Trust me, there will not be a repeat in 2022 of the Yankees-Tigers classic pennant race of 1961, staged in a ten-team league. The gift of the wild card was generations away.
For the 1961 season, the American League expanded from eight teams with the additions of the Washington Senators (replacing the Senators team that fled to Minnesota) and the Los Angeles Angels. To keep the schedule balanced with the expanded number of teams, the regular season was stretched from 154 games to 162.
The Yankees won 109 of them, second-most in franchise history to the 1927 Murderers’ Row lineup that won one more with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The team would perform so well that they immediately entered into the debate of “greatest Yankee team ever.”
The Detroit Tigers with Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash and Jim Bunning were the Yankees’ closest competition. Kaline had a terrific season, befitting a future Hall of Famer. He was the runner-up in the batting race at .324, led the league in doubles with 41, struck 19 homers, drove in 82 and won a Gold Glove in right field. The Tigers would win 101 games, tying the franchise record set in 1934. Cash would win the batting title with a .361 average and never again bat .300 in the remaining 13 seasons of his career.
The season before had been tumultuous in Detroit. On the eve of the 1960 season, Cleveland traded the reigning American League home run co-champion, Colavito, in exchange for the reigning batting champion, Harvey Kuenn. For his three seasons in Tiger Stadium, Colavito was magnificent, averaging 35 homers and 114 runs batted in.
But that swap was nothing in comparison for what lay ahead.
In early August, the Indians and Tigers TRADED MANAGERS at a time when both clubs were slumping. Cleveland had lost 18 of their last 25 games, Detroit, 12 of 15. Jimmy Dykes went to Cleveland, Joe Gordon, once a coach and scout for the Tigers, was back in Detroit. But he was gone for the ’61 season.
On September 1, 1961, with the Yankees leading by one and a half games,
the Tigers came to Yankee Stadium for a crucial weekend three-game series that would draw 171,503 fans.
When the Detroit series began, Roger Maris had hit 51 homers and Mickey Mantle, protecting him in the lineup, was at 48. Both clearly had a chance to break the most important record in American professional sports, Babe Ruth’s 1927 record of 60 home runs.
On a sweltering Friday night, the Yankees won the first game 1-0 when Bill Skowron’s base hit through the shortstop hole drove in Elston Howard with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
The shortstop on that club, Hall of Fame broadcaster Tony Kubek, told me, “Our third base coach, Frank Crosetti, detected that Tigers pitcher Don Mossi would throw a curve. He let Skowron know, and he hit it through the left side for the game winner.”
On Saturday, the Tigers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning on Colavito’s 40th homer. But Maris’ 52nd homer gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead and his 53rd helped punctuate a 7-2 victory. The Yanks defeated Frank Lary, who built an illustrious history defeating the Bronx Bombers, earning the nickname, “Yankee Killer.”
Tigers ace Jim Bunning started the third game Sunday afternoon and surrendered Mantle’s 49th home run in the first inning. Down 5-4 in the bottom of the 9th, Mantle led off and struck number 50. Three batters later, Elston Howard, batting .359, hit a three-run homer to deliver an 8-5 victory and a sweep. Luis Arroyo, the best relief pitcher in the league, won two of the games and saved the other.
The Tigers left town four and a half games back. Just five days later, with the two teams traveling in opposite directions, the Yankees’ lead had grown to ten. The sweep began a thirteen-game winning streak for the Yankees and an eight-game losing streak for the Tigers who departed Yankee Stadium completely demoralized, awed, and buried.
Detroit manager Bob Scheffing told United Press International his club was not in the Yankees class. “A tip-off on this Yankees club is that a strong hitter like Bill Skowron bats seventh,” Scheffing said. Skowron would finish with 28 homers and 89 runs batted in.
The 1961 Yankees were a team for the ages. The M&M Boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, stole the show. Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61 homers and 142 RBIs to win MVP honors while Mantle, injured at season’s end, hit 54 with 128 RBIs while batting .317. Four others — Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard — hit 20-plus homers as the team set a major league record with 240. Whitey Ford won the Cy Young Award with a 25-4 season and Luis Arroyo won 15 games in relief and saved 29 others.
In the World Series, the Yankees faced Cincinnati, who had grabbed first place in the National League for good in early August, and overwhelmed them in five games by a cumulative score of 27-13.
Bobby Richardson, the 1960 World Series Most Valuable Player, who,
to this day, remains the only MVP to play for the losing team, played all 162 games in 1961. He won a Gold Glove at second base and had nine hits in the five games, batting .391.
The Yankees second baseman told me “I enjoyed World Series. That Detroit series was like a Series for us. It meant a lot, we gave it World Series-type attention and were able to come out on top. Al Kaline was the most consistent player I played against in my career. He was outstanding. I played at the right time with the right team.”
But Richardson takes a dim view of the current post-season set-up, expanding this fall to a dozen teams. “When I think of baseball today, because of the way it is set up, the winner of the World Series is not necessarily the best team in baseball, Richardson said. “When we played, it was the winner of the American League against the winner of the National League. It was just so much better.”
While the Yankees would win three more American League pennants from 1962-64, the Tigers would not contend again until 1967.
These many years later, Bobby Richardson remains grateful to be part of a team for the ages. “I played at the right time with the right team.”
For his doubleplay partner, Tony Kubek, the ’61 club “has to be considered one of the best teams in baseball over the long haul.”
Aaron Judge and the first-place New York Yankees host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers from Yankee Stadium on MLB Sunday Leadoff live this Sunday, June 5 at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock. This week’s MLB Sunday Leadoff coverage begins with the pregame show at 11 a.m. ET on Peacock. NBC Sports’
CC Sabathia, the 2007 Cy Young Award-winner and 19-year MLB veteran, including 11 seasons with the Yankees, will join Ahmed Fareed as an analyst on the MLB Sunday Leadoff pre- and postgame shows. Sabathia, who won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees, was a six-time All-Star, earned 251 career wins, and is one of three left-handed pitchers in Major League history with at least 3,000 strikeouts (Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson). Sabathia currently co-hosts the R2C2 podcast.
How to Watch:
|Sun., June 5||MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame||11 a.m.||Peacock|
|Sun., June 5||Tigers vs. Yankees||11:30 a.m.||Peacock|