Beyond 61*

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.

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