Two baseball players that will always be associated with each other are Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. In the summer of 1961, the two New York Yankees’ teammates set the baseball world on fire with an incredible home run chase. Despite many fueling rumors that the two didn’t get along, the opposite was true. Let’s take a look back at that historic season, the atmosphere surrounding it, and the impact it has on the game to this day.
The state of baseball in 1961
The 1961 season was a memorable one in baseball history for more than one reason. Consider some of the major events that occurred in the sport that year:
- The American League expanded to add two new franchises: the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators. The AL adding a team in Washington was in response to the original Washington Senators moving to Minneapolis-St. Paul area to become the Minnesota Twins.
- Both leagues adopted a new, longer schedule of 162 games. This was seven games longer than the previous 154 game schedule.
The longer schedule played a major role in some of the controversy surrounding Mantle and Maris’s chase of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.
The Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris “rivalry”
Throughout the 1961 season, both Mantle and Maris battled for Ruth’s record. What made the chase even more compelling was that the two were teammates — Yankee fans got to see both players “compete” with each other on a near-daily basis. If you listened to the media at the time, the two were locked in a bitter rivalry full of spite and resentment.
In truth? Maris and Mantle were actually good friends who spent a lot of time together away from the park and on the road. What made the chase difficult for Maris was Mantle’s overwhelming popularity. Mantle was the Yankees’ matinee idol, beloved by fans. Maris wasn’t as well-liked, so the fans tended to gravitate towards the Mick.
A late-season injury stalled Mantle’s chances, and Maris eventually broke the record. Mantle finished with 54 home runs while Maris hit 61. It wasn’t without controversy, however: then-commissioner Ford Frick, a former friend of Babe Ruth’s, proposed putting an asterisk next to Maris’s name in the record books because it took Maris 162 games to do what Ruth did in 154.
The longlasting impact of the Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris home run chase
The 1961 season is still a thing of legend to many fans. Maris never quite reached the same heights following that year. Despite holding one of baseball’s most hallowed records for 37 years, he is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mantle is — he played until 1968 before injuries and alcohol took their toll on him, forcing him to quit.
Maris would be in the news yet again in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both chased his record. Both men eclipsed the total, with McGwire finishing the season with 70. Barry Bonds later passed McGwire.
Though all three men surpassed Maris, questions were raised as to the legitimacy of their home runs. Rampant speculation about all three men’s usage of performance-enhancing drugs circulated them at the time. Now a cloud of doubt will hang over the achievements of all three.
The 1961 season has gone down in baseball history as one of the most thrilling home run chases of all time. In some fans’ opinions, Maris is still the true single-season home run champion. Mantle will always be remembered by fans for sure, but Maris holds a special place as well. No matter how you look at it, his name will be associated with one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history for as long as people watch the game.