Witness to History
August 16, 1961 was “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee Stadium. It was a Wednesday afternoon game that started at 2:02 p.m. between the home team New York Yankees (78-40 and in first place) and the visiting Chicago White Sox (60-58 & in 4th place in the American League). Mrs. Babe Ruth was in attendance. It was the second game at Yankee Stadium I had ever been to --- the first having occurred a little more than a week earlier (August 8th), a night game against the new American League team, the Los Angeles Angels. I’m not sure how it happened that we were so lucky as to go to two games that close together but my brother and I certainly weren’t looking gift horses in the mouth! For those who may not be baseball fans, or have little or no recollection of 1961, let me set the scene, historically, for contextual purposes.
In 1958 the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants (both National League baseball teams) began their seasons in new, West Coast cities --- Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The move by those teams reduced New York City to a one-team town (the American League Yankees), with millions of fans bereft at the loss of their hometown Giant & Dodger heroes. The outcry from New York’s National League fans was loud and long and, as we turned the new decade in 1960, Major League baseball announced it would, for the first time since 1903, expand. The American League would, in 1961, add a Los Angeles franchise (the Angels) and a Washington, D.C. franchise (to replace the former “Senators,” who had become “the Twins” with their 1961 move to Minneapolis/St. Paul, making the American League a 10-team division --- it is now 15). The National League, for its part, expanded to 10 teams in 1962 by adding a New York franchise (the Metropolitans/Mets) and a Houston team (the “Colt .45’s,” later “Astros”). I was 12 years old and had just finished my final Little League season and, from that point on, 10-team leagues, including West Coast teams, would be the “new normal” in Major League baseball.
Back to August 16, 1961. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were engaged in an historic battle for “home run” immortality. Entering the August 16th game, Maris had hit 46 home runs, Mantle, 44. Babe Ruth’s record of 60 was definitely being threatened and, aside from the Yankees having another great season on the way to another World Series, America was caught up in the drama of the home run race. (NOTE: If you want to see a great recreation of that season, find Billy Crystal’s 61* , a loving, and accurate telling of the tale) My brother and I had gone to the game with our father’s uncle (Wilbur Wood/"Uncle Bill") who was our baseball ticket “fairy godfather.” We were in Mezzanine seats behind first base in Yankee Stadium --- which allowed you to see fly balls leave the bat and then come down, missing the middle of the ball’s flight because your view was blocked by the overhanging upper deck above us. I mention that because, in the bottom of the first inning, Roger Maris faced Billy Pierce, Chicago’s left-handed “ace,” and sent a ball deep toward center field. We saw it leave the bat --- and then land in the seats, missing the mid-flight. Home run #47. In the bottom of the third inning Maris faced Pierce again, with Bobby Richardson, the leadoff hitter, on base again, and, just as before, Maris launched a high fly we saw leave the bat --- and then land in the right field seats! #48. We didn’t know, of course, if Maris would break Ruth’s record (he did, of course, hitting his 61st in the last game of the season) but we were hoping we had witnessed “history in the making.” And we had.
Flash forward to September 25, 2017 and I’m sitting in the Yankee Stadium second deck (“mezzanine,” with no obstructed view this time) along the third base line to watch a rainout make-up game against the Kansas City Royals. Both teams are battling for a “wild-card” playoff berth but the real attraction is the Yankees’ massive rookie, Aaron Judge (6’7”, 282 lbs.) who has hit 48 home runs, just one shy of the Major League rookie record for home runs in a season (49 - held by Mark McGwire, who “broke” Maris’s 61 mark in 1998 --- though tainted by a PED scandal). As I left for the game the Lovely Carol Marie said: “Hope you get to see the record” and, indeed, I was hoping for exactly that.
In the bottom of the third inning, Judge launched a 389-foot shot to right field --- the record was tied! Then, in the bottom of the 7th inning he smashed a ball 404 feet to left field, setting a new rookie single-season home run record! And I was there! I actually captured the 50th on (a very shaky iPhone) video!
The “regular” Major League Baseball season ended yesterday. Aaron Judge, a rookie finishing his first complete season in “the Show,” batted .284 with 52 home runs, 114 runs batted in, 127 walks, and an on-base percentage of .422. He also struck out 208 times. He will be the runaway Rookie-of-the-Year choice and may even be named the Most Valuable Player in the American League (only two previous players have been named “Rookie of the Year” and "MVP" in the same season --- Fred Lynn of the 1975 Red Sox and the 2001 Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki). It has been an historic year for the young man, resulting in the “Baby Bomber” NY Yankees qualifying for the playoffs at least one year ahead of schedule.
As one who loves the game of baseball and appreciates its long history as part of the warp and woof of U.S. history itself, there is something special when one can look back over a lifetime of watching games and be lucky enough to actually see history being made right before your eyes. August 16, 1961. September 25, 2017. 56 years, 39 days apart. Baseball history. And I was there.
What great, good fortune.