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1961: Year of The M&M Boys

"In the summer of 1961 I mowed the lawn 35 times, played wiffle ball 64 days in a row, bought my second car, a 1960 Covair Monza, kissed Peggy and her twin sister Barbara (on different days) and saw Roger Maris hit number 61. It was one of the greatest summers of my life. I'm sorry if Roger didn't feel the same way." - Tony Ventrella of Kiro 7 Sports

The press had dubbed them "The M&M Boys" and their story is an incredible example of what an impact sports can have, when two teammates who are as opposite as can be, come together to create something special. To understand this, one has to look at the 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 also must 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 and became an instant classic. It re-created the 1961 Yankees season, when Mantle and Maris raced to beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. The film had an immediate impact on me and after researching Maris' life, I've come to realize that his story is that of which legends are made.

No record ever hung around a player's neck like an albatross more 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 had 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 behind 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), 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 Midwest, 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 (an inflammation of the bone and bone marrow), 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 World Series records, including most home runs (18). I think we can all agree as to 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 (to date) 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 upon a ballplayer. Was it more than just their performance on the field that separated these two players from gracing the halls of Cooperstown together? Was Maris' contribution to the game of baseball any less than Mantle's? Both were multidimensional players at 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, and baseball today needs more players like "The M&M Boys."


Copyright 2006 by Michael Aubrecht
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