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The 1961 American League Pennant Race: The New York Yankees vs. The Detroit Tigers


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On the radio the other week (undoubtedly NPR), I remember hearing something about "Al Kaline being important to Detroit, and Harmon Killebrew being important to Minnesota, and that's all very nice, but could you imagine if they had worn Yankee pinstripes?" It's true - they'd be just as famous as Mickey Mantle.

Refer also to "Parity in Baseball: A Blessing or a Curse?" Not to mention the splitting of the leagues into divisions in 1969, which means that the best team in the league was no longer guaranteed of going to the World Series.

I was recently doing some research about Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew vis-a-vis Mickey Mantle to see whether or not there was some merit to the hypothesis that those two players would have gotten Mantle-like fame had they played for the Yankees (I believe they would have, if they had comparable stats) - but I didn't get far enough into my research, because I read that in 1961, Al Kaline finished 2nd in the American League batting race, losing to his teammate Norm Cash.

Norm Cash won the batting title? Really?

So I did some more digging, and found out that Kaline batted a fine.324 that year, but Cash batted an *unbelievable* .361. Are you kidding me? .361? That is the highest single-season batting average that *any* major-league player hit in the 1960s! And he hit 41 home runs and 132 RBIs! That's a better year than Bryce Harper had in 2015, without question. When Norm Cash retired, he was in 4th place all-time for most home runs ever by an American League left-handed hitter, behind Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. That's some pretty sweet competition.

And the 1961 Detroit Tigers won 101 games! That's a record of 101-61!

But because *The Best Team* won the pennant every year through 1968 (without any of this playoff nonsense), the 1961 Yankees, with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hitting a combined 115 home runs, won 109 games (109-53!), and won the pennant by 8 full games.

Kind of takes the excitement out of it, doesn't it? Having a "real" pennant race perhaps once only every decade? But what it *also* does is ensure that the best teams win, year in, and year out, and that's why the Yankees always won - because over the course of 154 (or in this case 162) games, they were almost *always* the best team.

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Good points, Don.

Before my days of baseball watching, the Yankees had won five straight world championships from 1949-53....in 1954, they seemed to have continued their streak, winning 103 games. But they lost the pennant by 8 games to the Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games that year.

There were a few interesting pennant races in the decade you refer to, the 1960s. I recall vividly the 1967 American League race, where four teams went into the final weekend neck-and-neck, with the Red Sox finally winning the pennant with a 92-70 record. The Twins and Tigers ended up 91-71 each, and the White Sox were 89-73.

Of course, in 1964 the Phillies had their epic collapse, with something like a 6-game lead over the Cardinals with 10 games to play, and blew it. In 1969, the Cubs blew a commanding lead to the Mets, who them improbably beat an Orioles team that arguably had better players than the Mets at every single position.

You raised one of the head-scratchers of all time with Norm Cash, a career .271 hitter. In 1962, his batting average dropped 118 points to .243, the largest drop-off of any batting champion in history.

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Growing up I watched that team, I an impressionable elementary school student, along with millions of other impressionable baby boomer kids as TV's populated the residential landscape.

Of note, '61 was the first year of an expanded schedule of 162 games not 154 as had been played over many decades.  Don:  You have to add 8 losses to both the Yanks and Tigers' records. [Done.] Regardless, both teams were excellent.  I do recall the Tigers' stars having great seasons.  Of note in the Batting average race, Elston Howard, by then the primary catcher for the Yankees batted .348 that year.  He didn't have enough at bats to qualify for the race, but he had a great year.   Casey Stengel, the Yanks' manager had a propensity to rotate and platoon a lot of players and Howard, Yogi Berra, and Johnny Blanchard all were behind the plate that year.  Those catchers helped Whitey Ford have his greatest career year at 25-4 and won the Cy Young award.   Ford's favorite teammate that year could have been Louis Arroyo, the reliever and "Life Saver"   Arroyo had a great year also.

(Its suggested that '61 was a banner year for hitting as pitching talent was diluted due to expansion)

But all those stars paled in comparison to Mantle and Maris that year.  The M&M boys were in a race to try and beat the "Babe's record of 60 home runs in a season. It was a year long effort as they both were hitting a lot of dingers through the early part of the season.

Because it was the first year of the 162 game season, and because "old timers" favored the Babe, the commissioner of baseball ruled that the record had to be beaten or tied in 154 games.  Mantle had injuries at the end of the season and his homer pace subsided.  Maris ultimately tied and beat the record but he did it in 162 games, not 154--hence the infamous asterisk around his record year.

Now would Kaline or Killebrew have gained more fame if they had played their great careers for the Yankees and not Detroit and MInnesota respectively???    Well sure they would have received more publicity.  NY was the center of publicity and Detroit and Minnesota were relative backwaters.   But would they have rivaled Mickey Mantle?

I don't think so.  Mickey Mantle's stroke was so beautiful, so powerful, so balanced, and so full of explosive potential that it was a one of a kind.  People then and to this day marvel at it.  When he finished that swing he looked like the most majestic twisted pretzel highlighted by unimaginable muscles.  The Mick was a classic.

Kaline and Killebrew were great great ball players.  If Kaline had been playing Right field for the Yanks they never would have traded for Maris.  Kaline was all around better.   Take a gander at this baseball history and conjecture:

According to this list of the 100 greatest ball players of all time; other right fielders of that day are rated as greater players than Kaline:   Hank Aaron at 5th, Roberto Clemente at 20th, Frank Robinson at 22nd, and Kaline as the 76th best player ever.   They were all right fielders, all in their 20's and all in their prime.  (Mantle and Killebrew make that list at 17th and 69th respectively (a lot of great players))(Yogi Berra, past his prime in '61 sits at #40 on that list and Whitey Ford, in his prime of primes that year sits at #52).   It could have been the premier time period for right fielders!!!!!!    Other lists will have different orders but they were all great players!!!!!!

Different conjecture:   Suppose Kaline and Killebrew played for the Yankees and Mantle and Maris played elsewhere.   We might have all eaten K&K's rather than M&M's.

Watching the Yankees that year, as an impressionable kid, was like watching mythology and comic book heroes come to life. It was magical.

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