NEW YORK — Fifty years later, Sal Durante admitted he was so short, he needed to stand on his seat to catch that ball — the one hit by Roger Maris, a man whose stature just keeps growing.
There was only admiration Saturday at Yankee Stadium for the reluctant and possibly under-appreciated star whose 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, broke what had been the most revered record in sports.
The Yankees brought back Maris' family. They brought back two sons of Mickey Mantle, who had been the people's choice in a two-way race to break Babe Ruth's venerated single-season home run mark. And they brought back Durante.
It was all done to honor Maris, who had been uncomfortable in history's limelight. "We had to push Roger out of the dugout," Yogi Berra said of that Sunday afternoon curtain call.
Mantle's son David said, "We're just honored to be here and see Roger get his due."
Derek Jeter wore white gloves as he carried Maris' bat — on loan from the Hall of Fame — onto the field. Durante also wore white gloves as he carried the ball into a ceremony before the Yankees played the Red Sox, as they had on the day when Maris hit Tracy Stallard's pitch into the right-field stands. Everyone involved in the ceremony carried special memories.
Berra said: "Don't forget I was on deck when he hit 61. I was the first guy who shook his hand. It was a big honor for us to see those two fight it out. It was deja vu all over again."
Roger Maris Jr. said: "A lot of people at the time didn't give the record its due. As time went on, people started appreciating more of what he did. Dad really wasn't going out there looking for recognition ... but I think he felt he could have gotten more recognition instead of some of the bad press he got."
Roger Jr., brother Randy and Mantle's son all said they still believe 61 is the true single-season record despite having been eclipsed by players suspected of using steroids.
Maris' widow, Pat, and all six of her children wore Yankee jerseys bearing "9," the number retired by the Yankees in a Steinbrenner-era rapprochement. There was no lingering resentment toward detractors who said his 61 deserved an asterisk because the season had been expanded by eight games since Ruth's day. There was nothing but love between the Maris and Mantle families, even though Yankees fans clearly backed Mantle 50 years ago.
The two were friends and roommates with Bob Cerv in a Queens apartment. Said Cerv: "Mantle said, 'Can I room with you?' I said, 'We've got rules here.' He stayed there all summer long. He kept the rules."
The former left fielder choked up when he spoke of missing No.61 because he was injured, then having Maris visit him in the hospital. He grew misty when he spoke of returning the favor months before Maris' death of cancer in 1985.
Durante recalled being able to get four seats in right field that day (attendance was only 23,154). He remembered the newspaper story saying Sacramento restaurateur Sam Gordon had offered a $5,000 prize for the ball (he paid it). He remembered being a slight 19-year-old truck driver who got knocked into the row behind him by the home run ball.
Mostly, he recalled meeting Maris. "I offered him the baseball and he said, 'No, you keep the baseball and make yourself some money,'" Durante said. "That's the kind of guy Roger was, a very thoughtful, generous man."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun