In 1961, it was all that was discussed. Even the endless Ford vs. Chevy background noise was a bit suppressed.
Guys who sold their lives an hour at a time to make a hundred dollars a week stopped bitching about bosses and wives and kids and lawn mowers that wouldn’t start, and thirty cents a gallon gasoline and focused on number seven and number nine. The Ford-Chevy debate was supplanted with the Mick and Rajah debate.
The old guys, the fathers of our fathers bitched The Babe did it in a hundred and fifty-four games, and the M&M Boys had a hundred a sixty-two games to do it and it didn’t count. The bow-tied baseball commissioner didn’t want the Babe’s record to fall.
It was an electric time, and I was young, and I remember it all. My father and my uncles and that crackly AM radio in the ‘56 Ford and the tiny black-and-white TV with the gray-white ghosts running right to left and a blob in the gray sky that must have been the ball.
The Mick got sick about fifty-four homers in, that would have been a record setting season on its own. Rumors flew about a shot of some drugs, but it didn’t matter. Mantle’s season was done. My dad was a Mantle guy, so were my uncles. Micky was a true Yankee. This Maris kid was a newcomer from Cleveland or some other foreign land. The Mick, he was handed the outfield crown in the Bronx from Joe D. himself. Truth be told, Joe D. Didn’t exactly graciously hand it to him, but that’s another story. The Yankees are as much about linage and tradition as they are about the game. The unbroken line from the ‘27 Yankees and Murderers Row and Bill Dickey to Yogi to Jorge. From Crocetti to Scooter to Jeter. The Babe to Maris to Judge. The line is unbroken.
After the Mick faded, all eyes were on Number nine. October 1st, 1961, was a Saturday. I was with my dad and uncles swimming in a fog of Lucky Strike and Camel cigarette smoke and Rheingold beer ads. The last game of the season was against the Red Sox, so fitting it bordered on poetic. The Boston pitcher, Tracy Stalled was a giant six-and-a-half-foot right hander in his rookie year. He tried to walk Roger his last at bat of the season. I remember the boos, as they echoed around the ballyard through the tiny speaker on the TV. The tension in the living room was thick. My uncles were there. The room was dead silent and wildly alive at the same time. Red Barber was doing the play-by-play, calling balls and strikes.
I was just a boy, and it was a time when I had just learned to pray. I prayed for Roger, but I also prayed that goddamn TV wouldn’t blow a tube or a fuse. My boyhood Sunday mornings were spent avoiding church with my dad at the town dump. We’d scavenge for anything of value, especially old TV and radio vacuum tubes. My dad and his friend Bob were some kind of electro-mechanical geniuses, and they could fix the neighbors’ radios and TVs with these scavenged old parts. Sadly, the tubes didn’t last too long, and I spent my youth in fear when the set was turned on only a tiny white dot would appear in the middle of the gray-green twelve-inch screen. Many a morning meant to be spent with Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Moose was lost to those junk parts.
Buy some new tubes, dad… he never did.
Maris connected on the third pitch from Stallard, and Red called it the second the maple hit the rawhide… Roger ran the bases like it was just another home run. I was confused. I was little; I expected jets and fireworks. It was a more subdued time; I suppose. My dad looked happy, but he had a distant look in his eyes. He grew up with the Babe. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to see his record broken by a guy from Cleveland. I wasn’t sure, but Cleveland may have well had been a communist country, and nobody, especially my dad, like commies in 1961.
I saw Judge last night tie it up with the Ruth. I’m sure he’ll hit sixty-one tonight and tie it up with Roger too. Those two hold the legitimate records.
As I saw last night’s ball fly away on a much better TV, I was thinking about my dad and smokes burning in the Champion Spark Plug ashtray and bottles of Ballentine beer leaving rings on the coffee table, pissing off my mom, and my uncles and that tiny TV and a world where baseball was all that mattered in that one summer sixty-one years ago.
I realize in a moment these home run records have somehow bookended my life…