Roger Maris, Ted Williams, and the Two Baseball Milestones Nobody Saw

Maris broke Ruth's homerun record and Williams played his last game to near-empty stadiums


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As the baseball season—the regular season, that is—comes to an end, the crowds have been sparse at most ballparks. With nothing at stake for anyone except the four teams that were still battling for the two wild card tickets to the month-long post season, that is not very surprising . But on the last day of the season a half century ago—October 1, 1961—something was very much at stake, at least at Yankee Stadium. And yet the attendance at that day's game—a sparse 23,154—was actually lower than that at most of the meaningless games closing out the season this week.

But it was on that day 50 years ago that Yankee outfielder Roger Maris did what the sport's greatest power hitters had failed to do over the preceding quarter century: break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record set in 1927 with 60 home runs. Maris came into the game tied with Ruth and then in the fourth inning he capped a season-long pursuit of one of the sport's iconic records by homering into the right field stands for number 61. Yet despite all the hoopla and the history, the House That Ruth Built was two-thirds empty that afternoon.

Much the same had been true the year before when Red Sox legend Ted Williams played his last game at Fenway Park. Williams announced beforehand that he would be retiring at the end of the 1960 season, and that the Sox's final home game on September 28 would be his last appearance before the Boston fans—the termination of what was probably the most intensely tangled love-hate relationship in all of baseball. But any sense that it was indeed a historic occasion was apparently lost to the multitudes. John Updike, who did appreciate that it was not just another day at the ball park for a seventh-place team at the tail end of a horrible season, recorded it all in his classic account of the game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. But truth to tell there were just not that many of those Hub Fans on hand—"I, and 10,453 others " as Updike wrote.

And the fans who did turn out, and did get to see (in person, and not in the retelling) Williams end his tour of duty at Fenway with a home run in his final at bat, were an unremarkable, unfashionable, and decidedly ordinary lot. If there were any Harvard professors of the type who nowadays want everyone to know that they are fans of the Bosox and therefore just one of the guys (or gals) or hedge fund managers on hand, they passed unrecorded by Updike.

So two of baseball's most historic days, and two mostly empty ball parks. Fifty years later, this indifference at the turnstiles seems unfathomable. But at the time it apparently did not. The thinness of the crowds was apparently regarded as nothing out of the ordinary—baseball business as usual for end of the season games with no pennant on the line. Looking back one asks why. True, the two games were played in the afternoon, and 50 years ago adults went to work (had the notion of "flex time" even been invented?) on weekdays and parents made sure that their children went to school. But that can't be the entire explanation, can it? Not that I have the answer, except to wager that on any similar occasions, Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park would certainly be jam-packed today.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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