Forty-two years ago on this day, a shy baseball player from Fargo stunned the sports world in one of the most anticipated games ever to be played. Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on October 1st, 1961, breaking the record set by Babe Ruth in 1927 for the most home runs in one season.
After Maris finished high school, the Cleveland Indians signed him to their minor league system and then boosted to the majors in 1957 where he batted .235 with 14 home runs and 51 RBIs. The following season, Cleveland traded him to the Kansas City Athletics, who traded him to the New York Yankees following the 1959 season.
Maris did well for the Yankees. In 1960 he hit .283 with 39 home runs and led the league with 112 RBIs, winning him a Gold Glove Award and the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. It was the following year that Maris became a household name when he and his teammate, Mickey Mantle, each looked they had a shot at beating Babe Ruth’s record.
Mantle enjoyed the focus and soon became a media darling, but Maris was uncomfortable with the limelight. When an injury took Mantle out of the running late in the season, Maris was left alone in the spotlight, and he struggled with the public’s attention and pressure. Maris was facing the magnitude of Babe Ruth’s legacy. The Babe was a legend for Yankees fans, and many openly rooted against Maris, even though he, too, was a Yankee. But he continued hitting runs, with his record breaking 61st happening on the final day of the season.
Jon Young, an Associate Vice Chancellor at Fayetteville State University, wrote a story titled Roger Maris Died Yesterday, which was originally published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature in the fall of 1998. An excerpt reads:
“As a birthday present – my birthday is October 1, the very day Roger Maris hit his record breaking home run – Dad took me to New York City to see the Yankees play. He had been saving his money all summer.
When the game started, I had trouble seeing when Roger came to bat. Everyone knew that if he hit a home run that day, the last game of the season, it would probably be to right field, and so there was a huge crowd around us. When Roger came to bat, they all stood up and, even standing in my seat, I couldn't see. My dad tried to hold me up, but the people behind us yelled insults because we were blocking their view. The second time Roger came to the plate, I didn't need to see. I knew from the crack of the bat that it was a homer! In the next instant, a crowd of people seemed to squeeze around me, and amidst the shoving and pushing, I fell backward on my seat, seeing, as I fell, a tangle of arms and hands lunging skyward above me. My dad was in the very center.
As the bodies came down, they toppled, as one large mass, over the seats and into the aisles. Some spectators flung themselves into the large bundle of bodies, while others scrambled from their seats to avoid being crushed. Grunts, groans, shouts, inarticulate exclamations came from the group. "Damn!" one voice claimed distinctly in a Yankee accent. "I've got it!" several others proclaimed, almost simultaneously. Arms were flying, pulling, and tugging at a figure in the center. Policemen, converging from three directions, gradually pulled apart the mass of arms, legs, and hands, and the seconds of chaos came to an end.
As my dad returned to his seat, straightening his shirt and brushing his hair back, he presented a baseball to me. I remember thinking at that moment how small it looked, almost as small as an aspirin, in his enormous right hand.
Shortly before his death, he told me, “We saw a man become a hero that day.”
Maris’s home run record stood for 37 years before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke it in 1998. Fans continue to lobby for the induction of Roger Maris into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
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