Tracy Stallard - who gave up Maris' 61st homer - sees 'nothing wrong with' his place in history
Fargo - Walking into Yankee Stadium on the final day of the 1961 season, Roger Maris knew that his place in baseball history was on the line.
When Tracy Stallard arrived in the visitors' clubhouse, he didn't even know if he was going to get the start.
Shortly before game time, Stallard was tabbed as the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, given the task of keeping Maris and the New York Yankees off the scoreboard.
But in the fourth inning, Maris blasted a 2-0 pitch from Stallard over the right field wall for his 61st home run of the season, breaking Babe Ruth's 34-year-old single-season record. And from that point forward, the two men - the Yankees star slugger from Fargo, and a second-year Red Sox right-handed pitcher from the mountainous region of southwest Virginia - would forever be linked in baseball history.
And Stallard is at peace with that.
"It's great," said the 74-year-old Stallard in a trademark Appalachian drawl. "There's nothing wrong with it. I don't want to say it's great, but there's nothing wrong with it."
Heading into that season finale 50 years ago on Oct. 1, there wasn't a lot of drama besides the Maris home run chase.
In the American League standings, Stallard's Red Sox were more than 30 games behind the Yankees, who had already clinched the pennant and a spot in the World Series against the National League champion Cincinnati Reds.
Stallard was practically a rookie in 1961, having pitched just four games for the Red Sox in the previous season.
He would learn shortly before game time from pitching coach Sal Maglie that he would get the nod against the Yankees, making his 43rd appearance and 14th start of the season.
"The pitching coach came over and just threw me the ball," said Stallard, who resides in Wise, Va., about 10 miles west of where he grew up in Coeburn. "I didn't have that much time to think about. It was just another ballgame."
His performance in the early innings would suggest that. Stallard induced a pop out to left field from Maris in the first inning. By the time Maris came to bat again in the fourth inning, Stallard was on a roll. Up to that point, he had allowed just one single in a scoreless game.
Maris took the first pitch of his second at-bat outside for a ball. Second pitch was low for another ball. Yankees fans booed after each pitch, wanting to see Maris get something to swing at.
Ahead in the count, Maris got a pitch he could drive into the stands and into the history books. The home run sent the Yankee Stadium crowd into a frenzy as Yankees Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber said simply, "There it is," on the TV telecast as the ball fell into the heavily occupied 10th row of the right-field bleachers.
"I just threw him a strike," Stallard said. "I gave up a bunch more (homers) that year probably. They weren't as big as that."
As Stallard readied himself to face the next hitter, Maris rounded the bases, went into the dugout, then emerged to tip his cap to the fans hungry to see him one last time.
While Maris grabbed the headlines, Stallard had one of his best performances of the season. Maris' homer was the only run he allowed in seven innings, but the Yankees won 1-0.
"He was a good hitter," Stallard said. "He had a good year. ... You've got to be a good hitter to hit that many home runs. He got more pitches to hit than you normally would.
"I got behind him on that day. They had the type of team that you really didn't need to walk anybody. They were all good hitters."
Stallard went on to finish a seven-year career in the major leagues, also spending time with the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals. His last big league appearance was for the Cardinals in 1966, just one year before Maris would be traded to St. Louis.
Media attention for Stallard hit a peak in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Maris' record. Each would pass Maris' 61 homers, with McGwire setting the record at 70.
But Stallard preferred to stay out of the public eye. According to a Chicago Tribune story in 1998, he responded to just one interview request. To this day, he said he still turns down almost all interview requests. His reason: There isn't much about Maris' 61st homer that people didn't already know.
"It seems like it means more now than it did then," he said of the record.
That might be the case. Reporters swarmed Maris after every game late in the 1961 season as he pursued one of baseball's most hallowed records. Yet for that season's final game - with Maris tied with Babe Ruth's 1927 mark of 60 homers - the official attendance was 23,154. In other words: There were plenty of good seats available.
There is one big reason why a potentially historic moment drew so few fans.
The commissioner's office during the 1961 season decided that Maris' record wasn't official if it wasn't set in 154 games, which tempered interest. The 1961 season was played with a 162-game schedule, while Ruth's 1927 Yankees only had 154 games.
The popularity of Maris' achievement has grown today due largely to the issue of steroids. Baseball wasn't testing for performance-enhancing drugs during the 1998 home run chase. But after his playing days, McGwire admitted to steroid use. The New York Times reported in 2009 that Sosa failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Names of those responsible for failed steroid tests in 2003 were not released by Major League Baseball.
"After all the stuff that's gone on," Stallard said, "it's hung around a bit."
If you ask Stallard, he will tell you repeatedly that it doesn't bother him to be tied to Maris, who passed away in 1985. Stallard even came to Fargo for the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament in 1987.
"His entire family ... they were just great people," Stallard said. "I love them to death."
Then Stallard said with a laugh: "My group won his tournament one year, so I guess I got even with him."
Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558