Maris Anniversary: The Catch of a Lifetime

Sal Durante was strapped for cash that fateful Sunday morning a half-century ago, so he asked his future wife for a loan. Rosemarie Calabrese gladly shelled out the $5 for the two tickets to the Yankees season finale.

They had no idea that small investment would yield such a huge dividend – a priceless, life-altering moment in which a historically significant souvenir wound up briefly in Sal’s hands before taking up permanent residence in Cooperstown.

From his perch in Box Seat 163 D in Section 33 – about 360 feet from home plate and 10 rows beyond the right field wall – Durante made one of the most dramatic catches in the history of The House That Ruth Built. At exactly 1:46 p.m. on Oct. 1, 1961, he jumped onto his seat and extended his right hand as high as he could, grabbing the record-breaking 61st home run launched by Roger Maris.

“Caught it cleanly in my palm,’’ the 69-year-old retiree boasted recently from the Staten Island apartment he shares with Rosemarie. “I guess all that stickball playing in Brooklyn paid off.”

The force of Maris’ historic blow caused Durante to flop back onto the seat in the row behind him. He was immediately helped to his feet by two burly security guards who whisked him through the delirious crowd and the Yankees bullpen in right field to a place beneath the stands where there was an impromptu meeting with baseball’s new single-season home run king.

Durante had read where a California restaurateur named Sam Gordon was offering $5,000 to the person who caught the home run that eclipsed Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run mark. But Durante wasn’t thinking about any bounty on the ball when he was introduced to Maris. He felt the artifact belonged to the Yankees slugger and was ready to give it to him for free.

“When I went to hand it to him, he said, ‘No, kid, you keep the baseball and make yourself some money,’ ’’ Durante recalled. “I was shocked. I thought to myself, ‘What a humble guy. Here’s this baseball that has all the significance in the world to him and he was thinking about a young guy struggling to make ends meet on 60 bucks a week delivering auto parts on Coney Island.’ ”

After the game, photographers asked Durante to pose with Maris and the ball. They also took shots of the two holding up a pinstriped Yankees jersey bearing the number 61. The pictures would be splashed all over the New York City tabloids in their evening editions. In his press conference, Maris, who had been hounded much of the season by fans and reporters who didn’t want him to break the record, appeared genuinely touched by Durante’s magnanimous gesture.

“Now, what do you think of this kid?’’ Maris began, sounding as if his faith in humanity had been restored. “He’s got bills to pay and doesn’t make much money and he wants to give me the ball. That goes to show you that there are still some good people in the world.’’

Yankee executives asked Durante to leave the ball with them for safe-keeping.

“They were afraid I would get mugged carrying it home with me, so I reluctantly agreed,’’ he recalled. “I said, ‘But how am I going to know I have the right ball?’ There weren’t any holograms on the balls like there are today. So I wound up putting my initials on the bottom of it. That took care of the problem.”

After the World Series, it was arranged for Durante and Maris to meet at one of Gordon’s restaurants in Sacramento so the transaction could be consummated. Durante received a check for $5,000 (nearly a year-and-half’s salary for him) and the ball was given to Gordon, who promptly handed it over to Maris. The two-time American League MVP then gave Durante a gold lighter with the Yankees insignia and Maris’ name engraved on it. He also signed Rosemarie’s ticket stub.

“He and his family have always been kind to us,’’ Durante said. “They even sent us a wedding gift.”

Interestingly, Durante had been a life-long Mickey Mantle fan and actually was among the majority of Yankee fans and players rooting for the Mick to break Ruth’s mark.

“I loved Mickey, but that didn’t mean I was rooting against Roger,’’ Durante said. “After the kindness Roger showed me, I became of fan of his, too. I followed him for the rest of his career and his life.”

1961 vs. 2011
When Christian Lopez caught the home run Derek Jeter smacked for his 3,000th hit earlier this season, he, like Durante, gave the Yankees superstar the ball for free. Many questioned Lopez for doing that because serious collectors believed the ball could have fetched close to a quarter-of-a-million dollars in an auction. But Durante understood where the young man was coming from.

“He’s actually wound up receiving a ton of money from Jeter supporters who heard about his outstanding student loans and such,’’ Durante said. “I made peanuts by comparison, but $5,000 was a huge amount of money for me back in the day. And you can’t put a price tag on history.”

Maris donated the 61st home run ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, 11 years before his death. It’s on display in the “One for the Books” exhibit on the museum’s third floor. And if you look closely, you can see Durante’s initials.

The record, of course, has since been surpassed by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, who is the current standard-bearer at 73. But many believe Maris remains the true single-season home run champion because the three men who slugged their way by him reportedly were aided by performance-enhancing drugs.

“I think you could make that argument in favor of Roger,’’ Durante said. “I don’t know about those other guys, but we do know that Roger did it the natural way.”

50th anniversary celebration
Durante said interest in him and his catch has increased during this, the 50th anniversary season of the great home run chase when Maris outlasted the immensely popular Mantle and the ghost of Babe Ruth.

The Yankees plan to commemorate the occasion before a home game against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, Sept. 23. They’ve invited members of the Maris family, the ’61 Yankees and Durante and his wife.

Unfortunately, Sal and Rosemarie don’t know if they are going to be able to attend because she’s been recovering from cancer treatments.

“I obviously want her to be able to share in that moment,’’ Durante said. “After all, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to go that day. And someone else would have wound up catching Roger’s historic homer.”

Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak’s 14th book – “Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story” – will be published by Triumph Books in October. You can read more of him at www.scottpitoniak.com.

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