New York Yankee Legends: A most exciting season, the M&M boys race to surpass Babe Ruth

It was 1961, one of the most exciting seasons for the New York Yankees and its fans. Not only did Casey Stengel’s Yankees win the World Series four games to one over the Cincinnati Reds, but an exciting drama played out from the middle of the season until that win. The M&M boys (Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris) fought each other for the most home runs that season.

It was so exciting that the season would end, breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record that stood for 34 years. In 1937 Ruth would hit 60 home runs, the most ever by an MLB player. On October 1, New York’s final game of the regular season, Yankees slugger Roger Maris hit his 61st home run, becoming the first player in Major League Baseball to hit more than 60 in a single season. Mantle ended the season hitting 54 long balls, enduring injuries that held him back.

Here is a brief story of these two super players that kept Yankee fans entertained and on the edge of their seats in 1961.

Mickey Mantle

Few players for the Yankees were as good or beloved by fans as #7 Mickey Mantle. His real name was actually Mickey, not Michael. He was born in 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma; his Father “Mutt” Mantle named Micky after the Hall of Fame player Mickey Cochrane, the famous catcher. #7 or the “Mick” as he was called, had an amazing career with the Yankees, achieving an unprecedented 20-time All-Star award winner, seven World Championships, three-time MVP, Gold Glove, and other awards as he spent his entire eighteen years career, all spent with the Yankees. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility in 1974.

He was a multi-talented athlete playing baseball, basketball, and football at Commerce High School in his teen years. He was offered a football scholarship, but that was not to be. In a game, he was kicked in the shin and endured a crippling disease known as Osteomyelitis that almost took his leg had it not been for the newly discovered Penicillin. Saved from amputation, Mantle recovered while being treated at Children’s Hospital In Commerce.

Mantle began his baseball career in the neighboring state of Kansas when he joined the semi-pro Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. In 1948 a Yankee scout was scouting the Whiz’s third baseman Billy Johnson, but during that game, the scout took notice as Micky hit three home runs in the game. 

Mantle was invited to the Yankees instructional camp before the 1951 season. After an impressive spring training, Yankees manager Casey Stengel decided to promote Mantle to the majors as a right fielder instead of sending him to the minors.

In the 1951 World Series, Mantle was playing right field and raced to catch a long fly ball; in doing so, he tripped over a drain pipe and tore his ACL. This was the first of numerous injuries that plagued his 18-year career with the Yankees. He played the rest of his career with a torn ACL. However, from 1952 to 1960, Mantle played his brains out and achieved all kinds of awards. During this time in World Series games, Mantle would hit 18 home runs and score 42 times. Mantle escaped the military draft because of his leg ailment. Still, when he was selected to the All-Star team, the military ordered another physical exam, but he was rejected for the final time.

Mantle’s overall performance in 1956 was so exceptional that he was bestowed the Hickok Belt (unanimously) as the top American professional athlete of the year. He is the only player to win a league Triple Crown as a switch hitter Mantle won his second consecutive MVP in 1957 behind league leads in runs and walks, a career-high .365 batting average. He continued his fine play through 1960.

In 1961 began the period of the M&M boys. He and Roger Maris competed for the most home runs and chased Babe Ruth’s 1927 single-season home run record. Mantle was the media favorite, and Maris, the surly outsider, was new. They both fought for the title through the season, but again Mantle would be hit with a medical issue. From a flu shot he had gotten earlier in the year, he developed an abscessed hip and was hospitalized. He missed 41 games, and Maris beat out his 54 home runs with 61 for the batting crown.

In 1962 Mantle batted .321 in 121 games. He was selected an All-Star for the eleventh consecutive season and played in the first game but couldn’t play in the second game due to old injuries flaring up. In 1963 while catching a fly ball up against the fence, he dropped to the ground and broke his foot.

In the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Mantle hit Barney Schultz’s first pitch into the right-field stands at Yankee Stadium, which won the game for the Yankees 2–1. His 16th World Series home run, the homer broke the World Series record of 15 set by Babe Ruth.

During the late 50′ and early ’60s, Billy Martina and Mickey Mantle were the partiers on the team. Basically, both were alcoholics, and they partied hard. Although Mantle was still a world-class player, his game was starting to slow. Upon the opening of the Houston Astrodome, Mickey would hit the first home run during an exhibition game there. But his alcoholism and numerous injuries were taking their toll. In 1968 his last playing season, his average had slipped to .237 with only 54 RBI’s. Mantle retired from baseball on March 1, 1969.

During this time, his health continued to deteriorate. 

Before Mantle sought alcoholism treatment, he admitted that his hard-living had hurt his playing and family. His rationale was that the men in his family had all died young, so he expected to die young as well. He checked into the Betty Ford Clinic on January 7, 1994, after being told by a doctor that his liver was so badly damaged from almost 40 years of drinking that it “looked like a doorstop.”

In 1995 Mickey received a liver transplant at Baylor in Dallas. Before his death, Mantle would talk of how he wasted his life drinking and urged others not to drink during many speaking events. Mickey passed away from liver failure on June 8, 1995, with his wife by his side at the age of just 63.

Roger Maris

In the fourth inning of the last game of the season, at Yankee Stadium in front of 23,154 fans on October 1, 1961. Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard allowed Roger Maris to hit his record-breaking 61st home run and ended the competition between him and Mickey Mantle. The competition was to beat Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs. Maris’s feat has always been controversial because Maris beat Ruth in 162 games, whereas Ruth had his 60 home runs in a 154 game season.

Born Roger Eugene Maris on September 10, 1934, in Hibbing, Minnesota. His parents, Rudolph and Corrine Maris, were of Croatian heritage; they were also born in Minnesota. They legally changed their name to Maris in 1955. Something that Maris would later say he was pleased with so that fellow teammates would stop making rude comments referring to “ass.” When Roger was just five, the family would move from Minnesota to South Dakota. As he aged, he would become a star at his high school in Fargo. He would excel in football and once returned four kick-offs for touchdowns in a single game. After graduation, he would decide not to attend college, and he turned his full attention to baseball, where he would make an indelible mark.

His strong performance in the American Legion League would draw the attention of several baseball scouts. Maris would sign with the Indians organization and be sent to the Fargo/Morehead minor team. He quickly worked his way up the ladder and was moved to Iowa. In 1954 he would be hitting .303, and he would view himself as a contact hitter. His manager trained him to pull the ball, thus unleashing what would prove to be the making of a historical power hitter.

After a very successful time with the Cleveland Indians, Maris was traded to the New York Yankees on December 11, 1959. Maris got off to a quick start in 1960 with the Yankees, hitting two home runs in his first game in pinstripes. By early August, he already had over thirty home runs and over ninety runs batted in as the Yankees, overcoming a slow start, reasserting their American League dominance, ultimately winning the pennant by eight games over a surprising number Oriole squad. He would finish his first season with 39 home runs. In addition, he would earn the AL MVP award and get a Gold Glove.

1961 would see new franchises in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and the Yankees would see a new beginning. In the middle of the summer, the Yankees began moving ahead of the rest of the AL East teams, but the big story was the race to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Near the end of the season, the Tigers were just down a game and a half, and in a crucial three-game set, both Maris and Mantle would hit dual homers. After that, the Yankees would go on a 13 game winning streak and secure the AL Division. Still, the media and fans were focused on the race to beat Babe Ruth. It was settled when Mantle was injured and couldn’t play while hospitalized.

Few know the pressure Maris was until to beat Ruth’s record, he couldn’t eat at times, couldn’t sleep, and even clumps of hair would fall out of his head. Maris would go on to play six more seasons with the Yankees in right field. But in those seasons, he would never hit above 33 home runs. In his last two years with the Yankees, he would hit only 21 home runs.

He would spend the last two years of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was an All-star seven times in his career, would win a Gold Glove, and be an MVP twice with three nominations. Unfortunately, Maris would die very young, at the age of 51, from cancer on December 14, 1985.

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