Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
The record has been broken three times since 1961, but to Sal Durante, a 70-year-old Yankee fan living on Staten Island who is claimant to five-minutes of baseball infamy, the record still stands.
Fifty years ago, on October 1, 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and on that same day, Durante ascended from tough kid and super fan from Coney Island, to a baseball legend: he caught the record-breaking ball.
It was a Sunday, and the way Durante tells it, his girlfriend (soon-to-be wife), his cousin and his girlfriend were sitting around his home in Coney Island, bored.
Durante was a fan who never missed a game on television and suddenly felt the urge to see the last game of the season.
“I always wanted to get a home run,” Durante said.
That season the race for the home run record was neck and neck between Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
“The two of them, the M and M boys, were celebrities, they took baseball by storm,” said baseball historian Harvey Frommer. “I’m wondering how many Yankee fans were created in that 1961 season, because this was power personified.”
Mantle though was the more beloved of the two.
“Maris never had the panache, the sexiness, the image of a Mickey Mantle, and most people were kind of turned off by his persona,” said Frommer, who describes Maris as having a “grim façade” and not being media savvy.
Durante and company all headed into the city, not knowing if they’d be able to get tickets. Durante, worked in an auto parts shop, but didn’t have any money at the time but, his girlfriend, Rosemarie did. He admits they were surprised to learn tickets were available -- and in right field, prime home run-catching territory.
Durante was sitting with his cousin and his girlfriend, smoking a cigarette, when Maris was up to bat just before the fourth inning.
“I watched that baseball and didn’t take my eye off that baseball from the time it left Tracy’s (Stallard) hand to Roger’s bat. And sure enough he hit it,” Durante said.
Durante jumped on his seat, cigarette still in his mouth.
”It came right to me, amazing. I just reached as high as I could reach, hit the palm, knocked me into the next row. And that was it,” he said.
Durante was whisked away and met Maris a few minutes later. But Maris refused to take the game ball.
“You keep it, you make yourself some money,” Durante remembers Maris telling him.
Durante spent the rest of the afternoon at the Yankees restaurant eating pie with his girlfriend and doing interviews.
Meanwhile, Sam Gordon, a bold restaurant owner in Sacramento, Calif., had promised $5,000 to whomever brought him the record-breaking ball.
Durante collected the promised $5,000 from Gordon (who later returned the ball to Maris) and used half the money to pay off his parents’ debt.
“Growing up as a young boy, I always said if I made some money I’d give them money to help them, so I gave them $2,500 of it. And the other $2,500, when we got married, I set up my home with furniture,” he said.
Durante, a retired school bus driver of 30 years, has three sons and six grandchildren. He’s been to the new Yankee stadium, but can’t say he’s a fan.
“It just doesn’t seem the same—maybe because I grew up watching the old stadium and going there a few times,” he said. “It’s just a different feel for me.”
Since that time, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds have all broken the home run record, but all have been mired in steroid scandals, which to Durante, and many others, taints the sacred record.
“I believe, yes, Roger is the home run king,” Durante said. “He deserves to be recognized for the single season home run record. Maris worked his tail off, with all that pressure, he was still able to do it.”
Frommer, the historian, said when Maris broke the home run record it was an “epic feat.”
“The conditioning was not as great as it is today,” he said, “and the ball was kept in play a little bit more than it is today and the ball parks are still relatively big. There were some real challenges to hitting home runs.”
And the players didn’t use performance enhancing drugs.
“Maris basically just smoked and drank beer,” Frommer said. “Babe Ruth also, all he did was a lot of beer drinking and womanizing, and smoking.”