Let’s hear it for Roger Maris.
For someone like me, who was eight years old at the time growing up in Kenilworth, N.J. it is hard to believe that 61 in ’61 is 60 years ago this Friday, October 1st.
That was the day Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record for home runs in a single season, blasting his 61st home run of the 1961 season into the right field stands at the original Yankee Stadium and into the hands of a young truck driver named Sal Durante.
Watching the video of the Maris’ home run off Boston’s Tracy Stallard, even now, and hearing Red Barber’s legendary understated call: “There it is … 61’’ still brings excitement some 60 years later.
The great Babe Ruth’s record was broken.
Mickey Mantle wasn’t up to the task it was the workmanlike performance of Roger Maris who rewrote baseball history books.
At Baseball or Bust we go deeper into the story. Here is 61 in ’61 from a different perspective.
Steve Nichols is a much-accomplished longtime baseball scout. He is the man who found Jacob deGrom at Stetson University for the Mets. DeGrom was a ninth-round draft pick, the 272nd player drafted in 2010 and it was Nichols who made sure that happened.
Mets fans owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Nichols.
The Mets did not keep Nichols, he went onto the White Sox and is not scouting for any team now, which says so much about the state of baseball and the treatment of scouts, but even though I want to, I will not get sidetracked here by that slight.
“Most people thought it would be Mickey Mantle, who was born to be a Yankee, who would beat the Babe’s record. Instead, it was the Accidental Yankee, the Quiet Yankee.”
Instead, let me tell you what young Steve Nichols, also eight years old in 1961, remembers from that day October 1, 1961. This is something with all the information that is out there and all the books written about 61 in ’61 and Roger Maris, and even Billy Crystal’s fine HBO movie 61* — this is a story you have not heard about that day 60 years ago.
How would young Steve Nichols know a bit of untold baseball history?
This was long before he would become a tremendous evaluator of baseball talent, a man who could see the baseball future of players, he was just your normal eight-year-old kid with one difference.
Steve’s dad was a major league pitcher, Chet Nichols.
Chet Nichols pitched nine years in the majors with a 34-36 record and 3.64 ERA with 10 saves. He broke in with the Braves and was close friends with Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Steve’s grandfather, also named Chet Nichols, pitched six years in the majors, his last season coming with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1932.
This is a baseball family. Chet Jr. pitched four years with the Red Sox. The lefty happened to pitch that day at Yankee Stadium after Stallard had given up the 61st home run of the season to Roger Maris in the fourth inning.
Nichols pitched the eighth inning. The last batter he retired was Roger Maris on a popup to second base.
There would not be 62 home runs in a season for a long time.
But there is more to this story.
You see, the Red Sox took the train home after that game. Nichols lived outside of Providence, Rhode Island in a town called Lincoln near Pawtucket. A number of Red Sox players lived in that general vicinity. So when the train pulled into Providence some players got off there.
Chet Nichols called his wife Beryl. She came to the station in the family station wagon and transported her husband and a number of his teammates back to their house for some down time after a long, long season.
The players had a few beers to unwind.
BOSTON, MA - MARCH, 1962: Tracy Stallard #39 of the Boston Red Sox poses for a portrait in March, 1962 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)
What does Steve remember that night about Tracy Stallard, who had just given up the record-breaking home run hours earlier at Yankee Stadium?
Remember, these are major league players and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was always a good one. These men took immense pride in their jobs.
Tracy Stallard was now on the wrong side of baseball history. He would be known forever as the pitcher who surrendered Roger Maris’ 61st home run. This is a much more competitive time in baseball. Players from different teams didn’t have the same agent. Heck, they didn’t even have agents. They were not friends.
Competition ruled the day. This was not about the theatrics of the game. Just look at the video and how Roger Maris put his head down and swiftly ran around the bases after 61, hit on the last day of the regular season.
Roger didn’t pose. He didn’t stop and say, “Look at me.’’
There was no bat flip.
After quickly running around the bases and being greeted at home plate by Yogi Berra and then the Yankee batboy, a fan came out of the stands to congratulate him as well. Then it was a dash into the dugout. No monster high fives. No flying chest bumps.
A smiling Maris took a curtain call to please the cheering fans. He was thrilled to get the beast of Babe Ruth’s shadow off his back, breaking a record that had stood for 34 years.
Most people thought it would be Mickey Mantle, who was born to be a Yankee, who would beat the Babe’s record. Instead, it was the Accidental Yankee, the Quiet Yankee.
It was Roger Maris who shook hands with baseball history on a 2-0 pitch thrown by Tracy Stallard.
These were competitive players who did not like to lose and certainly had no desire to give up the home run that broke the biggest record of them all.
BRONX, NY - OCTOBER 1, 1961: Outfielder Roger Maris, of the New York Yankees, hits his 61st home run of the season off Tracy Stallard, of the Boston Red Sox, as the Yankees won, 2-0 on October 1, 1961 at Yankee Stadium in New York. Maris' 61 homers eclipses the record established by Babe Ruth for the Yankees in 1927. (Olen Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
So, this is what Steve Nichols remembers about that night.
By the time the ballplayers had arrived at the Nichols’ home, young Steve was already asleep.
“There was some noise, I woke up and kind of got out of my bedroom, and I looked out and they were all having a couple of pops,’’ Nichols told BallNine. “They were having some libations and obviously they had a few on the train coming in and Stallard was on phone with his father and he was sitting on the kitchen floor and he was crying.
“Of course the guys were giving him a hard time and that kind of stuff. The history lore of that night is that Stallard spent the night at our house.’’
Now you know the other side of ’61.
Tracy Stallard was so upset of having surrendered No. 61 to Maris, he called home and was in tears speaking to his father. The competitor in him came through. Remember, this was a pitcher who never lost a game in four years of high school back in Coeburn, Va.
That game at Yankee Stadium was one of the best games he pitched in his seven-year major league career, holding the mighty Yankees to one run and losing 1-0 and going seven innings.
Those 76-86-1 Red Sox finished 32 games back of the powerhouse Yankees who won 109 games that season and then went on to beat the Reds in the World Series in five games.
A few years later Stallard wound up a Met, losing 20 games in 1964 despite an ERA of 3.79 and became roommates with Jack Fisher, who in 1961 was with the Orioles and surrendered Maris’ 60th home run.
The 6’5″ Stallard had just turned 24 at the time of the Maris home run. He soon got over being upset. Stallard, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 80, told a Washington Post reporter 30 years after giving up the home run, “You wouldn’t be here talking to me if I hadn’t been there. I’d just be history. Now, people still remember me … I’ll always be the guy who gave up Maris’ home run. Do I regret being that guy? Not for a minute.’’
In later years Stallard attended the Roger Maris Charity Golf Tournament in Fargo, N.D., which raises money for cancer research. Maris died in 1985 of cancer at the age of 51.
Stallard won the golf tournament in 1990, and laughed the next day at a local headline that read: Stallard Finally Got Even.
The M&M Boys, 1961.
“I think Roger would have laughed at that, too,’’ Stallard said at the time.
That final night of the 1961 season, Steve Nichols did not hang around the men for long.
“My dad wasn’t sitting there bouncing me on his knee,’’ Nichols told me with a laugh. “He said, ‘Hello,’ gave me a kiss and said, ‘Now, back to bed. It’s past your bed time.’ One of those jobs.’’
To be the son of a major leaguer was special. He remembers many days when school was out for the summer, “My dad would say to me, ‘C’mon, you’re coming to the ballpark with me and your mother is coming up with your grandmother and your sister later on.’ And we would make the pit stops on the way through.
“We’d stop and get a milkshake and a hot dog at a place in North Attleboro called Rattey’s,’’ Nichols said of the legendary car hop restaurant. “Then we’d take off and the first stop would be like Foxborough, and we’ pick up like Gene Conley. Then the next stop, you are getting up towards Dedham and we’d pick up Mike Fornieles. There was about four or five guys that needed rides, my dad would pick them up going to the ballpark and then after the ballgame, I’d ride home with my mother and he would make the stops dropping off the other players or they would get their own rides back if their wives came.
“For a kid,’’ Steve said with excitement in his voice, “what a great experience that was, no question.’’
Chet Nichols was 3-2 in 1961 with a 2.09 ERA. The lefty also saved three games that year as well. He died in 1995 at the age of 64. He was the pitcher who came in after Stallard and retired Roger Maris for the last out of the eighth inning.
Beryl Nichols lived in the house on Colonial Drive in Lincoln until she passed in early 2020.
“The house was kept up and is still in great shape,’’ said Steve, who lives in Florida. “My sister Debra helped out with my mom at the end.’’
Remember the fan who came out to congratulate Roger after No. 61? In the movie 61* Andy Strasberg played the role of that fan and it was a thrill of a lifetime for Strasburg, who really was Roger Maris’ biggest fan through the years and remains a close friend of the Maris family.
Strasberg recently donated his prized possession, a Roger Maris home pinstriped jersey from 1961 to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. When he acquired the jersey, Strasberg, who worked in baseball much of his life, including 22 years in marketing with the Padres and 18 years representing high-profile players, traded some precious items, including a Honus Wagner 1948 Pirates coaching uniform, Bill Mazeroski’s Pirates vest jersey and a 1945 Louisville Slugger World Series Chicago Cubs Black Bat for the Maris jersey.
He wanted the Hall to have the jersey so new generations of fans could see a hallowed piece of 1961 up close. This October 1st he said he is going to celebrate 61 by watching the movie 61*.
“And now Roger’s jersey is hanging there with Mickey’s jersey to celebrate Roger’s accomplishment,’’ Strasberg said, “one of the two home jerseys he wore that season.’’
Strasberg has written a terrific new book about his experiences as a 13-year-old going to Yankee Stadium in 1961, his baseball quest, and life in America at that time called “My 1961’’ published by August Publications. He, more than anyone, understands what Maris’ 61 home runs mean to the baseball world.
Of the moment when he was watching on WPIX-TV, Strasberg wrote of the home run: “I started to cry tears of joy. My guy did it.I was pleased that Yankee fans awarded Maris a standing ovation. The sound was not that of simple cheering, but more appreciative applause acknowledging his season in total, much like a faithful audience that had sat through a two-and-a-half-hour Broadway play 61 times.’’
Looking back all these years later, Strasberg told BallNine of 61 in ‘61, “It’s the epitome of greatness for a fan and I happen to be that fan of Roger Maris, hitting 61 home runs in a season.’’
For Strasburg and many others, 61 represents the true single season home run record. “Hank (Aaron) has the the total number of lifetime career home runs,’’ Strasberg said, “and Roger has got the single season record, unless you live in San Francisco and you are under 35, I would guess.’’
Sixty years ago Friday, history was made, 61 in ’61 after Tracy Stallard threw Roger Maris the pitch that was sent to the baseball heavens.
“There it is … 61.’’