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Move aside Babe, Maris mashes 61st

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 1999


When Roger Maris swung, Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard winced and stared at his shoes. Umpire Bill Kinnamon said to himself, "Well, there it is." Catcher Russ Nixon looked over his shoulder at Kinnamon and said, "That's it; he's got it."

And Maris began his 61st home run trot of the 1961 season. "He looked like the calmest guy in the place. He almost never showed emotion and he didn't then, either," Kinnamon said after Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60.

Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle had staged a seasonlong home run duel until Mantle fell ill and dropped out late in the season. He finished with 54. And the introverted Maris became the victim of vitriolic Yankees fans who thought that Ruth's record should never be broken or that if anyone was going to break it, it should be Mantle.

On July 17, with Maris three weeks ahead of the pace Ruth had set in 1927, commissioner Ford Frick -- a former sports writer who had been Ruth's close friend and ghostwriter -- announced that Maris would have to hit 61 in 154 games to claim the record.

For nearly 30 years Maris' record carried an invisible asterisk because Ruth hit his 60 in a 154-game season and Maris did it the first year the season had been lengthened to 162.

Thirty years after Maris' feat, baseball formally and finally acknowledged him as the single-season home run king. He wasn't around to appreciate the gesture. Maris died in 1985, still chained to Ruth's ghost.

On Oct. 1, 1961, Phil Rizzuto was calling the game for WPIX, Ch. 11 in New York. "I was worried I'd jinx him," the Yankees shortstop-turned-broadcaster said. "I hardly said anything when Roger came to bat."

In the first inning, Maris popped to left. The crowd groaned.

With one out in the fourth, Maris came to bat again. "Roger was never talkative," said Kinnamon, now retired and living in Largo. "Whenever he said anything to an umpire, it was usually, "Hello.' When he got to the plate, I don't recall him saying anything other that that."

Stallard's first pitch was high and outside, the second low and inside. The crowd booed.

Nixon, then the Boston catcher, had the best seat in the house for Stallard's 2-and-0 pitch: "It never got to me."

Rizzuto made the call: "Here's the windup, fastball hit deep to right! This could be it! Way back there! Holy cow! ... "

"I thought I had a chance to get it when he hit it," rightfielder Lou Clinton said, "I got ... no, I don't."

As Maris headed home, a young fan sprinted onto the field. Maris shook his hand. The Yankees, led by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, converged at the plate. Nixon backed into Kinnamon. "I told Bill, "Let's get out of the way.' "

"When he came home," Kinnamon said, "he didn't look like he'd done anything special. No expression." Maris had declined to acknowledge the cheers of the fans when he'd hit No. 60. (Kinnamon was behind the plate for that one, too.) This time the Yankees would have none of that. They didn't allow Maris into the dugout until he had doffed his cap and waved it, smiling broadly but sheepishly, at the roaring crowd.

When Stallard came to bat in the top of the fifth, the crowd cheered him, too. "I appreciated the fact that he was man enough to pitch to me," Maris said after the game. "When he got behind me (in the count), he came in with the pitch to try and get me out."

"I don't think it's that much to be proud of," Stallard said. "I was just trying to keep from walking him. If I had walked him, I'd have been hanging from the facade up there."

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