In an epic drama spiced with improbable plot twists, New York Yankees stars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris dueled in 1961 to break Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball season record for home runs. Their pursuit of the magical mark of 60, set by the Yankees’ legend in 1927, captured the imaginations of the nation’s baseball fans and dominated America’s sports sections.
Mantle, a 29-year-old center fielder from Oklahoma, was a longtime Yankees star, a fan favorite and face of the franchise. “By 1960, he was a myth,” recalls George Vescey, who as a 22-year-old newlywed and rookie reporter for New York’s Newsday covered the Yankees in 1961. “The fans had finally taken to Mantle after booing his [butt] for five, six, seven years.”
Maris was the interloper, a 26-year-old Midwesterner whose years with the Kansas City Athletics and Cleveland Indians had not prepared the right fielder for New York's bright lights. “A wonderful player,” remembers Vescey, who went on to have a lengthy career as one of the New York Times’ top columnists.
The double pursuit of Ruth was a preseason storyline, and the intensity of the chase built by the end of June, when Maris and Mantle were ahead of the Bambino's 1927 pace. Then the pressure really ratcheted up that sizzling summer.
MLB Commissioner Ford Frick and Asterisk Controversy
On July 17, MLB commissioner Ford Frick announced at a news conference that record keepers should have two separate categories for a season home run record—one for Ruth's, set during a 154-game season, and one for any record set in a 162-game season. For the 1961 season, the American League expanded its schedule from 154 to 162 games after it went from eight to 10 teams.
Influential New York sports columnist Dick Young even suggested noting any new home run record with an asterisk.
A former semipro baseball player, Frick had come to New York in the 1920s as a sportswriter. He covered the Yankees and became friendly enough with Ruth to ghost write a 1928 book with him. Frick was one of the few visitors allowed to see Ruth in the hospital before the Bambino died of cancer in 1948.
Years later, Frick wrote that he never ordered an asterisk to be placed on the record—he had no such authority—but the media perceived he had. Maris and Mantle seemed to press to set the record in 154 games.
By August, a new storyline emerged, one that contrived an unfriendly competition between Maris and Mantle. But "The M&M Boys” shared a New York apartment with outfielder Bob Cerv, the Yankees' left fielder, and all got along well.
By mid-September, Maris led his teammates 56 home runs to 53. Then Mantle developed an infection in his hip, forcing him to stop playing. Just like that, the two-man race became a solo act, with all the pressure squarely on Maris, who was buckling under the weight of media demands for his time.
"Irritating," Maris described the attention he was receiving, according to Sports Illustrated. "I enjoy bull sessions with the guys [reporters]. But this is different, the questions day after day, the big story."
In a span of 10 days that month, Maris criticized Yankees fans and an umpire and refused to meet with the media after a doubleheader in Detroit. "Not-so-jolly Roger," a sports writer called him afterward. Yankees fans occasionally even booed Maris.
“The only time Roger can relax is during a ballgame,” Cerv told reporters. Maris put it more bluntly to Mantle himself: “I’m going nuts, Mick.” he said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “I can’t stand much more of this.”
Late in the season, Maris even began losing his hair in clumps—his wife, Pat, said he looked like a molting bird. “It was only when Roger started losing his hair that we understood what kind of pressure he was under,” Yankees third baseman Clete Boyer recalled after the chase was over.
Roger Maris Hits No. 61 on October 1, 1961
On Sept. 26, against the Baltimore Orioles, Maris hit his 60th home run to tie Ruth’s mark. Five days later, on the last day of the regular season, the American League champion Yankees played the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Most of New York was focused on the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Vecsey wasn’t even at Yankees Stadium that day—his newspaper decided a New York Titans football game at the Polo Grounds was the bigger story. “Somebody in the press box had a transistor radio,” he recalls. “I remember hearing somebody say, ‘He did it.’"
Maris flied out to left field in his first at-bat against Boston rookie Tracy Stallard. In the fourth inning, Maris took two pitches, both balls. Then he hammered Stallard's waist-high third pitch 10 rows into the right-field stands.
Most of the 23,154 fans in attendance cheered as Maris rounded the bases. He reached the dugout and then stepped out to wave his cap and acknowledge the crowd. “This was the big one,” Maris told reporters afterward. “I can’t remember much after I hit. I was happy."
Smiling and looking relieved, Maris and his wife appeared in a photograph on the front page of the next day's New York Daily News.
Asked about The Great Home Run Chase after the season, Maris—the American League's MVP in 1961—was blunt: "As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again."
Maris' Home Run Record Shattered in 1998
In 1998, Maris' season home run record was shattered by the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire, who hit 70 in outdueling the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa. Three years later, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, breaking McGwire's mark. But Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were tarnished by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.
In 1984, the Yankees retired Maris’ No. 9. A year later, at age 51, he died of lymphoma. Mantle, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, died in 1995.
“I wish Maris could have lived long enough to enjoy it,” Vecsey says of the home run record. “Maris was a really good guy during that season. The image is he was a grouchy SOB, a grump. But he was far more approachable than Mantle."