Monday, March 27, 2017

Yankee Stadium, Opening Day 1961 and More By Harvey Frommer

Yankee Stadium, Opening Day 1961 and More
By Harvey Frommer

With Opening Day 2017 just around the corner, it’s just fascinating to

flash back to another time, another Yankee Stadium, another cast of


In freezing rain on Opening Day April 17, 1961 only 1,947 hardy

souls showed up. Whitey Ford got the Yankees off to a good start blanking

Kansas City, 3–0. Still, the Yankees moved out slowly that season.

Just 9-19 in spring training, 18-15 as the season got into full swing,

the Yankees in their first 33 games managed only 34 homers. But that

would change.

When Roger Maris joined the team in a 1960 trade, he was just

another player added to the roster. He had not come up through the

Yankee farm system. “The Mick” -- who had blasted 52 homers in 1956,

some of them mighty shots -- was the favorite of the Yankee fans. The talk

had always been that if anyone would break Babe Ruth’s single season

record mark of 60, it would be the "Commerce Comet."

Through 10 games in 1961, Roger Maris was homerless. On May 17 th

he hit his first Stadium homer of the season off southpaw Pete Burnside of

Washington. That gave the quiet outfielder four for the season. But there

would be many more - -24 in his next 38 games. By the end of May, Maris

had a dozen homers. By the end of June, he had 27.

On July 1, 1961, the Senators led the Yankees 3-0, when a Mickey

Mantle shot, a few feet left of the 456-foot sign in left field, put the Yanks

on the scoreboard. Washington moved ahead 5–1. The Yankees closed the

gap to 5-4 on a Mantle three-run homer. Then in the ninth inning, Maris

pounded a two -run homer, his 28th. New York won, 7-6.

JOHNNY BLANCHARD: Roger Maris had the locker next to

mine. When he was popping those long ones out of the park, I had

to get out of my own locker because 20, 30 writers would flock

around him, and they would sift into my locker space. Roger was

an introvert and did not like all the bright lights. That was what

gave him the reputation of being nasty. But he was not.

By the end of July, Maris had forty home runs. That placed his

record six ahead of Babe Ruth’s pace. The "Sultan of Swat" had set his

record of 60 homers in a 154 game season. But this year Major League

Baseball had added two expansion teams to the roster and eight games to

the schedule. Accordingly, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that if

Maris broke Ruth’s record, an asterisk would be placed next to the solidly-

built Yankee's name in the record books.

While all the focus seemed to be on Maris that '61 season, other

Yankees had big moments, too, but none as big as Maris would have. On

July 26, the man they called "Super- Sub" hammered his third and fourth

straight home runs at Yankee Stadium powering a 5-2 New York win over

the Chicago White Sox. Blanchard’s four home runs in a row over three

games tied a major league record.

On August 4 th Maris clubbed home run number 41 at the Stadium off

Camilio Pasqual of Minnesota. Home runs # 52 and 53 were slammed at

the “House that Ruth Built” on September 2 nd off Frank Lary and Hank

Aguirre of Detroit.

ROGER KAHN: I had a freelance assignment for Sports

Illustrated for a story on Maris. He was fine, just a few little

outbursts of temper. There were times when he got 50 reporters

around him asking the same question. He’d answer them but he

was annoyed.

One day after he finished an interview he turned to Elston

Howard and said: "I'm just sick of all these questions, all this


And Howard told Maris: “If I had 55 home runs, questions

would not make me sick.”

In the clubhouse, Maris would tell Mickey “I can't take it

anymore, I just can't.”

And Mantle would say: "I'm telling you Roger, you've got to

take it."

When it got to the point where he could not “take it,” anymore,

Maris would retreat to the training room or sit at a huge oak table in the

center of the clubhouse smoking Camels, sipping coffee while playing for

hours with a contraption trying to manipulate a steel ball through a 40-

hole maze.

He was the talk of the town, the big news in the Bronx. But another

Yankee who was having a spectacular season was the "Chairman of the

Board" – Whitey Ford. And on September 9th , many were on hand to see

one of their all-time favorites honored.

BILL CHUCK: My dad and I came up by subway from

Stuyvesant Town especially for “Whitey Ford Day.” I was very

excited. It cost us three, maybe four dollars total for the two

general admission tickets. We sat between first and third upstairs

looking down, watching the ceremony. Whitey’s wife was out

there and his three kids.

The "Day" was not enormously sponsored like it is now.

And unlike today where a “Day” for a player is given after his

career is over, Ford got his in the midst of one of his great years

where he ended up with 25 wins.

The gifts, considering the money the ballplayers were

making then, were pretty big deals to them. But they were no big

gifts, really. There were things like patio furniture, movie

cameras, color TVs, a trip to somewhere.

After all the other gifts had been given out, Mel Allen said:

“Whitey, we’ve got one last surprise for you.”

Out of one of the bullpens comes a car pulling an eight-foot

tall Life Savers package, peppermint, blue and white, of course. It

drives up. It stops. Out pops Luis Arroyo who had saved Whitey so

many times. He gives Whitey a big hug. Even from the upper

deck, you could see the look of surprise and happiness on

Whitey’s face. We all went crazy.

PAUL DOHERTY: According to most reports, Whitey was very

pleased with all the accolades and gifts but anything but happy

over the “Life Saver” gimmickry that he thought a big tacky.

Meanwhile, fame’s relentless spotlight continued to bear down on

Roger Maris especially since Mickey Mantle, hobbled by injuries, managed

to hit but one home run from September 10 th on. Without Mantle as

contender for the home run title and with the Yankees having clinched

their 26th pennant, it was truly show time for Roger Maris.

And the rest, as they say, is history and oral history.

Coming this fall:

About the Author:   One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone.   In 2010, he was selected by the City of New York as an historical consultant for the re-imagined old Yankee Stadium site, Heritage Field. A professor in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine.
His The Ultimate Yankee Book will be published fall 2017. Pre-order from Amazon:
“As a lifelong Yankees fan, I was devouring every last delicious new detail about my beloved Bronx Bombers in this fabulous new book.” —Ed Henry, author of 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story
Article is Copyright © 2017 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

Frommer’s work His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men’s Heath, The Sporting News, Bleacher Report and more

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