Bronx, NY—Memories of the storied Yankees past abounded at the new version of Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon as the 50th anniversary of the 61 homer performance was commemorated. Many of the principals of that very memorable baseball season were present for the ceremony.
For many baseball fans Maris not only is the first but the only player to hit more than 60 homers in a single season. Although his mark has been bested by Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, all three are suspected, at least, of using performance enhancing drugs. On Friday, comedian Billy Crystal commented the asterisk in the record books after Maris’s performance signifies the only player to hit more than 60 homers without using performance enhancing drugs.
The 61 homers brought attention to Maris but not happiness. Maris was a small town boy, born in Hibbing, Minnesota and reared in Fargo, North Dakota. Maris, who reached 27 in September of 1961, was very different in temperament than Mickey Mantle. His reaction to the hounding and harassment of the press was also different than that of Mantle, who had been a Yankee for a decade.
The treatment of Maris by the Yankees organization, then owned by Dan Topping and Dell Webb and subsequently by CBS is remembered with bitterness by the Maris family. His son Randy told the press on Saturday, “They [Yankees] didn’t really protect him with the press. The press turned the fans against him. He felt let down in ’65 with how he was treated.” Roger Maris, Jr. commented of that year, “It really made dad famous, but it also made it tough.”
Randy also blamed the 61 homers for tarnishing his father’s career in baseball, “I think hitting the 61 was a curse because it made him seem a one year player. It overshadowed everything.”
Maris did have enjoyment on-the-field with his teammates. Randy Maris affirmed, “He had a great time between the lines.” David Mantle confirmed that memory, “It was a family back then. Everybody was there for each other.”
The memories of the Yankee sons were confirmed by Bob Cerv, a teammate and roommate of Maris and Mantle. The hard hitting outfielder, now 85, spoke fondly and humorously of ’61 when the three Yankees outfielders roomed together in an apartment near Forest Hills in Queens. Cerv was also a teammate and roommate of Maris when both were on the Kansas City club in 1958 and 1959.
In addition to Cerv, several other members of the 1961 Yankees, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Bill “Moose” Skowron and Bobby Richardson, were present to pay tribute to their former teammate.
Cerv also spoke sadly of his last memories of Maris, “I spent five days with him when he had cancer, and the next fall I went to his funeral. Maris died of cancer on December 14, 1985 at the age of 51.
The statement issued by Maris’s widow, Pat, acknowledges the considerate treatment received by Maris under the Steinbrenner ownership, “My family will always be grateful Mr. George Steinbrenner retired Roger’s No. 9 before he died because it meant so much to him. We wish to thank the Steinbrenner Family, the Yankees Organization and the fans for honoring Roger today.” During the ceremony, Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal presented a $5,000 check to the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, ND.
Sal Durante, then a 19 year old fan who caught the 61st homer, added an interesting perspective of Maris’s decency, “I met Roger and offered him the ball. He said, ‘No, you keep it, make yourself some money.’” Sometime afterwards, in Sacramento, CA, there was a meeting when Durante would sell the baseball. Durante reminisced, “ I gave Sam Gordon [the buyer] the ball and he gave me a $5,000 check and Roger got the ball as gift. [As they were leaving] he [Roger] privately gave me his New York Yankee cigarette lighter. I still have it and cherish it.”
Bill Stimers, a 14 year old fan in 1961, told of his feelings of being present during the ceremony and meeting some of the principals, “I was 14 in 1961 and a big fan of both Maris and Mantle. Maris deserved this day and everything. The Yankees under Dan Topping and Del Webb treated him very badly. I’m happy that the Steinbrenner family realizes what a great Yankee Roger was.”
Credit for the well planned and moving event must be accorded to every member of the Marketing, Special Events and Promotions Department under the direction of Deborah Tymon and Jason Latimer of the Media Relations Department. The day was a memorable one for all Yankees rooters as they were accorded glimpse back to the storied Yankees past and the current team demolished the Boston Red Sox, 9-1.