It was a race; A race like no other.
From April to October of 1961, Roger Maris was in the race of his life.
The race included some formidable opponents:
It was a race against teammate Mickey Mantle to be the first to hit 61 home runs.
It was a race against a legend, Babe Ruth, and his 60-home run record, set in 1927.
And it was a race against time, to try and beat the record and the clock, and accomplish the feat in the first 154 games of the 162 game-season. Babe had set the long-standing record in a shorter season, prior to baseball’s expansion to the 162 game-schedule.
It was a tight race, and not everyone was rooting for Roger Maris. Not exactly a household name, Maris had been recently traded to the Yankees in 1959. In 1960, the year prior to the Race, Maris had a break-out season, winning the American League Most Valuable player award as well as a Golden Glove for his fielding. The right-fielder hit 39 home runs that year…not bad for a 26 year old unknown….who was soon to be very well known. But was Maris really a Yankee? Was he really a player worthy of breaking the home run record, the most iconic record in Baseball?
Or was Mickey Mantle really the favorite in this Race?
By 1961 Mantle had established himself as a star on a world championship team, a perennial World Series participant. Mantle was the face of the Yankees….handsome and outgoing, and after 10 years with the team, he was recognized as one of the greatest athletes to play the sport. Mantle had the personality and the star quality that made him the fan favorite in this epic home run battle.
And then there were those who were just as happy to see the Babe hold on to his spot at the top. The Bambino personified baseball legend. His feat, accomplished in the “dead-ball” era of the 1920’s and 1930’s, far out-stripped his competitors when it came to the long ball.
And finally….the Clock; The Babe had set his record in the 154 game season. Now, with 162 games to accomplish the goal, would Baseball and the world recognize a new Sultan of Swat, if the old record was broken during the 8 additional games….in what was to become known as the “asterisk” time period?
As the world watched, Mickey Mantle, slowed by injury, fell away from the race, finishing with 54 home runs. And then, in the 4th inning of the final regular season game, Roger Maris stood alone in the record books with his 61st home run off the Red Sox Tracy Stallard, surpassing Mickey and the Babe, in the 162nd and final game of the season…just not soon enough to avoid the asterisk.
Roger Maris never again approached the season that he had in 1961. Over the balance of his Yankee career spanning 5 seasons, he hit just over 100 home runs. He had won the Race, but it had taken its toll. Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, he quietly retired from the game just 2 years later.
To date, Roger Maris has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame…