Book Review: 1961*

Another Mantle-Maris retrospective is for diehards only





1961*: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase
By Phil Pepe
Triumph Books, 2011
List Price: $20

Fifty years ago this summer, Yankees teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle waged the greatest (non-juiced) tandem assault on the record book in baseball history. Maris, of course, established a new single-season home run mark with 61, topping Babe Ruth's 154-game accomplishment, while Mantle fell short with 54. To commemorate the golden anniversary of their race, Phil Pepe, a beat writer for the New York World-Telegram & Sun over the season's final two months, has penned "1961*: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase."

This ground has been covered before. Ten years ago, Billy Crystal directed "61*," the movie about the fabled season. Several books have been written about the record-setting campaign, and numerous biographies on both Maris and Mantle have documented that summer. Just last year saw the release of "Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero," by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, and "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," by Jane Leavy.

Pepe, who had the advantage over those authors of having witnessed the 1961 season firsthand, doesn't cite either recent work among his sources. His account varies in places from both, most notably from Leavy's. In "The Last Boy," she spends an entire chapter digging into the legend of Mantle's 565-foot home run in Washington in 1953, concluding it likely didn't travel quite as far as reported. Pepe is more willing to accept the original measurement.

More germane to the 1961 home run chase, Leavy investigated Mantle's September visit to a quack doctor and determined it wasn't a pesky respiratory illness that led him there, but instead a case of the clap. Pepe sticks to the family-friendly version of the tale. According to "1961*," Mantle was sent to "Dr. Feelgood" by the flu. Whether Pepe honestly believes this or is simply adhering to the old-school code of protecting the players he covered is up to the reader to decide.

Pepe does include details that weren't presented in last year's biographies. He speculates that the ball Maris hit for his 61st homer, which was famously corralled by young Sal Durante in the right-field seats of Yankee Stadium on the final day of the season, wasn't caught cleanly as was widely believed. Two witnesses in the New York bullpen reported seeing Durante snatch the ball out of the coat of a fan seated a row ahead of him. The man, who used his jacket to cushion the blow of the ball, lost out on a $5,000 reward offered up by a San Francisco restaurateur.

The book also goes into great detail on the infamous asterisk attached to Maris's record, declaring it never actually existed.

"There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Not ever," Pepe writes. "The myth that an asterisk was used to denote that Roger Maris needed expansion and a longer schedule of games to exceed Babe Ruth's single-season home run record has been perpetuated in story and on film. But it's not true. It never was. There never was an asterisk."

Certainly, Commissioner Ford Frick discussed the need for "a distinctive mark" should any player require more than 154 games to top Ruth's total. He may even have used the word "asterisk" that summer. But the record book instead included both totals, with a note after Maris's that it was accomplished in a 162-game season.

Those high points break up a text that often becomes a repetitive string of game recaps. With 115 home runs hit between Maris and Mantle, it's difficult to present them all in a fresh and exciting manner. The story also gets bogged down by a reliance on statistics when introducing teammates and opposing players. And at times the narrative wings off on tangents that make it more of a "on this day in history" tale. For example:

Page 63: "On April 11, 1961, the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann began in Jerusalem, but that was of little interest to the gathering crowd in Yankee Stadium . . . "
Page 66: " . . . the Yankees and Angels made up one of the games in a doubleheader on April 20, the day future Yankees star Don Mattingly was born in Evansville, Indiana."
Page 83: "The Yankees arrived in Detroit to learn that the Tigers had shelled out a team record $100,000 bonus to sign a 19-year-old catcher named Bill Freehan . . . " (followed by a full paragraph breaking down Freehan's career stats)
Page 130: "On August 4, 1961, Hawaii's second year of statehood, future president Barack Obama was born in Kapi'olani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu."

One chapter is interrupted for a two-page exposition on outfielder Jack Reed, who occasionally served as a defensive replacement for Mantle. Reed is one of eight players mentioned in the book's acknowledgements, so you begin to suspect that Pepe felt obligated to work in some material on his source, including six straight paragraphs of Reed quotes. This happens throughout the book, whenever Pepe's sources speak. A seven-paragraph ramble from Jim Bunning touches on his success at not serving up any of Maris's 61 in '61, giving up Mantle's 200th career blast, how he pitched Mantle, his relationship with and respect for Maris, and an assessment of Maris's overall game. It's often interesting stuff, it just doesn't all belong, and more should have been done to winnow down the stories.

While Yankees fans are prolific readers, at least judging by the volume of books written each year on their pinstriped heroes, timing in publishing, as in baseball, is vital. Fifty years may be a nice, round number, but "1961*" would have been better served comign out a couple of years ago. Clavin and Peary told the story of Maris's pursuit better last year, and Leavy's Mantle bio was the top baseball release of 2010. That ought to have satiated all but the most diehard fanatics of the M&M Boys.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.