Posts Tagged ‘Roger Maris’

Beyond 61*

Monday, February 13th, 2017

When Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled for supremacy in the single-season home run category in 1961, the spotlight that shone on them placed the excellence of the Yankee ball club in the shadows.  Elston Howard had a career high .348 batting average, Whitey Ford went 25-4, and Tony Kubek accrued a 19-game hitting streak in June.  Ford won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award for his outstanding performance—the left-handed hurler won two games and blanked the Reds for 14 innings.

Kubek praised Howard—the first black player for the Yankees—in an assignment for Time magazine.  He took on the task of photographing his teammates during spring training and opining on them.  “What won us the pennant was Whitey Ford,” declared Kubek.  “[Manager] Ralph Houk and [pitching coach] Johnny Sain decided that he would pitch every fourth day, and he ended up winning the Cy Young, with a 25-4 record.  Elston Howard called him the Chairman of the Board, and in 1961—when we were coming off that crushing loss to the Pirates in the 1960 Series—that’s exactly what he was.  Whitey was the real deal.”

Kubek was an unsung Yankee, earning respect within the clubhouse and on the diamond for his leadership.  It was something the press either ignored or overlooked.  In the 1975 book Dynasty:  The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock wrote, “Kubek shunned publicity and for years even refused to appear on the Red Barber postgame shows.  Though Kubek was the heart of the Yankee infield for half a dozen season, his reticent made him almost invisible in the media, and his complete absence of flair or color prevented him from attaining the recognition of some of his equally talented teammates.”

Additionally, Golenbock noted, “Kubek was a player everyone took for granted, and his true value was ascertained only after he retired in 1965.”

In the 1961 Sport magazine article “Have the Yankees Held Back Howard?” by Barry Stainback, Howard attributed his power to batting coach Wally Moses.  “We decided in the spring that I ought to close my stance and ease up on my swing, I was swinging my head off the ball,” explained Howard.  “Moses told me to swing with my arms—use my wrists—not my body.  I also began using a heavier bat, a 36-inch, 35-ounce one.  I used to use a 33-ounce one.”

Ford led his fellow pitchers in pinstripes as they overwhelmed the American League:

  • Bill Stafford (14-9)
  • Ralph Terry (16-3)
  • Rollie Sheldon (11-5)
  • Luis Arroyo (15-5)
  • Jim Coates (11-5)

The Yankees won the American League title with an eight-game cushion to distance themselves from the Detroit Tigers.  Another World Series championship followed when the Bronx Bombers beat the Reds in five games.  Golenbock surmised, “It is doubtful that any team in baseball history, with perhaps the 1927 Yankees the exception, could have beaten them in this world series [sic], the quality of Yankee play from both regulars and substitutes was so incredibly good.  The 1961 team was a most awesome machine.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 26, 2016.

The Death of Babe Ruth

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Like the man whose life it honored, Babe Ruth’s funeral was gigantic.  “The Babe is no longer breathing, but the fans will always talk about him,” wrote Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe upon the Babe’s passing in 1948.  “Talk about him because of his run-in, suspension and fine by the late Miller Huggins, only half of Ruth’s size, but a man who made it possible for Ruth to realize manhood.  Talk about him because he never turned down an autograph request or a trip to a hospital to visit a sick patient.”

George Herman “Babe” Ruth died on August 16, 1948.  6,000 mourned at Ruth’s funeral in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps New York City’s most famous religious site, within a Ruthian home run of Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch in midtown Manhattan.  Ignoring the rain, another 75,000 lined the streets in St. Patrick’s environs.  Newspapers recounted Cardinal Spellman’s prayer:  “May the Divine Spirit that inspired Babe Ruth to overcome hardships and win the crucial game of life animate many generations of American youth to learn from the example of his struggles and successes loyally to play their positions on all American teams, and may his generous-hearted soul through the mercy of God, the final scoring of his own good deeds and the prayers of his faithful friends, rest in everlasting peace.  Amen.”

Hardships began in Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, where the father of the future slugger owned a bar.  Ruth, apparently, was incorrigible at a terribly young age, so his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an institution serving problem children.  He was nine years old or thereabouts.  Versions vary regarding the impetus for Ruth’s enrollment in St. Mary’s.  Ruth biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, “Another story, the origins of which are vague, says that one day during a brawl in the Ruth saloon a shot was fired.  No one was hurt, but an indignant neighbor got in touch with city authorities, declaring that the saloon was not a fit place to raise a child.  As a result either the city insisted or the parents themselves decided that the increasingly wayward boy should be removed from his unwholesome environment.”

Ruth left St. Mary’s when he was 20 years old, after a scout discovered his ability to smash baseballs over the fences.  He played in the major leagues from 1914 to 1935, amassing devotion from fans enthralled by his achievements, including the stunning season record of 60 home runs in 1927; it stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.  Ruth’s death reignited that wonder, as is common with the passing of a legend.  “It had to come sometime, of course,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times.  “But Babe Ruth seemingly had acquired a cloak of immortality as if he were a demigod who had sprung from Zeus.  He was not an ordinary mortal even in life.  Now in death he will assume still more grandiose proportions as an almost legendary figure.”

Ruth’s impact on the game cannot be measured by his statistics alone, though they are legendary.  Career numbers include:

  • .690 slugging percentage
  • .342 batting average
  • 714 home runs

Further, as a pitcher for the Red Sox before he became a power hitter, Ruth held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Immeasurably, Ruth injected excitement into a game scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When he swatted American League pitching for round-tripper after round-tripper, fans delighted.

Ruth’s skill with a bat turned baseball toward a new era.  The New York Herald Tribune eulogized, “His slugging prowess inspired imitators and the emphasis shifted from the tight tricks of the sacrifice, the squeeze, the stolen base, the playing for one run, to the long hit which would clean the bases, the one big inning.  It worked on every ball club in the country, but nobody could do it like the Babe, who began it.”

Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days before the funeral at St. Patrick’s.  It was an opportunity to pay respects in the baseball shrine nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built.”  Thousands came.  “Aside from a few public officials, such as City Council President Vincent Impellitteri and Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, these were the kind of people who might have sat in the stands to watch the Babe hit one of his tremendous homers, or strike out with gusto,” wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times.  “The enormous line that waited patiently outside the Stadium, might have been mistaken for the bleacher line.  There were few limousines in the vicinity.  These people had come by elevated and subway, apparently straight  from work.  Many men were in shirtsleeves.”

On August 20th, the day of Ruth’s funeral, the New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators decisively—the score was 8-1.  Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio attended Ruth’s funeral while the team prepared in Washington for a game against the Senators.  Quoted by Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune, DiMaggio said, “The Babe must have been more than just a great ball player to have so many people think so much of him.”

Attending the funeral left a small window of time for travel to Washington, though.  Fortunately, DiMaggio had the help of legendary bar owner Toots Shortchanged and CBS Chairman William Paley.  “Shortchanged yelled at Paley, who was driving on Madison Avenue in his limousine.  Paley got out and turned the car over to DiMaggio so that he was able to get to LaGuardia Airport,” wrote Rennie.

DiMaggio also got a boost from his flight crew.  Rennie added, “American Air Lines held flight 307 for ten minutes.”

Entering the game in the third inning, DiMaggio went one-for-four with no runs scored and no RBI.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 21, 2015.

61 in ’61

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the nation’s youngest elected president, The Dick Van Dyke Show débuted, and Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space.

1961 was also the year of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.  The M&M boys.

As members of the 1961 New York Yankees, Maris and Mantle chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, vying to break Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs.  Ruth set his magic number of 60 as a member of the legendary 1927 Yankees.  It was a seemingly unbreakable record.  But if Maris or Mantle broke the record—or if both of them did—it would symbolize the home run torch being passed to a new generation of power hitters, keep the single-season home run record in the Yankee family, and explode the myth that certain records are unbreakable.

Maris, an import from the Kansas City Athletics, won the 1960 American League Most Valuable Player Award in his first year as a Yankee.  Mantle, a Yankee who spent his entire career in pinstripes, had his share of achievements, including the Triple Crown Award in 1956. Mantle dropped out of the race in September because of an illness.  Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen referred Mantle to Dr. Max Jacobson, who gave Mantle a shot.  It made Mantle’s situation worse.  And he wasn’t the only celebrity to suffer, either.  In her 2010 book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Leavy wrote, “Mantle said he never knew what was in Jacobson’s syringe, and he never paid the bill, either.  Mark Shaw, the Kennedy family photographer, paid with his life, dying of amphetamine poisoning in 1969.  Tennessee Williams’s brother told the Times that the playwright had spent three months in a mental hospital that year as a result of taking drugs prescribed by Jacobson.  Truman Capote collapsed after a series of injections and had to be hospitalized with symptoms of withdrawal.  When Mel Allen was fired by the Yankees after the 1964 season, the infamous medical referral was widely cited as cause.”

Leave also reported that nearly 50 counts of “fraud or deceit” involving amphetamines led to the revocation of Jacobson’s  medical license revoked in the 1970s.

Sidelined, Mantle’s home run tally stopped at 54.  Maris broke Ruth’s record on October 1, 1961, when he smacked a pitch by Tracy Stallard into Yankee Stadium’s right field stands in a Yankees-Red Sox game—the last game of the 1961 season for the Yankees.

A faction of baseball enthusiasts believes that Maris did not technically break Ruth’s record.  This theory rests on the number of regular season games for each player.  Ruth had 154 games.  Maris, 162.  The American League’s expansion to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. in 1961 prompted the addition of eight games.

Ruth also had less at bats in ’27 than Maris did in ’61.  But Maris had challenges that Ruth did not face, including night games, air travel, and black players increasing the depths of competition.

Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald Tribune reported that the paying crowd totaled 23,154, a figure far below the capacity of Yankee Stadium.  “The crowd kept yelling,” wrote Holmes.  “It wouldn’t stop until Maris—Not once, but twice—climbed the steps of the dugout, bared his crewcut and waved a smiling acknowledgment.  He looked a bit like Kirk Douglas at a moment of triumph in Spartacus.

Roger Maris won the 1961 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 15, 2014.

Ralph Houk: Filling Casey’s Shoes

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

When Ralph Houk took over the manager job for the New York Yankees, he had big shoes to fill.  Casey Stengel’s shoes.

Houk guided the Yankees from 1961 to 1973, then took the helm of the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1978.  He finished his managerial career with the Boston Red Sox.  His Beantown tenure lasted from 1981 to 1984.

But Houk’s rookie season as manager stands out.  1961.  It was the first season after Stengel’s run of World Series championships earned by the pinstriped Adonises of the Bronx in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1956, and 1958.

A World War II veteran, Houk played a backup role to Yogi Berra after the war.  He saw sporadic action:  91 games from 1947 to 1954.  Then, he managed the Denver Bears of the American Association from 1955 to 1957.  The Bears won the AA championship in 1957, an indication of Houk’s instincts.

The 1961 Yankees dominated baseball, compiling a 109-53 record.  Elston Howard hit .348, Whitey Ford ratcheted a 25-4 record, and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record with 61 fingers.

For most of the season, Maris raced with Mickey Mantle toward Ruth’s record.  A shot, albeit given by a reputable doctor, triggered an infection, which sidelined Mantle for the end of the season.  Mantle hit 54 home runs before this happened.

Houk documented the ’61 season in the 1962 book Ballplayers Are Human, Too.  In Chapter 5, “Let ‘er Roll, Gang!,” he describes the awe inspired by Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.  “I’ve read that wearing the Yankee pinstripes gives a player the feeling he’s on top of the baseball world,” wrote Houk.  “Believe me, it’s the Stadium that makes you feel you’ve got to do your best.  The Stadium looks like a historical building from the outside, one that’s been standing there a long time and will remain there forever, like the Coliseum in Rome.  Baseball history has been made in the Stadium.  A fellow wants to make more baseball history there—that’s the way I felt that day.”

Houk ends the book by describing a conversation with clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy after the Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series.  Sheehy, a Yankees fixture, began his career with the legendary 1927 Yankees featuring Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, in addition to Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs.  He stayed with the team till his death in 1985 at the age of 75.  The ’61 Yankees, according to Sheehy, deserve more than honorable mention in Yankees history.

“An incredible year,” wrote Houk.  “Think of it, not one beef from a player, not one phone call from someone who says one of your players is down somewhere causing trouble.  Nothing but great games, great pitching, the greatest of all hitting…and Rog’s…”

Sheehy then interrupts the skipper.  “I been around here a long time.  I’ve seen ’em all since the Babe’s day.  I never seen a team like this.”

Houk responds, “That’s just what I mean.  No manager ever had a team like this.  What an incredible gang of ballplayers!  What an incredible year!”

1961.  Incredible.  Magical.  Legendary.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 15, 2013.