On October 1, 1961, New York Yankee Roger Maris becomes the first-ever major-league baseball player to hit more than 60 home runs in a single season. The great Babe Ruth set the record in 1927; Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle spent 1961 trying to break it. After hitting 54 homers, Mantle injured his hip in September, leaving Maris to chase the record by himself. Finally, in the last game of the regular season, Maris hit his 61st home run against the Boston Red Sox. (The league-champion Yanks won the game 1-0.)
Maris hit his famous homer on his second at-bat of the day. On his first, he popped out to left field. When he came to the plate again in the fourth, his team had one out and the bases were empty. Maris let two pitches from Boston rookie Tracy Stallard go–one high and outside, one low and inside–before swinging hard at a waist-high fastball.
“An ear-splitting roar went up,” the New York Times reported, as “the crowd sensed that this was it.” The ball was gone, all right–Sal Durante, a 19-year-old Brooklyn truck driver, caught it about 10 rows back in the right-field stands. Maris trotted around the bases, stopping to shake hands with a young boy who’d managed to wriggle past security and onto the field and stepped on home plate. Then he tipped his cap to the crowd, took four bows and returned to his seat on the bench.
He’d hit 61 homers, but his new record wasn’t official. In July, baseball commissioner Ford Frick had announced that he wouldn’t consider Ruth’s record broken unless the player who broke it had hit more than 60 home runs in fewer than 154 games–the number of games Ruth’s Yankees had played in the 1927 season. (By 1961, teams played 162 regular-season games.) Frick had more than a passing interest in the issue: He’d been a good friend of the Babe’s and thought it was his responsibility to guard his legacy as closely as possible. Moreover, he resented the changes he saw in baseball–bulky sluggers, shorter fences, longer seasons, livelier balls. And Frick, like many fans, didn’t quite know what to make of Maris, a Midwesterner of few words who once told a reporter “I was born surly, and I’m going to stay that way.” The ever-disdainful Rogers Hornsby summed up the feelings of many Ruth partisans and Mantle fans when he told anyone who would listen that the young Yankee “has no right to break Ruth’s record.”
And so, as far as Major League Baseball was concerned, he didn’t. While there was never an official asterisk next to any record of Maris’–in fact, the league didn’t even have its own record book until 1995, and of course Frick had no real say over what anybody else put in their record books–the league simply considered Ruth’s and Maris’ to be two separate accomplishments. In 1991, an MLB committee on historical accuracy voted to remove the distinction and award the record fully to Maris, who had died of cancer six years earlier.
In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs both broke Maris’ home-run record. Sosa finished the season with 66 and McGwire finished with 70. Barry Bonds now holds the record with 73.