I wrote this as a Facebook post on Monday, and I figured I could turn it into a column on this website (after all, it does have a soccer connection. The Yankees are the primary tenant of Yankee Stadium, where New York City FC occasionally plays). If baseball, the Yankees or Aaron Judge is not your cup of tea, feel free to move on. I realize many sports fans have an opinion on Judge’s pursuit of Roger Maris’ home run record. Here are some my remembrances of what transpired some 61 years ago this month and next
By Michael Lewis
If I don’t write this now and take advantage of the Yankees’ day off, I might miss my opportunity to write this.
It’s about Aaron Judge and his pursuit of 61 home runs in a season.
I was, ahem, to use a favorite phrase of mine, alive and kicking in 1961 when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers. I was nine at the time and in my second year as a baseball fan. I went crazy in my first year in 1960, buying baseball cards by the bushelful, but that’s another story.
The 1961 season was a special one for me. Not one, but two players pursued The Babe’s record – on the same team – Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Mantle became my favorite player in 1960 and I was rooting for him. No, I did not hate Maris. I just wanted The Mick to break the record. Maris, by the way, was a pretty decent all-around player. He was a top fielder (his throw from right field prevented the San Francisco Giants from tying the score in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1962 World Series).
After Mantle was sidelined with a late-season injury, I rooted for Maris. Who didn’t want to see someone make history?
I remember listening to a Yankees game on the radio (yes, folks, not all Yankee games were available on TV in the stone-age days. I know that will astound many young Yankee fans) on the night of one of the Jewish holidays when Maris was aiming for No. 60 in Baltimore. He didn’t hit it.
The day Maris clubbed No. 61 my family visited my grandparents in Far Rockaway, N.J. We got to their apartment and I just went immediately to their bedroom to watch the Yankees’ final game of the season. I just missed Maris’ four-bagger. Fortunately, the WPIX-11 started using replays (they weren’t instant in those days) and they showed the homer an inning later. The Yankees won, 1-0, as Whitey Ford recorded his 25th victory of the season.
That Yankee team got me hooked on baseball. That team was some team. The Yanks smashed 240 homers, which set a MLB record. They also had six players with 20 or more home runs. Bill Skowron hit 26 and three players whose primary position was catcher – Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and John Blanchard – clubbed 22, 21 and 21 homers, respectively. Howard, the regular catcher, hit a team-high .348, and played most of the games. Berra played left field and Blanchard caught and played left field as well. And these Yankees could hit for average. Blanchard hit .305 in essentially a reserve role. Only one regular hit below .261 – that was Clete Boyer, who finished at .224, but boy, could he field third base with the best of them.
This year’s Yankees’ team pales in comparison compared to that special side, in hitting and pitching.
Comedian Billy Crystal made a fabulous movie about the great home chase, titled 61*, which told the true story of Mantle and Maris. I believe you can see it on HBO Max. If you haven’t seen it, please do. It will give you another look at history.
The Yankees start a six-game homestand against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. I know where I will be – in front of my TV – ready to witness some history again.
Enjoy the ride. It could be a while before we see something like this again.