-fame/

“Sixty-One in ’61: Roger Maris Home Runs
Game by Game”

Gorman-Catalog-Only

The author:
Robert M. Gorman

The publishing info:
McFarland & Company
$39.95
347 pages
Released in October, 2019

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Powells.com
At IndieBound.org

The review in 90 feet or less

This gets personal.

My date of birth occurred early on the morning on the eighth of June in ‘61. It will be noted in the context of this review, that was a day between Roger Maris hitting home run No. 17 in Game 49 against Minnesota and No. 18 in Game 52 against Kansas City, both at Yankee Stadium.

On June 8, Roger Maris dragged himself through an 0-for-8 day, a twi-night doubleheader against the Athletics that included a few rain delays. Yet, the whole thing still started at 6:02 p.m. in New York and ended shortly after 11 p.m.

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5b2c59aa4488b30009280012-originalIn a true Hollywood scenario, Maris would have hit a homer that night at Wrigley Field in L.A., just miles from the hospital where I arrived that, at the time was near La Brea and Coliseum, at the base of Baldwin Hills.

It would have been against the Los Angeles Angels, also celebrating their first year of MLB existence.

As it turns out, Maris only hit two that memorable season at the L.A. friendly confines of Wrigley – both numerically significant. One against the Angels’ Eli Grba to deep left-center field on May 6, the 100th of his career (and third of the season). The other was off Ken McBride on Aug. 22, the 50th of the season.

It’s not such a chore to find that info based on BaseballReference.com records. There’s also the laundry list of those who gave up the homers.

44187_01_lgThe Angels’ temporary home field, as the team awaited the opening of Dodger Stadium to share it with the National League team, would surrender a major-league record 248 homers in 81 games. It was, for many reasons, the place of choice for the 1959-61 TV show, “Home Run Derby,” the campy black-and-white series that watched players like Aaron, Mantle, Mays and Killebrew launch homers onto 51st Street beyond the 345-foot power alley in left field.

(Nope, Maris never appeared on the show).

But because of all that Maris was up against that year – the theory that the AL was watered down due to expansion and all these smaller parks that played into his strength, and more would have rather seen the idolized Mickey Mantle instead be the one to challenge Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (set in 154 games, instead of 162) – a book like Gorman’s comes in handy despite all that’s already been done about the man from Fargo, North Dakota.

We need facts, not myths, to explain this thing.

So here’s a retired university reference librarian from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who once won the SABR Baseball Research Award for his 2009 book with David Weeks, “Death at the Ballpark,” and was a 12-year-old fan of Maris during that ’61 season.

As an adult, Bob Gorman decided not enough had been documented about many of the particulars of that HR  chronology.

JamesWhile more than half the 48 pitchers who gave up homers to Maris that year gone to a greater place – as is Maris, who died in 1985 – Gorman managed to track down:
= Detroit reliever Terry Fox, now 84;
= Johnny James, now 86, a Hollywood High grad and USC player who split that season, his last in the big leagues, between the Yankees and Angels;
= Cleveland starter Dick Stigman, now 86.
Gorman also found Cleveland All-Star catcher John Romano, who died in Feb., 2019 at age 84.

While there’s also a perfect symbiosis of the numerical value of 61 in ’61, Gorman’s research underpins the reality that Maris had actually hit 63 that year. One was taken away by a rainout. The last came in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the World Series against Cincinnati at Crosley Field to give the Yankees an eventual 3-2 win. That was one of only two hits Maris had in the Yankees’ five-game series victory.

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Gorman’s research comes through not in a tedious way, but in a thorough method of picking the most pertinent facts and particular quotes to keep the daily narrative moving through the season, filling in gaps as well when Maris wasn’t hitting home runs to bring context to those days and how they weighed on him.

It has to be remembered that Maris didn’t hit his first homer of 1961 until 11th game, and he had only three through the first 28.

As for Maris’ two homers in L.A. that year:

s-l300== Grba, the bespectacled right-hander who the Angels took in the expansion draft off the Yankees’ roster as their No. 1 overall choice, and was the franchise Opening Day starter, gave his former teammate a high outside fastball with one out and none on in the top of the fifth. Maris “hammered it over the wall just to the left of the 412-foot marker in center field,” writes Gorman.

“It was one of the few times I didn’t try to pull that type of pitch,” Maris would say. “I went with it and hit it over the left-center field fence. It was a real thrill to see that go out.”

Because it was his 100th career homer, he said it was also the first one he wanted back as a memento.

“There was no chance, for it went over the fence, bounced into the street and was gone forever,” he later said.

Maybe some kid in the neighborhood found it and had no idea.

71EHQAhPUuL._AC_SL1000_== Having arrived in L.A. after a four-hour overnight flight from Cleveland, the Yankees had the day off on Aug. 21. It allowed Maris, Mantle and Yogi Berra to go to Universal Studios and film a scene for the Doris Day-Cary Grant comedy, “A Touch of Mink.”

It was a nice distraction for everyone.

51LAXL2Zp2L._SY445_The next night, McBride, a rookie who became the Angels’ de-facto ace, was pitching before “a record crowd of nearly 20,000 spectators (who) wanted to witness the historic home run race that was overshadowing everything thing else going on in baseball.”

Sixth inning, third AB of the night, Maris went with an outside pitch and hit it to the deepest part of the park — again, that 412 marker in straight-away center.

“It was one of my best shots of the season,” he said after No. 50, which set a new major league record for most home runs hit before September.

So now think a minute about that homer that didn’t count. It’s nothing we ever heard about, until this book.

Gorman explains how the Yankees had a doubleheader in Baltimore on July 17. It was ironically before that started when commissioner Ford Frick issued a ruling: Anyone who hit more than 60 home runs during the first 154 games would be recognized as breaking Babe Ruth’s record; if they needed more than 154 games, up until the end of the expanded 162-game schedule, there would be “some distinction made in the record books.” There’s no mention of an asterisk. But the point was made, and the debate began.

s-l640The second game of the doubleheader started and both Maris (in the first) and Mantle (in the fourth) homered off Orioles’ knuckeballer Hal “Skinny” Brown. As the fifth inning started, here came rain, thunder and lightning. It was called after more than an hour delay, an unofficial contest, washing out both homers.

It wasn’t postponed or suspended, but replayed from the start as a Sept. 19 doubleheader. Had Maris’ home run stood, he would have tied Ruth by Frick’s 154-game deadline. Ruth didn’t lose any home runs to weather in his 1927 season.

“What are you going to do, fight city hall?” Maris asked.

An author Q&A

We’re thankful shortly after Gorman saw this post, he was able to reach out and help an email Q&A session. He added: “By the way, I’m answering your questions while watching Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, the game where Reggie Jackson hit three home runs (off of three different pitchers all on the first pitch), tying him with Babe Ruth.  Like 1961, it was a bad year for the Babe. It’s never too late for history’s sake”

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QQQQQWhat’s more behind this labor of love that caused you to do all this research, as you write about your affection for Maris?
AAAAAs I mentioned in the book, I really connected with Maris that season.  While most of my friends were pulling for Mantle, I remained a die-hard Maris partisan. Of course, I had no idea at the time about the stress he was under or the amount of guff he had to put up with just for doing his job.  Later, as I learned more about the constant snipping and criticism aimed at him on a daily basis, my admiration for his accomplishment, his grace under pressure,  grew even stronger.

75894e74f00af8bcf80018dcdcb1ed30I’ve long felt that Maris has never been given his due.  Billy Crystal’s movie, “61*,” in 2001 gave me the idea of doing a game-by-game account of his historic season. I put it on the back burner while I was working on a couple of other projects, but once they were completed, I decided it was time to launch the project.  I spent about four years from start to finish, enjoying every minute of it.  I really hope that I have done justice to this most misunderstood player.

QQQQQWas doing this project now with today’s technology and access to newspapers much more doable than years past? What was any trade research secrets you could pass on?

Sports1AAAAHaving come of age when research was done using a card catalog and print indexes, I find doing research today much easier.  I doubt that my book would have been nearly as thorough had I not had access to the wide variety of digitized newspapers and journals available today.  If there is any research secret I have to pass along, it’s don’t settle for the easy answer.  So many young researchers are satisfied with the first answer they find.  What I’ve discovered is that if you keep digging, you’re likely to find something unexpected. 

il_794xN.2137960837_82o9QQQQQWhat was the most interesting fact you recall excavating from this project?

AAAAI’m not sure if I learned anything “surprising.”  I’ve read so much about him and the Yankees of that period that I had a pretty good feel for that season when I began the project.  What I did come away with was a greater appreciation for what a great all-around player was.  He wasn’t a one dimensional power hitter that many think he was. He could run, field, and throw with the best of them. He was one of the greatest of his generation. And it wasn’t just with the Yankees.  Look at the leadership and talent he brought to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967 and 1968.

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QQQQQWere you surprised more homers weren’t hit at L.A.’s Wrigley Field by Maris that year? And how was he left out of “Home Run Derby?”

 

AAAAEven Maris was himself mystified about his lack of home runs at L.A.’s Wrigley Field. I suspect it was so inviting that he was pressing when he was there.  I think he was aware that he should have been launching them at Wrigley just like others were doing, which took him out of the zone, making it much more difficult to do so.

For “Home Run Derby”: The contest were held at Wrigley in late 1959, airing from January 9 to July 2, 1960, just before Maris’ arrival on the scene as a home run hitter.  A year later and he most likely would have been invited. I know he hated being away from his family and he disliked all the attention, so that may have also been why.  

QQQQQDo you consider Maris still to be the true single-season home run champion?

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AAAAI do consider Maris to be the legitimate single-season home run champion just as I consider Hank Aaron to be the career home run leader.  That whole steroid/performance enhancing drug era is one that’s truly deserving of an asterisk. And it’s not just that I’m an old fogey who doesn’t want someone to better his childhood hero.  I was really pulling for Giancarlo Stanton a couple of seasons ago when he was on the verge of surpassing Maris.  As I recall, Stanton himself viewed Maris’ record as the legitimate one.
And, even though you didn’t ask, yes, I believe that he should be in the Hall.  He might not have been at the level of a Babe Ruth, which he never claimed to be, but he certainly was one of the premier players of his generation.  There are plenty of players in the Hall who accomplished a lot less than he did.  I mean Bill Mazeroski and not Maris?  Please.

 

How it goes in the scorebook

“The crowd is reacting negatively,” Red Barber tells the WPIX-TV viewers on Oct. 1, 1961 after Maris takes two balls to start an at-bat against Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard. “They want to see Maris get something he can swing on.”

Next pitch: “There it is … 61.”

Nothing glamorous about Barber’s call.

61The book, much the same. It is what it is supposed to be: Not calling attention to itself, but telling one what happened.

“You haven’t ever seen anything like this have you?” Barber eventually asks as Maris comes out of the dugout and waves his cap.

“Nobody ever has, Red,” answers Mel Allen. “Nobody ever seen anything like this.”

Nor had Gorman, who admits that of all those Yankees stars in the early ‘60s he saw from his home in Miami, Maris resonated most because “there was just something about him – the way he stood at the plate, his gorgeous swing, how he ran the bases, head down and all business.”

SI61maris 1961Maris was coming off a year winning the AL MVP in 1960 by three points over Mantle, who had more first-place votes (10 to 8) and hit more homers (40 to 39).

cardhrMaris would get it again in ’61, again over Mantle, this time by four points, his 61 homers showing up as seven more than Mantle, as well as 141 RBIs, while Mantle had 128 RBIs and a .317 average (with a WAR of 10.5 vs. Maris’ 6.9).

If anyone could have done Maris right in this pin-point documentation of an historic season, Gorman came through as well as thorough with a splendid launch angle.

And for others of us born in 1961 — Barack Obama, Wayne Gretzky, Eddie Murphy, Michael J. Fox, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, Jeanie Buss, Doc Rivers, George Lopez — we have more numbers and dates to try to match up.

More to read

== In 2011, the Yankees honored the 50th anniversary of the feat, as told in New York Newsday.

 

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