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.
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