Saturday, October 1, 2011

50 years ago, Roger Maris belts home run No. 61


On Oct. 1, 1961, Red Barber was behind the New York Yankees' television microphone when Roger Maris stepped into baseball immortality, smashing his 61st home run of the season to break Babe Ruth's longstanding record. It was the final day of the regular season and the game against the Boston Red Sox was being played in the House that Ruth Built, Yankee Stadium.

Fifty years ago, the Yankees' TV announcers generally worked alone. They rotated from television to radio as assigned by their producer. While Barber was on television in the fourth inning, his colleague, Phil Rizzuto, was on radio. Mel Allen, the beloved "Voice of the Yankees," wasn't assigned play-by-play at that moment.

When Maris erupted in the bottom of the fourth against Tracy Stallard, Rizzuto heralded the moment at the top of his lungs: "Swung on, hit deep to right, this could be it, way back there, holy cow, he did it! … Hoooly cow … One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium." In fact, in Rizzuto's 40 years of announcing Yankees games, it might have been his most famous call.

As Rizzuto emoted, Barber inflected his voice to underscore the historic moment, but he was hardly as emotionally invested. "There it is," were Barber's words. The crowd noise and television screen told the rest.

Barber picked it up again as Maris rounded the bases. "There's the fellow with 61," he said in measured pitch and phrase. When the cameras shot the lower right-field seats, where Maris' blast had landed, Barber continued with unexpectedly equal intonation: "Five thousand dollars, somebody."

Sal Durante, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, had snared the prized ball and was being escorted away by police for his own safety. Barber twanged again, "He got his $5,000."

Barber made as much of the $5,000 (offered in advance by a California restaurant and worth about $35,000 today) as he did of the enthralling home run. There was no immediate mention of Ruth, of how long the record stood (34 years), the enormous stress that Maris endured or anything extraneous that fans would hear today.

The setting was bizarre. The Yankees had long since clinched the pennant, and the game result was meaningless. The following week, the Yankees hosted the Cincinnati Reds in Game1 of the World Series before 62,397. Only 23,154 were on hand to witness Maris' blast.

Those were different times. There was no chaos after the shot. The game wasn't delayed for any lengthy period after Maris circled the bases, and there was certainly no prearranged ceremony. Fans didn't give Maris a prolonged standing ovation, either. A shy man, Maris was virtually pushed out of the dugout by his teammates so that he would tip his cap to the crowd. But he didn't stand there long enough to absorb the warmth of the hometown fans.

It should be noted that then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick declared that an asterisk would be placed next to Maris' record because the regular-season schedule had been extended that year from 154 games to 162. Frick, a former sports writer and broadcaster, had covered Ruth as a player. Commissioner Fay Vincent later said he supported Maris as the single-season home run champion.

Barber was critical of Russ Hodges' high-spirited call of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951, suggesting that the New York Giants announcer's hysterics when he exuberantly repeated "The Giants win the pennant!" were unprofessional.

Barber never criticized Rizzuto's call of Maris' 61st, but he questioned the Scooter's overall work ethic in his 1970 book, The Broadcasters. "Phil has not become the professional broadcaster he should be because he won't do the professional preparation," Barber wrote, adding that Rizzuto's was exceedingly lucky. "If he fell in a ditch at midnight, it would have hot and cold running water."

Left off the Maris home run call by happenstance, Allen was later asked by the Yankees to re-create it for a record album.

Allen and Barber were the first two recipients of the Baseball Hall of Fame's Frick Award, emblematic of baseball broadcast excellence.

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