This past baseball season produced four historic moments that very few players in the history of the game have attained. In past articles, I have made mention of statistics being one of the main factors in determining a player’s greatness. Miguel Cabrera joined the exclusive club of 33 players to have 3000 hits for their career in 2022. Albert Pujols is now a member of one of the most exclusive groups after hitting his 700th home run. Only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Pujols belong. Pujols, who at 42 years young announced in March that it would be his final season, needed 22 home runs to make it. To everyone’s surprise, he hit 26 to end his illustrious career at 704 home runs.
Cabrera, after collecting his 3000th hit, joined another rare group of players that includes Pujols with 3000 hits and 500 home runs. That club only includes 7 players: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, and Alex Rodriguez along with Cabrera and Pujols. The record chase that got the most attention this year was the American League single season home run record held by Roger Maris of the New York Yankees. Maris, who hit 61 in 1961, broke the record of another Yankee great and best baseball player of all time in my humble opinion, Babe Ruth. Ruth had held the record of 60 for 34 years. Who else but another Yankee, Aaron Judge, stepped up in 2022 as a serious challenger to the record that had stood for 61 years. 61 home runs in 1961 and the record was 61 years old. If you are superstitious, this had to be the year, right! Judge set the new record in the next to last game of the season with his 62nd big fly. The author begrudgingly gives Mr. Judge his props even though he is a member of the dreaded New York Yankees who I despise with every fiber of my being. When I was dating my soon to be wife, I had no idea my future father-in-law was a Yankee fan until I came to pick up my beloved and he was wearing a jacket with the interlocking NY. Just for a split second, I questioned going through with the marriage proposal I needed his approval for. Love even trumps the hatred of the New York Yankees. Later, I was able to take my father-in-law to his one and only major league game in Baltimore. You guessed it, the Yankees beat the Orioles.
There was another Yankee, that great year of 1961, that was neck and neck in the chase for 60 with Roger Maris. The Commerce Comet, The Natural, Mickey Mantle. The Mick was one of the most physically gifted baseball players ever. Working alongside his father in a coal mine during his high school years probably helped a bit in muscle development. Mickey’s father, nicknamed Mutt, started teaching his son from a young age to hit both left and right-handed. Switch hitting gives a player an advantage. It is much easier for a right-handed batter to hit against a left-handed pitcher and vice versa. Mantle, in his rookie season with the Yankees, was the fastest player in the majors as well as the most feared power hitter. His arrival was so hyped by the Yankees that they gave him number 6 to follow Ruth’s number 3, Gehrig’s number 4, and DiMaggio’s number 5. A severe knee injury in the 1951 World Series hampered Mantle for the rest of his career and robbed him of his blinding speed. Doctors didn’t have a way to repair a torn ACL at the time and Mantle played on it the rest of his time in the majors. The constant pain and the prospect of a shortened life span (his father and grandfather died of Hodgkin’s disease at a young age) led Mantle to live his life to the fullest without fear of consequence and he became a heavy drinker and carouser.
Maris, before joining the Yankees in 1960, was a good but not great major leaguer. He had a stellar first year wearing the pin stripes, hitting 39 home runs, winning a Gold Glove for his fielding, and being the Most Valuable Player in the American League. What he accomplished the next year was the stuff legends are made of. Maris had no idea what heights he would attain, nor the toll it would take on him personally.
Maris and Mantle, batting 3rd and 4th in the lineup respectfully, both were on a home run tear from the beginning of the year. When June ended, Maris led Mantle 26 to 25 and the sportswriters were really starting to pay attention. 1961 was the year that two expansion clubs were added to the American League to make it 10 teams. This made a schedule change necessary to expand the season from 154 to 162 games. People realized that their hero Babe Ruth’s record was being threatened and started making noise that if the record was not broken in the old 154 game schedule, it shouldn’t count. Ford Frick, commissioner of the American League and a close friend of Ruth, decreed that an asterisk would have to be placed in the record book if the record was surpassed after the 154th game.
There was now pressure to break the record in the old-time frame and Maris passed Mantle for the final time on August 15th. Mantle stayed right with Maris until the beginning of September with Maris leading 56 to 53. Mantle went down with an abscess in his hip joint, causing him to miss multiple games. He finished with 54.
Maris, already the least popular of the two in the chase and a quiet, private man, was now the guy with the chance to break the record alone. The media coverage was overwhelming, and Maris looked like a man going to the gallows as the reporters swarmed around him after every game. His hair fell out in clumps from the stress. Maris hit his 59th home run in the 154th game. Even though he had less at bats than Ruth in his record-breaking season, Frick the commissioner was adamant about saving his friend’s record. He was stuck at 60 for 3 games. Maris went out shopping with his wife the day before the last game of the season and it relaxed him. The next day, he hit number 61 at Yankee Stadium to his great relief. After a few years, the whole asterisk thing calmed down and most prominent baseball writers recognized him as the single season home run king. Maris never got close to having another year as stellar as 1961.Still a good player but not otherworldly anymore. He was traded from the Yankees to the Cardinals in 1967 and retired after the 1968 season.
Even though this article praises members of the Evil Empire aka The New York Yankees, it does not temper my loathing of the team from the Bronx. That will stay with me until my last breath. Nothing wrong with a good healthy sports hatred, right? I will leave you with a quote from the great Leo Durocher. “Baseball is like church, many attend, few understand.”