If 1968 eventually became known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” then 1961 could just as easily be referred to as “The Year of the Hitter.” The Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators joined the fraternity of American League franchises in 1961, increasing the number of teams in the junior circuit to 10 and necessitating the institution of a 162-game schedule. The addition of two new clubs meant that a far greater number of marginal pitchers received employment at the major league level. As a result, an overall increase in offensive production occurred throughout the league, with many of the circuit’s top performers posting huge offensive numbers. Harmon Killebrew hit 46 home runs and knocked in 122 runs for the seventh-place Minnesota Twins. Playing for the third-place Baltimore Orioles, Jim Gentile batted .302, slugged 46 homers, and finished second in the league with 141 runs batted in. Both Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash had monstrous years for the Detroit Tigers. Colavito hammered 45 homers, drove in 140 runs, scored another 129, and batted .290. Cash hit 41 round-trippers, knocked in 132 runs, scored 119 others, and led the league with a .361 batting average, 193 hits, and a .488 on-base percentage. Al Kaline gave the Tigers a third big bat in the middle of their lineup, hitting 19 home runs, driving in 82 runs, scoring 116 others, placing second in the league with a .324 batting average, and topping the circuit with 41 doubles.
Detroit, in fact, led the American League with 841 runs scored, en route to finishing the regular season with a record of 101-61. Under ordinary circumstances, the Tigers’ outstanding performance likely would have earned them a trip to the World Series. However, the New York Yankees posted 109 victories in their first year under new manager Ralph Houk, to relegate the Tigers to a distant second-place finish.
Still seething after their 1960 World Series defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who they outscored by a two-to-one margin over the course of the seven games, the Yankees took out their anger on the rest of the baseball world. In addition to finishing the regular season with an exceptional record of 109-53, New York established a new major league mark by hitting 240 home runs. Six different members of the squad surpassed 20 homers, with catchers Yogi Berra, Johnny Blanchard, and Elston Howard all hitting more than 20 round-trippers. Berra went deep 22 times in only 395 at-bats. Blanchard hit 21 homers and drove in 54 runs in only 243 official trips to the plate. Howard hit 21 four-baggers, knocked in 77 runs, and hit a career-high .348. First baseman Bill Skowron also had a big year, hitting 28 home runs and knocking in 89 runs.
In the end, though, the 1961 New York Yankees were all about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. The two men waged a year-long assault on Babe Ruth’s existing single-season home run record, with Maris hitting his 61st homer on the season’s final day to finally surpass the Babe. In an expansion year that featured several outstanding individual offensive performances around the major leagues, Maris and Mantle established themselves as baseball’s marquis attraction. The efforts of the two men enabled the Yankees to distinguish themselves as one of the greatest teams ever. Mantle finished second in the league with 54 home runs and a .452 on-base percentage, he topped the circuit with 132 runs scored, 126 bases on balls, and a .687 slugging percentage, and he placed among the leaders with 128 runs batted in, a .317 batting average, and 353 total bases. In addition to leading the league with 61 homers, Maris topped the circuit with 142 runs batted in and 366 total bases, and he tied Mantle for the league lead with 132 runs scored. The two men finished first and second in the A.L. MVP voting, with Maris barely edging out Mantle for the honor.
Although the Yankees were known more for their power at the plate, they also had an outstanding pitching staff. New York finished second in the American League with a team ERA of 3.46, with staff ace Whitey Ford leading the way. Ford earned Cy Young honors and a fifth-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting by leading all major league pitchers with a record of 25-4. He also topped the junior circuit with 283 innings pitched, compiled a 3.21 ERA, and struck out 209 batters. Meanwhile, Luis Arroyo anchored New York’s bullpen. The veteran left-handed reliever appeared in a league-leading 65 games, posted a record of 15-5 and a 2.19 ERA, and established a new major league record by compiling 29 saves.
New York’s extraordinary team balance proved to be too much for the Cincinnati Reds to overcome in the World Series. The Reds put up a good fight for the first three games. However, Whitey Ford’s second shutout of the Fall Classic in the fourth contest put the Reds at a 3-1 disadvantage heading into Game Five. Yankee power prevailed in the final game, with New York pounding out 15 hits, en route to closing out the Series with a 13-5 victory.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• January 29 – The Veterans Committee voted Billy Hamilton and Max Carey into the Hall of Fame.
• February 7 – Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen returned to the major leagues by signing a $40,000 contract. Jensen had retired in 1960 due to a fear of flying. The layoff proved to be detrimental to Jensen, who batted just .263, with only 13 home runs in 1961.
• April 11 - At Fenway Park, Boston Red Sox rookie Carl Yastrzemski collected the first of his 3,318 hits he amassed over the course of his 23-year career.
• April 11 - The Los Angeles Angels played the first game in franchise history, defeating a strong Baltimore Orioles team, 7–2.
• April 11 - At Yankee Stadium, the Minnesota Twins shut out the New York Yankees, 6–0, in their first game since their move from Washington D.C.
• April 21 – The Minnesota Twins played their very first home game in franchise history, losing to the Washington Senators 5–3.
• July 17 – Commissioner Ford Frick decreed that Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a 154-game schedule in 1927 "cannot be broken unless some batter hits 61 or more within his club's first 154 games." Two days later, Frick, an old friend of Ruth, announced that, should Ruth's record be beaten after 154 games, the record will carry an asterisk. When asked about the ruling, Roger Maris replied, "A season is a season."
• August 22 – During a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, Roger Maris became the first player to hit his 50th home run of the season in the month of August.
• September 26 - Roger Maris hit his major league record-tying 60th home run of the season, a third inning solo shot against Jack Fisher of the Baltimore Orioles.
• October 1 – Before a small crowd at Yankee Stadium, Roger Maris smacked a 2–0 pitch from Boston’s Tracy Stallard into the right field stands for his 61st home run of the season (a record that lasted until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998).
• New York's Bobby Richardson led all 1961 World Series batters with nine hits and a .391 batting average.
• Whitey Ford broke Babe Ruth's record for consecutive scoreless innings hurled in World Series play.
• Boston's Don Schwall (15-7, 3.22 ERA) was selected A.L. Rookie of the Year by one vote over Kansas City's Dick Howser.
• Ty Cobb died.
• Dazzy Vance died.
• Jim Gentile tied the major league single-season record by hitting five grand slam home runs.
• Luis Aparicio led the league with 53 stolen bases.
• Dick Donovan, of the expansion Washington Senators, led all American League pitchers with a 2.40 ERA.
• Minnesota’s Camilo Pascual led the American League with 221 strikeouts.
• Pascual tied Baltimore's Steve Barber for the American League lead in shutouts, with eight.
• Detroit’s Frank Lary won 23 games and led the major leagues with 22 complete games.
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- 1961 World Series, Al Kaline, American League, Bill Skowron, Billy Hamilton, Bobby Richardson, Camilo Pascual, Carl Yastrzemski, Dazzy Vance, Detroit Tigers, Dick Donovan, Dick Howser, Don Schwall, Elston Howard, Ford Frick, Frank Lary, Harmon Killebrew, Jack Fisher, Jackie Jensen, Jim Gentile, Johnny Blanchard, Luis Aparicio, Luis Arroyo, Max Carey, Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees, Norm Cash, Ralph Houk, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Steve Barber, Tracy Stallard, Ty Cobb, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra