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
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
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
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-
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: