61 in 61
by Michael Aubrecht, Copyright 2002
Also online at

When I look back at all those classic record-breaking moments in baseball that I have witnessed in my lifetime one number really stands out in my mind. That number is 62. I feel very privileged to have been able to witness Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both set new standards in 1998, by breaking the all-time single season home run record, the most revered record in all of sports. It was the first time, in a long time, that America's passion for the game resembled the glory days, when it truly was our nation's pastime and the players were larger than life heroes.

Although Barry Bonds has since set the new magic number at 73, their race seemed more romantic and brought a lot of overdue attention to the man whose record they were chasing, Roger Maris. It also seemed more fitting as they were both competing in a similar situation as Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle had in 1961. Both contests were between 2 friends pushing each other to be better on and off the field, neither ever letting their competitiveness get in the way of their friendship or their friendship get in the way of their competitiveness.

The press had dubbed them "The M&M Boys" and their story is an incredible example of what impact sports can have when 2 teammates who are as opposite as can be, come together to create something special. To understand this, one has to look at both men individually to see what they accomplished together.

Roger Maris was a great ballplayer who never got the respect he deserved. Unfortunately, the press never really considered him "hero" material, but when you look at his life, on and off the field, you realize that he was the ideal hero. He was a good husband, father and athlete, who was more concerned with the success of his team than his own individual stats. (An attitude seldom seen in today's game.)

I too have to admit my ignorance, as I never fully understood his impact on the game until HBO premiered the Billy Crystal movie 61*. The film was fantastic (an instant classic) recreating the 1961 Yankees season when Mantle and Maris raced to beat Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record. The film had an immediate impact on me and after researching Maris' life, I've come to realize his story is what legends are made of:

No record ever hung around a player's neck more like an albatross than Roger Maris' 61 homers in 1961. As late as the 1980 All-Star Game he fumed, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing."

In surpassing Babe Ruth's supposedly unsurpassable record, Maris faced the hostility of the baseball public on several fronts. First, although he had been the 1960 American League MVP, he was basically a .269 hitter, still an unknown quantity unworthy of dethroning America's greatest sports hero. That he played the game with a ferocious intensity and that he was a brilliant right fielder and an exceptional baserunner, well, that was irrelevant. Second, for most of the season Maris wasn't the only batter chasing the ghost of the Babe. His teammate Mickey Mantle, the successor to Ruth, to Lou Gehrig, and to Joe DiMaggio, was the people's choice. It was Mantle who hit 500-foot home runs that thrilled fans. Mantle garnered support as the season-long chase headed toward September.

Maris? He was merely efficient, a left-handed hitter who had just the swing to take advantage of that friendly porch in Yankee Stadium's right field. He rarely hit a homer further than 400 feet. His charisma quotient was almost nil. That 1961 season was the first year of expansion and the first year of the 162-game season. With the addition of two teams to the American League, many hitters had their greatest seasons, such as Norm Cash, who somehow hit .361-corked bat and all.

Expansion also meant an expanded schedule. Ruth had set his record in 1927 in a 154-game season. So for many people, Maris' feat would be tainted if he needed more than 154 games to break Ruth's record. Commissioner Ford Frick even announced that if Maris took more than 154 games to break the record it would go into the record books as a separate accomplishment from Ruth's-with an asterisk, so to speak. "As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again," Maris once remarked. "As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again. They even asked for my autograph at mass." As always, Maris was being honest. He once said about playing baseball for living, "It's a business. If I could make more money down in the zinc mines, I'd be mining zinc." Could anyone have been more unlike the Babe?

In his first game in Yankee pinstripes, Maris singled, doubled, and smacked two home runs. His MVP numbers included a league leading 112 RBIs and 39 home runs, only one behind league-leader Mantle although he missed 18 games with injuries. In 1961 Maris stayed healthy and played 161 games, a career high. As he and Mantle made their charge at Ruth's home run record, the Yankees even considered switching Maris, who batted third, and Mantle, who batted fourth, to give Mantle a better shot at the record. If the switch had been made, Maris almost certainly would not have broken the record.

Consider this: Maris did not receive one intentional walk in 1961. After all, who would walk Maris to get to Mantle? The pressure to beat Ruth became so intense for Maris that clumps of his hair fell out. "I never wanted all this hoopla," Maris said. "All I wanted is to be a good ballplayer, hit 25 or 30 homers, drive in around a hundred runs, hit .280, and help my club win pennants. I just wanted to be one of the guys, an average player having a good season."

Mantle fell back in the middle of September when he suffered a hip injury. Maris kept it up and went into the 154th game of the season in Baltimore with 58 homers. He gave it his best shot that night. He hit No. 59 and then hit a long foul on his second-to-last at bat. Alas, in his last at bat, against Hoyt Wilhelm, he hit a checked-swing grounder. "Maybe I'm not a great man, but I damn well want to break the record," he said. He finally did it on the last day of the season against the Red Sox's Tracy Stallard. Fittingly it went about 340 feet into Yankee Stadium's right field porch. Maris also made back-to-back MVP honors, driving in a league leading 142 runs.

As expected Ford C. Frick ruled that since Maris had played in a 162-game schedule (as opposed to Ruth's 154 one), his record would be listed officially with a qualifying asterisk; this decision stood until 1991. Although, he never experienced the same hitting streak, his consistency as a power hitter continued and he hit 275 home runs during his 12-year career.

Mickey Mantle, like Maris, was also an exceptional athlete from the Midwest, but with a press-friendly personality and movie-star good looks that made him a fan favorite both on and off the field. The Mick fit into the Yankee persona perfectly and his contributions to the pinstripes were on par with the long line of Yankee legends that had come before him.

Mickey represented what America is all about: A young kid from the mid-west, going to the big city, living the American dream and becoming a sports legend. A courageous player, he achieved greatness despite an arrested case of osteomyelitis, numerous injuries and frequent surgery. The powerful Yankee switch-hitter belted 536 homers (many of the tape-measure variety), won the American League home run and slugging titles four times, collected 2,415 hits, and batted .300 or more 10 times. The three-time MVP was named to 20 All-Star teams. He holds numerous WS records, including most home runs (18). I think we can all agree what Bob Costas and Billy Crystal mean when they speak of him so reverently. Bottom line, in my opinion, Mickey Mantle is baseball.

Unbelievably, Maris (as of 2002) has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his teammate Mantle was elected unanimously in his first year of eligibility. Both men made incredible contributions to the game of baseball, but only one received the highest honor that can be bestowed on a ballplayer. Was it more than just their performance on the field that separated these 2 players from hanging in the halls of Cooperstown together? Was Maris' contribution to the game of baseball any less than Mantle's?

Both were multidimensional players at both the plate and in the field. Both were multiple MVP winners and led the league in several categories throughout their careers. Both exemplified the word "teammate" and both represented the best aspects of the game of baseball in their own unique way.

Opposites yes, but also equals. I think they both summed up their own careers perfectly. Mickey said "It was all I lived for, to play baseball." and Roger was quoted as saying "All I wanted was to be a good ballplayer." Each was a hero in my opinion, and baseball today, needs more players like "The M&M Boys". I'm sure they're both together up in heaven now, tossing the ball around and betting on who the Yankees are gonna play in the series this year.


Who's the Greatest?
by Michael Aubrecht, Copyright 2002
Also online at

As a lifelong baseball fan and amateur historian, I have always been fascinated with the legacy of America's National pastime. Nothing pleases me more than digging through my library of baseball books or surfing the 'net and learning about teams and individuals who played this wonderful sport decades before my parents were even born. Part of me longs for the days when it truly was a game and although I have many fond, first-hand memories of baseball, I feel cheated at times, for never experiencing it as it was meant to be.

Maybe that's why I have such a fascination with the history of the game and players who haven't walked the earth during my lifetime. I also love debating baseball with fellow fans and one issue that constantly comes up is the challenge over who was the greatest team of all-time.

Some say it was the 1906 Chicago Cubs who won 116 games. Others say the 1929 Philadelphia A's who showcased one of the best pitching staffs ever to share a mound. Maybe the 1975 Cincinnati Reds featuring "The Big Red Machine", or even the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates, who won the National League crown by 27 1/2 games, the widest margin of victory in league history. The 1912 Boston Red Sox, the 1942 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1939, 1961 and 1998 New York Yankees, the 1970 Baltimore Orioles, the 1986 New York Mets, the 1995 Cleveland Indians and many others have all been considered worthy of this honor. All have been heavily defended (most by their hometown fans) as the greatest teams in the history of baseball.

In my quest for the answers, I've done a lot of research on this subject and in my own opinion the greatest baseball team of all-time has to be without a doubt, the 1927 New York Yankees. The stats below speak volumes, but these numbers only begin to tell the story of this amazing team and the foundation they provided for building one of baseball's most storied franchises.

With an all-star lineup known as Murderer's Row, New York outscored its opponents by nearly 400 runs and hit .307 as a team. Babe Ruth, perhaps the greatest ever, set the original single season mark with 60 homeruns which was more than any other American League team had combined. The Sultan of Swat also had plenty of help from his fellow sluggers in pinstripes. Outfield counterparts, Earle Combs in center and Bob Meusel in left, hit .356 and .337 respectively. Lou Gehrig had his first big season, batting .373 with 47 homers and a league leading 175 RBIs. Second year man Tony Lazzeri ranked third in the loop with 18 homers.

The pitching staff boasted four men who won 18 or more wins, led by Waite Hoyt at 22-7. Herb Pennock and Wilcy Moore gained 19 victories apiece while Urban Shocker added 18. This lethal trio complemented the dominant offense by claiming the league's three best ERAs. Moore, who pitched primarily in relief, led the way with a 2.28 mark. With a 110-44 record, the Bronx Bombers ran away with the American League pennant, winning by a staggering 19 games. For an encore, they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series and went on to win another championship the following year.

What made this group so exceptional was the sheer quantity of individual record setting performances and accomplishments that combined to form a group so far ahead of it's competition, it was almost unfair to any team not wearing the NY on their caps. The Yankees led the American League in nearly every offensive category. They set major league records with 975 runs scored, 158 home runs, 908 runs batted in, and a .489 slugging average.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined to form the most devastating 1-2 batting combo in history. They finished one-two, respectively (Ruth-Gehrig), in the league in home runs, runs scored, batting, strikeouts and walks. They also finished one-two, respectively (Gehrig-Ruth), in the league in runs batted in, total bases and extra base hits. The 32 year old Ruth batted .356, set a major league record with 60 HRs, topping by one the mark he had set six years earlier, had 164 RBIs, and scored a league leading 158 runs. Gehrig, only 24 and in his third season as the regular first baseman, batted .373, hit 47 HRs, and set a major league record with 175 RBIs, breaking Ruth's mark of 171.

The best lead off hitter in baseball, Earle Combs, batted .356 and led the league with 231 hits and 23 triples. Bob Meusel batted .337 with eight HRs and 103 RBIs, and finished second with 24 SBs. Tony Lazzeri batted .309, finished third in the league with 18 HRs, had 102 RBIs, and tied for third with 22 SBs. The switch hitting Mark Koenig batted .285 and scored 99 runs from the number two spot in the order. Joe Dugan, one of the best fielding third basemen in baseball, finished strong despite his .269 average. And the average, but underrated, catching trio of Pat Collins, John Grabowski and Benny Bengough combined to hit .271 with 7 HRs and 71 RBIs.

This lethal rotation at the plate became known as Murderer's Row and this group, usually called the Bronx Bombers, earned their new nickname after killing pitchers statistical earnings throughout the league.

Yankee pitchers, grateful to be in pinstripes, also dominated the league, posting a leading 3.20 ERA and 11 shutouts. Waite Hoyt, the ace of the staff, turned in his best campaign yet, posting a 22-7 record and leading the league in winning percentage, tying for the league lead in wins, and finishing second with a 2.64 ERA. Thirty year old rookie Wilcy Moore burst into the majors as the best relief pitcher in baseball, posting a 19-7 record and leading the league with a 2.28 ERA, while tying for the league lead with 13 saves. Herb Pennock, one of the best southpaws in the game, finished 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA. Urban Shocker, one of the few pitchers still legally allowed to throw a spitball, finished 18-6 and was third in the league with a 2.84 ERA. Dutch Ruether, in his final season in the major leagues, and the hard throwing George Pipgras, after being eased into the starting rotation in mid season, combined for a 23-9 record, with a 3.73 ERA.

The Yankees grand finale for the '27 season, the World Series, was the quickest ever played and lasted only 74 hours and 15 minutes. They became the first American League team to sweep a World Series, and it was only the 2nd four game sweep in World Series history (Braves over Athletics in 1914). The Yankee pitchers had a combined ERA of only 2.00. Making only three errors, they had a .981 FA. The Yankees trailed a total of only two innings during the entire series out scoring the Pirates 23-10. Pittsburgh, only once, managed to score more than one run in an inning (during Game 4). What made this feat even more spectacular was the fact that the Yankees used only four pitchers, and a total of 15 different players during the entire Series.

The Yankees 1-4 hitters (Combs, Koenig, Ruth and Gehrig) combined to hit .387 with 2 HRs, 16 RBIs and 17 RS, while the rest of the hitters batted just .189 with only 3 RBIs and 6 RS. Together, Ruth and Gehrig batted .357 and had a slugging average of .786. With homers in both Games 3 and 4, Ruth became the fifth player in Series history to hit a HR in back to back games. They were only his second and third homeruns at Yankee Stadium and there would be many more to come. Koenig led all batters by hitting .500 (9 for 18), and was the only Yankee to hit safely in each game.

The 1927 Yankees represented TEAM in every sense of the word. The company they shared in the dugout made these great players even greater. In today's game, it would be virtually impossible to put together such an elite group of talent (at the same time) in a single clubhouse and their accomplishments together will never be duplicated.

Players today seem more concerned with individual achievements and if more players played for the team instead of for the player, they would compliment each other's strengths, compensate for each other's weaknesses and push each other to be even more successful. In other words, they could all take a lesson from the 1927 Yankees, the greatest team of all-time.


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