Reliving History: 1961 New York Yankees

1961 Yankees
BRONX, NEW YORK-1961: Mickey Mantle #7 and Roger Maris #9 of the New York Yankees pose for a portrait in the Bronx, New York during the MLB season in 1961. (Photo by C&G Collections/Getty Images)

Pinstripe Pride Throwback to 1961 New York Yankees

Continuing with our “Reliving History” series, today’s focus is on the 1961 New York Yankees. When looking back on the Yankees squad that season, it’s easy to make an argument that the team had everything on their 25-man roster. The Yankees were blessed with plenty of offensive power in their lineup and a starting rotation led by Whitey Ford.

After appearing in the 1960 World Series, the Yankees came into the 1961 season hungry. Hungry to prove their value to the rest of baseball and hungry to hoist that World Series Championship.

As a team, the Yankees had a 109-53 record during the regular season under the guidance of rookie skipper Ralph Houk. In fact, from June 1st through the remainder of the season, the Yankees won 70% of the games they played! Collectively, the Yankees posted a +215 run differential. On the mound, the pitching staff 3.47 ERA which translated to an ERA+ of 107.

In regards to the lineup, the team collectively hit .263/.330/.442. Furthermore, the Yankees lineup posted a 109 OPS+. Compared to the rest of baseball, that put the Yankees eighth in batting average and fourth in the American League. For on-base percentage, the Yankees ranked sixth in baseball and fifth in the American League.

1961 also saw an expanded schedule. Instead of playing only 154 games, the American League played 162. While the surface level stats and numbers are great to know, what’s even more important is a discussion on who the impact players on the Yankees roster were that season. All of those players will be discussed in further detail below.

Roger Maris Makes His Impact Felt in a Big Way

Right in the heart of the New York Yankees batting order that season were two tremendous power hitters. “The M&M Boys” — right fielder Roger Maris and center fielder Mickey Mantle — were in a true battle all season long to see who could put up the better stat line. In fact, many fans were in awe during every game because both Maris and Mantle seemed like they would always hit a home run.

Maris, who was right in the middle of his prime years in 1961 at the age of 26 and was traded to New York from Kansas City prior to the start of the 1960 season, hit .269/.372/.620 over 698 plate appearances in 1961. He also notched a new single-season-record 61 home runs, led the American League with 141 RBI, and led the majors in total bases with 366. Combine all of that together and it equaled Maris winning his second straight American League Most Valuable Player Award that season and his third consecutive All-Star nod.

One area that Maris really shone that season was in his ability to hit with runners in scoring position. In those situations, Maris hit .328/.408/.719 with 42 hits, five doubles, 15 home runs, 77 RBI, 19 walks, and only nine strikeouts.

Mickey Mantle’s Impact

In addition to Maris, the other part of the M&M duo was the aforementioned Mickey Mantle. The future Hall of Famer concluded the regular season with a .317/.448/.687 slash line. Mantle led the majors in OPS+ that year with a 206 value and led the majors with 126 walks. Combine that and it equaled Mantle finishing just behind his teammate, the aforementioned Roger Maris, in second place in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.

Mickey Mantle was a highly popular figure for the New York Yankees. Although he had an impact on the organization in a significant way, Mantle was seemingly always hurt especially when it came to his left leg. The 1961 season was no different for Mantle.

During the season, Mantle dealt with an abscess that had developed on his right hip. By the time September rolled around, Mantle ended up pulling out of the home run race because of the infection. Although Mantle knew he had overcome many obstacles previously, this was one that hindered him in a big way.

Roger Maris Faces Serious Criticism

As a result of that, Roger Maris was left alone to chase Babe Ruth’s home run record. However, it didn’t come with open arms among Yankees fans. Often times, Maris was greeted with boos from fans at Yankee Stadium. Furthermore, Maris was continually questioned by reporters about his intentions to break the record.

Come Game 162 on October 1st, Maris finally broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. That home run came against the Boston Red Sox, and, finally, Yankees fans encouraged Maris to come out for his curtain call. For Mickey Mantle, he wasn’t able to celebrate with Maris and his other teammates in person. Rather, Mantle enjoyed the celebration on the TV while sitting in a hospital bed.

Once that moment had elapsed, the Yankees moved on to the World Series. However, they went into it without Mickey Mantle. Additionally, Roger Maris didn’t feel like he did after facing so much criticism while attempting to overcome Babe Ruth’s record. More on how the outcome of the World Series later.

Other Role Players in the 1961 Yankees Lineup

Besides Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the Yankees had quite a cast of supporting position players as well. The biggest name was left fielder Yogi Berra. Berra finished the 1961 season with 22 home runs, 61 RBI, and a .795 OPS over the span of 436 plate appearances. While Berra was named an All-Star that year, it was towards the end of his career. After 1961, Berra would play for two more seasons. Once 1964 rolled around, the future Hall of Famer would become the manager of the Yankees.

Two other impactful parts of the Yankees lineup that year were catcher Elston Howard and first baseman Bill Skowron. Combined together, Howard and Skowron hit 49 home runs and recorded 166 RBI. For Howard, it wasn’t just the offense where he excelled the most. Howard was tremendous behind the plate as well. That season, Howard recorded a Caught Stealing Percentage (CS%) of 50% which was well ahead of the league average of 36%.

Skowron, who was yet another All-Star on the Yankees roster and went by the nickname “Moose,” really did well against left-handed pitchers. In 1961, Skowron hit: .302/.350/.497 over 183 plate appearances against lefties. In that span, Skowron recorded a .321 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). Skowron didn’t have a lot of power against lefties as he only hit 6 home runs, but still contributed enough to the Yankees overall offensive success.

Whitey “Slick” Ford Anchors Down the Rotation

When discussing the 1961 New York Yankees, it’s impossible to not mention the contributions and success of left-hander Whitey Ford. 1961 was a significant season for the southpaw because it wound up being the only year that Ford won a Cy Young Award during his 16-year major league career.

The future Hall of Famer posted a 3.21 ERA over 283.0 innings of work that season. Over that span, Ford led the major leagues in games started with 39 and in win-loss percentage with a cumulative value of .862. In addition, Ford led the American League in Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP) that season with a value of 3.14. Besides winning the Cy Young Award, those stats allowed Ford to finish fifth in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.

While Ford was impactful both at home and on the road, it was at Yankee Stadium where Ford really shined. At home, Ford held opposing batters to a .217/.269/.327 slash line over 20 games. That translated to a 2.65 ERA, a 1.058 WHIP, and 116 strikeouts.

Once the World Series rolled around, Ford made two starts. Over those two starts, Ford recorded a 0.00 ERA over 14 innings of work, while facing 49 batters and recording seven strikeouts. In turn, that translated to Ford being named World Series Most Valuable Player for the Yankees. Additionally, he broke the World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings.

Terry and Stafford Side Show in the Rotation

While much attention was given to Whitey Ford and rightfully so, both Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford were key contributors in the starting rotation as well. Terry finished the year with a 16-3 record and a 3.15 ERA, while Stafford posted a 14-9 record with a 2.68 ERA. Both right-handers were in their twenties during the 1961 season with Terry pitching at 25 years old and Stafford pitching at 22 years old. It was Stafford’s second season pitching in the majors.

Unlike today, Stafford would often start games on three or four days of rest. Stafford made 11 starts on three days of rest and posted a 2.45 ERA, a 1.017 WHIP, and a 5.7 K/9 rate over those starts. Furthermore, on four days of rest Stafford made 7 starts posting a 2.25 ERA, a 1.308 WHIP, and 25 strikeouts as a starter and reliever. 25 of his games were as a starter with the remaining 11 coming as a reliever.

For Ralph Terry, the second half of the season is where he really shined. During the second half, Terry pitched in a total of 17 games — 14 as a starter. In that span, the right-hander posted a 2.73 ERA with 43 strikeouts and a 0.994 WHIP. In addition, Terry pitched in a total of 56 situations where there were two outs and runners in scoring position. Over those 56 situations, Terry held opposing hitters to a slash line of .192/.250/.269 and a .205 BABIP.

Luis Arroyo Holds Down the Fort at the End of Games

To end the discussion on the 1961 New York Yankees, it’s only right to talk about the contributions that left-handed reliever Luis Arroyo made. The 34-year-old earned his second career All-Star nod that season. In addition, Arroyo contributed enough on the mound to justify a sixth place finish in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.

One of the reasons why was because Arroyo led the majors in games pitched (65), games finished (54), and in saves with 29. (As a side note, saves weren’t an official stat until 1969, so managers didn’t use pitchers with the save in mind.) That translated to a 2.19 ERA over 119.0 innings of work with a 2.97 FIP, 1.109 WHIP, and a 6.6 K/9 rate.

Arroyo made a name for himself especially when it came to being able to handle high-leverage situations. Arroyo recorded 251 plate appearances that were high-leverage situations. In those 251 plate appearances, Arroyo held opposing hitters to a .195/.287/.276 slash line. With Arroyo’s ability to handle those situations, it was another key reason why the Yankees went onto win the World Series.

Murderers Row in the Spotlight

As a result of the tremendous amount of talent in the Yankees lineup, many coined the team’s lineup “Murderers Row.” In fact, it definitely was “Murderers Row” as the team hit a combined 207 home runs. Combined with effective pitching, it’s what helped the team to move onto play the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. New York won the World Series (4-1) and finally hoisted that trophy the team was so hungry for just the year before.

Following the 1961 season, the Yankees finished in first place three more consecutive seasons before their window shut. Once 1965 rolled around, the team finished sixth in the American League before finishing last come 1966.

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