National Pastime Museum: The 1961 Season

1961 Season

By Marty Appel

In the 1961 All-Star Game (actually, two all-star games were played), the National League roster included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Orlando Cepeda, Don Drysdale and Eddie Mathews – 11 future Hall of Famers on the 28-man roster.

They won the first game (the one where Stu Miller was blown off the mound at Candlestick Park), and tied the second one at Fenway Park (where no one called for revising the format so that the winning league would open the World Series).

Make no mistake, the ’61 American League all-star rosters had ten future Hall of Famers and was hardly a shabby lot. But for sheer maximization of the N.L.’s dominance in that era, particularly in holding a big edge in the signing of superstar African-American players, 1961 seemed like the defining moment.

African-Americans on the A.L. roster: Elston Howard, period.
And yet….
The 1961 season belonged to the American League.

It was, historically, the first year of expansion, and it was only done in the A.L, where Los Angeles and Washington were added to the league (with the ‘original’ Washington franchise moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul). The new Washington team corresponded with the “New Frontier” in the nation’s capital, with a young president, John F. Kennedy, moving into the White House. The 16-team format went back to the turn of the century, and most living fans knew no other way.

This meant that for 1961, there were ten A.L. teams playing 162 games, and eight N.L. teams playing 154. There was some immediate concern over what the additional eight games might mean for baseball’s record books, but with the original announcement, the idea of the A.L. moving to the west coast was the big news. Making it even more exciting was that Gene Autry, the beloved film, television and recording star, was one of the owners of the Los Angeles franchise.

Further bringing attention to the A.L. was a new manager in New York, where Ralph Houk replaced Casey Stengel after a 12-year run for Stengel which produced ten pennants.

But for those who cared about baseball’s sacred records, suddenly, the doors would open to 50 new players in the American League; players who would otherwise be minor leaguers if not for expansion. Would the seasoned A.L. hitters beat up on the otherwise minor league pitchers? How about the Angels’ home park for 1961 – which was the minor league bandbox Wrigley Field, site of the Home Run Derby television series.

As it turned out, both leagues enjoyed big home run years, with the A.L. averaging 0.95 homers per game, and the National League 0.97. The A.L. total was a league record of 1,534, the N.L.’s 1,238, owing to the extra games played by the “Junior Circuit.”

But then there was the Home Run Chase of 1961, pitting New York Yankees teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris not only against each other, but against the sacred record of 60 held by Babe Ruth since 1927.

In 1960, Mantle won the league’s home run title, edging first-year Yankee Maris 40-39. With the announcement of expansion, baseball preview magazines immediately focused on the peril Ruth was in, as though increasing the leading total by 20 was to be expected. “61 Homers in ’61?” was an intriguing headline that several publications used.

The race, which by mid-summer seemed as though it was going to produce a new champion, even attracted the fledgling use of computer science to determine if the record would fall. On August 30, “an I.B.M. 1401 computer” nicknamed “Casey”, predicted that Maris had a “55 out of 100” chance of breaking the record, but Mantle had only a “2 out of 100” chance. The findings were revealed on The Today Show, and updated throughout September as Maris soared and an injured Mantle faded.

In the end, Maris did hit 61. But Major League Baseball, (with former Ruth ghost-writer Ford Frick as Commissioner), long wed to promoting its legendary heroes ahead of new players, took the wind out of this great promotional opportunity by decreeing that a player had to do it in 154 games (for the integrity of the record), and that he would get a separate listing for doing it in the extra eight games. As a result, after game 154 (when Maris had 59), a lot of enthusiasm was lost. The Yankees only drew 23,154 for that final regular season game when baseball history was indeed made.

Meanwhile, Maris’s 61 was followed by Mantle’s 54, and the Yankees hit a team record 240, with six players topping 20 homers, and three players listed on the roster as catchers – Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and John Blanchard, combining for 60.

Aside from what Maris and Mantle were accomplishing, four other players hit more than 40 home runs, including Harmon Killebrew of Minnesota (46), Jim Gentile of Baltimore (46, including five grand slams), Rocky Colavito of Detroit (45) and Norm Cash of Detroit (41), with Cash also winning the batting title (.361). This was especially noteworthy in that over a 17-year career, it was his only season over .300.

Additionally, despite the 1961 Yankees being considered one of the great all-time teams, there was actually a pennant race going on. At the end of August, they were only 1.5 games ahead of second-place Detroit, and the Tigers came to New York for a three-game series leading into Labor Day. The Yankees swept the three games (two with walkoff hits), drew 171,503 for the three dates and then continued with another ten victories in a row to pretty much wrap up the pennant for Houk. Whitey Ford, used in a regular, every fourth day rotation for the first time, went 25-4 to win the Cy Young Award.

The National League, meanwhile, had a surprise in store at the top of the standings.

The Cincinnati Reds had finished sixth in 1960 and had not won a pennant since 1940. Its owner, Powell Crosley, died during spring training. The much-respected Fred Hutchinson was the manager, but former pitchers seldom fared well as managers. Most experts picked the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants to win.

But the Reds, led by MVP Frank Robinson, and by a young pitching staff that featured Bob Purkey, Joey Jay, Jim O’Toole and Jim Maloney, found their footing and started rolling up victories. They went into first place on June 16, faltered briefly, but swept a three-game series in Los Angeles in mid-August to put some distance between themselves and the Dodgers. They won the last pennant of an eight-team league by four games, before losing the World Series to the Yankees in five games.

The season was without Boston’s Ted Williams, who retired after 1960, but featured the debut of his successor, Carl Yastrzemski. Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn won 20 for the tenth time, (including the season’s only no-hitter) and became the first new member of the 300-win club since Lefty Grove in 1941. The Chicago Cubs tried to go without a manager, using a rotating “college of coaches,” (a failed experiment), but still finished ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies, who managed a 23-game losing streak. Roberto Clemente won his first of four batting titles, hitting .351.

It was a transitional season for baseball, and it turned out to be a fun one. The home run race brought many new fans to the game, as Mantle and Maris became household names, appearing on Life magazine covers and on the nightly network newscasts. Old players like Spahn and Musial still turned heads, but the new guard of great National League black players were all coming into their own as superstars. It was a season that held fan attention each day and grew the game into a decade of great achievements.