The book: “1961*: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase”
The author: Phil Pepe
The vital stats: Triumph Books, 288 pages, $20
The pitch: Pepe, whose career would include writing 50 books, covering the Yankees for the New York Daily News for 13 years and become president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, found himself in a pretty cool situation in August, 1961.
Fate may have put Roger Maris into the position to hit 61 home runs and lay claim to a new single-season (162 games, that is) home run record, instead of heralded teammate Mickey Mantle (who 60 years ago made his major league debut at the age of 19, by the way).
But it also gave Pepe, who joined the New York World-Telegram and Sun staff in 1957, a chance to cover the Yankees full time at age 26 after “a series of unexpected and unfortunate circumstances that left my paper undermanned.”
He got to see history made.
So while the first 118 pages that chronicle the Yankees ’61 season kind of grind along here, the last 150-plus, starting with Chapter 11, really take things up a notch, where the reader is able to see Maris and Mantle through Pepe on a daily basis, gauging their emotions, acting as something of a confidant (especially to Maris) and witnessing the controversial pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record first hand.
Was there jealousy between the two?
Hardly, Pepe says.
Did the media have an agenda, a bias against Maris breaking Ruth’s record?
He is sure to mention that the 2001 Billy Crystal HBO movie “61*” was “for the most part, accurate — with one glaring exception.” Where the movie depicts several writers as being anti-Maris and openly rooting against him, “I was there and I witnessed none of this,” Pepe writes. “Yes, there were times when Maris could be difficult and exasperating. (We didn’t know at the time he was receiving death threats and a steady stream of hate mail). His remarks and actions were, at times, bafflying. He was bland, uninteresting, and hardly quotable but rarely uncooperative and never hostile … (but) I witnessed no overt rooting for Mantle, and/or against Maris, in the press box or in private conversations with the writers.”
That’s the kind of insight glaringly absent from the first 10 chapters, but thankfully makes this book too compelling to put down for the final half.
Pepe’s reporting on how Maris really was focused more on the team success than his own is best displayed on page 132, when he writes of a game the Yankees played against the expansion Angels at Yankee Stadium in Aug. 7. Maris came up in the bottom of the third with a runner on third and two out — and dropped a bunt. He had 41 homers at the time, ahead of Ruth’s single-season pace, and “gave away a precious at-bat by bunting” when he saw Angels third baseman Eddie Yost playing behind the bag. Bobby Richardson scored from third, tied the game at 1-1, and the Yankees went on to a 4-1 win, increasing their streak to nine wins in a row and opening up a four-game lead over Detroit in the American League.
Pepe quoted Maris afterward: “I told you this game wasn’t all made up of home runs. Bunts count, too. If they’re going to play back on me, I’m going to bunt. Everytime I have a man on third, I’ll think about bunting … My job is to try to score him. … If we can go on to win the pennant, I’ll be satisfied if I don’t hit another homer. I’ll take my 41.”
By the season’s end, he was somewhat satisfied. With Mantle injured, Maris helped get the Yankees another World Series victory.
Pepe, pictured here, later writes about Maris confiding to him on a bus trip about how all the controversy stirred by commisioner Ford Frick over a supposed asterisk (a word Frick never used) would distinguish any records set in a 162-game season versus 154 games. We also get insight into how, after Maris hit his 50th, he spent the next day in L.A. with Mantle and Yogi Berra filming a cameo in a Doris Day/Cary Grant movie “That Touch of Mink.” (linked here). Such were the perks of being a Yankee, even during an important stretch of the season:
But he also reminds the reader about the grind of that season — the first to expand to 162, but also included 14 double headers and only 70 night games. There was even a game where both Mantle and Maris homered against Baltimore — but it was rained out, and didn’t count.
Such attention to details from someone right on the spot adds immediately credibility and value.
How it goes down in the scorebook: Pepe earned his pinstripes, especially when delivering quotes such as this one from Maris, who had gone without a homer for three days after hitting his 59th, and passing the 154-game barrier: “I thought the pressure would be off me after the 154th game but I was wrong. It’s worse than ever now. The way this is going, I’ve got five games left and I don’t think I’ll hit 60 by the end of this season. With the pitches I’m getting, daddy-o, I’ll never get it.”
He got it. So did we.