50 Years Ago…Roger, the Babe and the Asterisk

Although 1961 was the year of John F Kennedy’s famous inaugural address and Alan Sheppard’s launch into outer space, many baby boomers would argue that the most memorable moment of the year happened in Yankee Stadium on October 1, when Roger Maris lined a Tracy Stallard fastball into the right-field bleachers. Coming on the last day of the regular season, Maris’s homer was his 61st of the year, breaking Babe Ruth’s single season record, and putting an end to a drama that involved four men…Ruth, Maris, Mickey Mantle and Major League Baseball Commissioner, Ford Frick.

There was some speculation at the beginning of the 1961 campaign that Babe Ruth’s 1927 record setting home run mark might be in jeopardy, as the American League’s addition of two teams had expanded the season by eight games, and had undoubtedly watered down the level the “junior circuit’s” pitching. While Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Rocky Colavito were considered strong candidates to hit 60 or more home runs, Roger Maris was not part of the conversation, especially when the New York Yankee outfielder managed only one home run during the month of April. Maris, who had won the American League MVP Award in 1960, started to heat up in mid May, homering in four straight games and hitting 15 four-baggers in the month of June. By July 2, Maris had 30 homers, three more than his teammate, Mickey Mantle. All eyes were on the two Yankees throughout the summer of 1961, as the pair continued their assault on the Babe’s record.

On the surface, it was easy to see some similarities between Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. Both were left-handed hitting right-fielders playing for Major League Baseball’s dominant team, the New York Yankees. But in terms of personality, Ruth and Maris could not be more different, with Ruth being a bigger than life personality, while Maris was a quiet, private man.  To some, Roger Maris was not worthy to hold such a prestigious record, and that if anyone were to hit 60 or more home runs, it should be Mickey Mantle, who had been a superstar for several seasons. Uncomfortable with being in the media spotlight, Maris began to show signs of stress as each home run would result in more demands on his time, as almost every sports writer in the country wanted to ask him the same questions every day. For most of the 1961 season the pursuit of Ruth’s record was a two man chase, but when Mickey Mantle developed a hip infection in early September, Maris had the field to himself (Mantle finished with 54 home runs).

Adding to the drama was Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who stated that if Babe Ruth’s home run record was not broken within the first 154 games, full credit should be withheld, with an asterisk being used to indicate that the new record was achieved in a 162 game season (although Frick did not have the authority to dictate how the records books would handle the matter).  It has been suggested that Frick, a personal  friend of Ruth’s, was doing all he could to protect one of the Babe’s most cherished records.  In 1958, when the Los Angeles Dodgers began playing their home games at the L.A. Coliseum, Frick, fearing that the 240 foot distance to the left-field seats would result in someone hitting well over 60 homers, reportedly advocated a second fence being placed half way up the stands, ruling any balls hit in front of it a double. Frick’s suggestion was ignored, but it never really mattered, as no Dodger hit more than 25 home runs during their four seasons at the Coliseum.

By the time the 1961 Yankees had played 154 games, Maris had hit 59 homers, one short of Babe Ruth’s record. Number 60 came in game #158, in the third inning when Maris connected with a Jack Fisher curveball during a 3-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles, leaving Maris four games to pass Ruth. By now, Roger Maris was emotionally drained by the saga, and had even begun to lose some of his hair during the season’s final weeks.  Homerless in three straight games, Maris had one final game left to reach 61 home runs, a Sunday afternoon home game against the Boston Red Sox. After flying out to left in the first inning, Maris finally ended the chase in the fourth, sending 23,000 fans to their feet as number 61 sailed into the right-field stands.  Maris’s blast not only broke the record, but also provided the game’s only run, as the Yankees prevailed 1-0. New York’s victory was their 109th of the season, leaving them one win short of the 110 games won by, as you may have guessed, Babe Ruth’s 1927 Yankees.New York went on to win the 1961 World Series in five games over the Cincinnati Reds. Most of the baseball record books that were published after the 1961 season followed Commissioner Frick’s advice, and listed Maris’s record as being done in a 1962 game season, and continued to list Ruth’s 1927 total of 60 as the record for a 154 game season.

The 1961-1962 post-season was a busy time for Roger Maris. He was awarded his second straight American League MVP Award, and was constantly seen on television endorsing dozens of consumer products. Despite his accomplishment, Maris still had his critics, who pointed out that Maris had only batted .269 in 1961, and was nowhere the ballplayer Babe Ruth was.  Predictably, Maris did not duplicate his home run accomplishments in 1962, and although he had a solid season, his 33 home runs and 100 RBIs were looked upon as a major disappointment.  Maris’s five remaining seasons in New York were not happy ones, as he was plagued by injuries, and the constant target of abuse by fans who were either upset that he could never live up to his 1961 numbers, or upset that he broke Ruth’s record in the first place.  It was not until 1991 the Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement supporting the idea that Maris’s 61 home runs should be considered the sole record, despite the extra number of games played.  Vincent’s comments came six years after Roger Maris’s death in 1985. Roger Maris’s record lasted until 1998 when Mark McGwire set a new mark under circumstances we won’t discuss here.

Notes: A lot has been said over the last 50 years regarding the “asterisk” that supposedly was placed next to Roger Maris’s name in baseball’s record book.  The truth of the matter is that no such asterisk ever existed, and in fact, Major League Baseball did not even have an official record book in 1961. Although Commissioner Ford Frick suggested during a July 17, 1961 press conference that some kind of distinction should be made if Ruth’s record was tied or broken after the 154th game, that distinction was never in the form of an asterisk in any of the record books published after the 1961 season. Most of the publications followed the lead of the “Sporting News” record book, and simply listed Ruth and Maris’s home run marks separately.