Your Boston Red Sox always seem to be in the middle of the American League single-season home run record.
Red Sox outfielder/pitcher Babe Ruth set the first “unreachable” mark when he blasted 29 homers in a 154-game season in 1919. Before you could say “Mookie Betts,” the Sox traded the home run champ to the Yankees for cash.
Ruth hit 54, then 59 homers in his first two seasons with the Yankees. Then he hit 60 in 1927. It was a record that stood for 34 years.
In 1961, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris dueled throughout the “new” 162-game season, aiming for Ruth’s magical 60, Maris hit his record-breaking 61st home run off Red Sox righthander Tracy Stallard in Yankee Stadium.
Here we are 61 years later and the indomitable Aaron Judge might have a chance to break Maris’s record against the last-place Boston Red Sox. In Yankee Stadium.
Judge’s two homers in Milwaukee Sunday put him at 59. It appeared that’s where he would stand after going 0-for-3 with a walk in his first four at-bats vs. the Pirates Tuesday night, until he belted his 60th homer on a 430-foot solo shot to left in the ninth inning to spark a 9-8 comeback win in the Bronx highlighted by Giancarlo Stanton’s walkoff grand slam.
That’s right. Sixty-one years after Maris hit No. 61 against the Sox we’re likely to have a chance to see Judge go for the record against Boston. Michael Wacha (Thursday), Rich Hill (Friday), Nick Pivetta (Saturday), and Brayan Bello (Sunday) could have a chance to be the new Tracy Stallard. And let’s not forget the chorus line of meatball artists in Chaim Bloom’s raging bullpen. Infamy awaits.
Let’s pause here and acknowledge that much of the thrill is gone from the home run chase. Steroid-fueled Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds obliterated Maris’s mark between 1998 and 2001, and baseball is significantly less relevant than it was when Ruth, Mantle, and Maris roamed the earth.
Still, Judge’s quest appears to be legit and sparks memories of a long-ago time when baseball truly was our national pastime. It also takes our eyes off the deplorable state of the 2022 Boston baseball franchise.
Twenty-four-year-old Stallard, a native of coal-centric Coeburn, Va., was finishing his first full big league season when he got the ball to face the Yankees in Boston’s season finale. The soon-to-be world champion Yankees were wrapping up a 109-53 season, while the Sox languished in sixth place, bound for a 76-86 record. (sound familiar?)
A crowd of 23,154 came to the Bronx for the Sunday matinee. With one on in the bottom of the first, and Yogi Berra standing on deck, Stallard retired Maris on a deep fly to left. The ball was caught by Red Sox rookie outfielder Carl Yastrzemski.
Yankees fans groaned when Stallard fell behind Maris, 2 and 0, in the fourth. There was fear that the righthander would walk the slugger. But Maris drove the next pitch over the wall in right field, far out of the reach of Sox outfielder Lou Clinton.
Maris’s home run ball was caught by Sal Durante, a 19-year-old Coney Islander, who instantly became famous, part of hard-ball trivia lore forever. Within hours, it was reported that Durante lived at 1412 Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn and had attended the game with his 17-year-old girlfriend, Rosemary Calabrese (next time you bump into Bob Ryan, ask him the name of Sal Durante’s girlfriend. I guarantee he will know).
Maris’s homer was the only run of the game. Yaz singled off Yankees reliever Luis Arroyo in the ninth, but the Red Sox couldn’t bring him home against the powerhouse Pinstripers. Ralph Houk’s Yankees were bound for the World Series, where they would handle the Cincinnati Reds in five games.
The home run record was a big deal in 1961, even in Boston. Maris’s shot was front-page news (above the fold) in Monday’s Boston Globe under a headline of “Maris Smashes 61st; Breaks Ruth Mark in Final Game . . . But Local Fans Not All Thrilled.”
The 1-0 loss gave Stallard a 2-7 record for the season and he pitched only one more game for Boston before finishing his career with the Mets and Cardinals. Stallard became friendly with Maris while he played for the Mets and the two were photographed together before a Florida spring training game in 1963. Stallard finished with a career mark of 30-57, giving up 92 homers in 764⅔ major league innings. His last big league appearance was in 1966.
After retiring from baseball, Stallard went home and started his own coal business. When he died at the age of 80 in December 2017, he was the subject of a 22-paragraph obituary in the New York Times. Not bad for a pitcher who was a 20-game loser in 1964.
“I’m happy for Roger and I’m happy for me,” Stallard told Newsday in 1991. “If it weren’t for that home run, it would be like I was buried in one of those coal mines out here. You’d never hear about me.”
Your move, Ryan Brasier.