October 1, 1961, A Home Run Record Is Set & Baseball Blows Its Big Moment
52 years ago today, on the last day of the regular season October 1, 1961, Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season off of the Red Sox hurler Tracy Stallard in the fourth inning. For those who were fortunate enough to be there, it was a great moment in baseball history.
Unlike many of today’s players who will take a curtain call without any prodding for driving in the go-ahead run, Maris had to literally be pushed out of the dugout to acknowledge the 23,154 cheering fans at Yankee Stadium.
So why were there only 23,154 fans to see Babe Ruth’s record eclipsed?
That has to do with former sportswriter and then baseball Commissioner, Ford Frick who was a great friend of Babe Ruth and his ghost-writer.
Frick had declared that an asterisk be placed next to any home run record set, if it was not accomplished in 154 games, which was the number of games Ruth played in 1927 when he set his home run mark at 60.
Legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck tells this scathing and hilarious story in his wonderful memoir, Veeck as in Wreck written with Ed Linn (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 1962.
Let us be fair. Ford Frick does not try to do the wrong thing. Given the choice between doing something right or something wrong, Frick will usually begin by doing as little as possible. It is only when he is pushed to the wall for a decision that he will always, with sure instinct, and unerring aim, make an unholy mess of things.
Suppose that, purely as an exercise, I had put the following baseball question to you at any time during the past twenty-five years.
Suppose, starts the question, that someone comes along to challenge Babe Ruth’s record- which is THE record the same way Mt. Everest is THE mountain. To make the background more interesting, let us make the new Ruth a member of the New York Yankees so that we will have a big park to fool around with and an unlimited amount of newspaper, magazine, radio and television publicity. Now, to hoke it up even more , let us say he returns home to this big park at the end of the season for, let us say, the final five games needing one home run to tie Ruth’s record and, of course, two to break it. To make the situation even more ideal, we have him playing on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the three possible best dates. And as a final touch- I know this is far-fetched, but remember, I’m trying to dream up the best possible promotional situation- as one final touch, let us have him tie the record on the first of those five days and break it on the last day.
All right here is my question. Given this mythical situation, I am inviting you to take part in an office pool to estimate the attendance of:
1) those final five games
2) the last game
If you know anything about baseball, you would 1) look up the official capacity of Yankee Stadium (67,000), multiply by five and add one.
When it came down to the last game you would 2) look up the record Stadium crowd (81,841) and add one.
This dream situation, this promotional fairy tale, is exactly what fell into the laps of the Yankees in 1961. And in flat defiance of all laws of promotion and probability, it did not even cause a minor traffic problem around Yankee Stadium. Commissioner Frick had come to the aid of the Traffic Department earlier by issuing an edict that in order to break Ruth’s record, Maris would have to do it in 154 games. Otherwise, said Frick, it would go into the record books hung up on an asterisk to signify it as some kind of miscellaneous 162-game record. What he did, in that one brilliant stroke, was to build the interest up to that 154th game and throw the final 8 games out in the wash with the baby. What he did was to turn what should have been a thrilling cliff-hanger lasting over the full final week of the season into a crashing anti-climax. He did even more. By focusing all attention onto the 154th game, he turned Maris’s run for the record into a defeat- another anti-climax – instead of a victory that would have left everybody, except old Babe Ruth ghost-writers like Frick, glowing in satisfaction and feeling most kindly toward baseball. Is it any wonder that under Frick’s dead hand, baseball has been in a steady decline and decay?
And what about my office pool? My office pool would have been won by the little blond filing clerk who has never seen a game in her life and always wins the office pool. The crowds for those five games averaged 18,139.
At the end there were only 23, 154 in Yankee Stadium on a warm Sunday afternoon to see babe Ruth’s record broken.
I am not bleeding for the Yankees. They could have turned Frick’s asterisk to their own advantage by working up a nationwode controversy, by prodding one of the news services into sending out ballots to every sportswriter in the country, by soliciting the opinion of every home-run hitter still alive, by having their own speakers go around to every banquet, club meeting and sports program within rach . The Yankees however, had their own records to preserve- their record for doing the worst promotional job, year in and year out, of any major-league team in the country.
I am bleeding only as a craftsman, the way a good carpenter bleeds when he sees a beautiful graining butchered. Because here’s the thing: Babe Ruth’s record can be broken only once. Breaking Roger Maris’s record will mean comparatively little. The more the home-run record is broken from here on in, in fact, the less meaning it will have.
This was the greatest single promotional opportunity in the history of baseball and they blew it! It was blow-proof and they still blew it!
One thing we will all have to concede. The year 1961 may not have been much for baseball but it was a vintage year for Vocabulary. Frick taught the schoolchildren of the nation the meaning of the word “asterisk,” and the CIA taught them the meaning of the word “fiasco.” The comparison is apt.
One final note on the Maris home run fiasco. It was perfectly obvious to anyone with any foresight that if Maris did break the record, he would eventually go down as the record holder. He hit 61 home runs;Ruth hit 60. Those figures are undebatable. If Frick’s asterisk decorates either man’s record block it will be Ruth’s. Frick not only blew it, he blew it to no purpose.
Even though Maris’s 61 home runs has been eclipsed by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, many fans are still waiting for someone to surpass that number without steroids. To millions of baseball fans, Roger Maris remains the single season home run champion.