On the fiftieth anniversary of throwing the pitch Roger Maris smashed for his 61st home run of 1961, I couldn’t resist writing of Tracy Stallard. I led off by saying that if we weren’t a society that tends to think of defeat as a six-letter euphemism for mortal sin, Stallard would wear a T-shirt saying Maris had to hit a record breaker to hit him at all.
Stallard, who died Thursday at 80, faced Maris seven times during his pitching career. Maris hit .143 against him with two strikeouts and no walks. The only hit Maris ever got against Stallard was the record breaker. “Maybe,” I wrote then, “Stallard can forge it into a little quiet satisfaction, if he can’t forge it into a gag about pitching greatness.”
That column, in which I also pondered (as I often do) the juvenility that attaches to baseball’s actual or alleged goats, prompted a pleasant reply from Stallard’s nephew, Jeff Pope: I can assure you that Tracy is totally at peace with pitching Maris’ 61st . . . We were disappointed that the Yankees organization chose not to include Tracy in the Maris 50th anniversary celebration (I contacted them many times and was turned down).
It would indeed have been a decent gesture, as was often made whenever the Giants had cause to commemorate Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning blast off Ralph Branca. As it would have been pleasant to know whether, in their post-baseball lives, Stallard and Maris happened to meet and forge a friendship similar to theirs.
At least it would have been untainted by subsequent unsavoury revelations. We know now that the 1951 Giants cheated their way to and possibly through that pennant playoff, by way of the telescope-and-buzzer sign-stealing scheme Leo Durocher implemented when the Giants were double digits behind the Dodgers in the race. Acquiring utility infielder Henry Schenz from the Cubs, and discovering Schenz’s Wollensak telescope, Durocher’s fiendish mind went to work at once. The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!
There has never been anything unsavoury attached to Maris’s 61st, if you don’t count the active bids by the Yankees’ powers that were to try to stop him from doing it, or the disgusting manner in which too many fans and journalists demanded that only a “true Yankee” should have the honour of breaking (so help me, they said it this way) ruthsrecord. Like the “true Yankee” acquired from the Red Sox who set it in the first place.
All Stallard did in the bottom of the fourth on 1 October 1961 was throw Maris a nice, clean, shivering fastball on 2-0, and all Maris did was line it into the right field seats. It wouldn’t be the last time Stallard was on the wrong side of someone else’s historical feat.
On Father’s Day 1964, by which time Stallard became a Met, he was the starting pitcher in Shea Stadium against the Phillies. Hall of Famer Jim Bunning picked that day to pitch the first perfect game in the National League in the 20th Century, and the first in the regular season since Charlie Robertson of the White Sox in 1922. If Stallard thought he was born to be a baseball history bridesmaid you couldn’t blame him.
The shame was that Stallard pitched a solid game otherwise on the day Maris used him to enter the record books—the final score was 1-0, Yankees. “People would come up with some crazy questions,” Stallard told an interviewer in 1981 about post-career encounters with fans.
“There was one guy who asked me why I gave up Maris’ 61st home run,” he continued, “and I told him because he hit 60 other home runs off somebody else.” Stallard as a Met was a teammate of the man who surrendered number 60, Jack Fisher, then one of the Orioles’ once-heralded Baby Birds starting rotation.
“It was the last game of the season and, just because he was going for the record, didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to pitch him any different than I normally would have,” said Stallard to that interviewer. “Maris had [Yogi] Berra and [Elston] Howard hitting behind him and with the game at 0-0, I didn’t want to walk him and have to pitch to those other guys with the go-ahead run on first.
“I had the count 2-0 on him and I came down the middle with a fastball. I was in the position where I had to make him hit the ball. I gave him my best pitch but he met the ball well and lined it into the rightfield stands. Actually, I hated the fact that I gave up the run more so than the fact I was the one he set the record off of.”
Maris died of lymphoma in 1985 at 51. He was actually stigmatised for chasing and breaking ruthsrecord. The abuse he suffered for being a plain spoken, unpretentious, unglamorous Dakotan who dethroned an all-time baseball idol may have been the only time a hero was turned into a goat for performing the once unthinkable.
A Virginian who came up from that state’s coal fields, the likewise plain-spoken Stallard even had the distinction of doing the unthinkable and embarrassing Howard Cosell on the air. We know it thanks to Cosell’s own recollection in his memoir Like It Is.
“Of course I’ve been embarrassed,” wrote Humble Howard. “When a guest says to you, ‘Let’s see, do I bullshit you or do you bullshit me,’ you better believe it’s embarrassing. That’s exactly what a pitcher named Tracy Stallard said to me, live, on a local television show a number of years ago.” If the notoriously media-averse Maris was aware of that, he must have allowed himself a quiet chortle.
Not bad for a guy like Stallard who was a high school phenom with two no-hitters on his resume, who never quite found the handle in the Show, who retired at last in 1973 after several years trying in the minors, and who went into the construction business while playing a healthy volume of golf in his post baseball life.
He didn’t much like talking publicly about his connection to Maris, but if his nephew was right he didn’t mind talking about it with fans. Just so long as they didn’t ask him why he surrendered the homer. His nephew told me Stallard enjoyed signing autographs on items related to the historic bomb. Sometimes, Stallard and Fisher together would autograph photos of Maris hitting it.
I hope the first to greet Stallard at the Elysian Fields were Maris and Bunning, offering a couple of beers and hearty handshakes. And I hope Maris was kind enough to remind him, “The only way I could hit you was to break that effing record!” It’s the least Stallard has earned to begin his eternal peace.