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by Harold Friend
On Aug. 31, 1961, the Detroit Tigers trailed the first-place New York Yankees by a mere one and one-half games, but by just a single game in the all-important loss column. With the passage of time, it is often forgotten that the great 1961 Yankees were in a torrid pennant race with the Tigers most of the season.
Really, A Crucial Series
The Tigers were in New York to play the Yankees in what really was a crucial series starting on Sept. 1. The first game was a battle of lefties, with Don Mossi facing Whitey Ford.
The game was scoreless when Ford had to leave in the Tigers' fifth due to a hip strain. Left-hander Leo "Buddy" Daley, whom the Yankees obtained from their cousins in Kansas City, took over for Whitey and matched zeros with Mossi until Luis Arroyo entered in the ninth.
The Tigers failed to score off Arroyo, and the Yankees batted in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win.
In 1961, it was expected that a pitcher would finish what he started. Mossi retired Roger Maris on a harmless fly ball to right fielder Al Kaline for the first out. Mickey Mantle then struck out for the third time. The "M & M" boys went hitless on the night, but the 1961 Yankees were more than Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
Elston Howard lined a single to center, and Yogi Berra followed with a single to right, moving Ellie to third. Mossi pitched from the wind up, correctly figuring that Elston Howard was not about to attempt a steal of home.
Don checked the runners, brought his arms over his head, and delivered a curve ball that the Moose hit to the left of third baseman Steve Boros.
Steve lunged for the ball, as 65,566 fans roared their approval when the ball trickled into left field.
The Second Game
The next day, the Yankees beat old nemesis Frank Lary fairly easily by a score of 7-2. Roger Maris hit his 52nd and 53rd home runs as Ralph Terry and Luis Arroyo combined to put the Yankees three and one-half games against the Tigers.
Must-Win, Mr. Bunning
Detroit was faced with a must-win game. They had the pitcher considered their ace, Jim Bunning, set to face Bill Stafford. The Yankees usually did well against Bunning, who finished his career with a 7-9 record against the Bombers.
Bunning failed to come through in a game that was vital to his team's pennant chances.
The Tigers staked Bunning to a one-run lead in the first. After the future senator from Kentucky retired the first two batters, Maris singled and Mantle, who wasn't expected to play, blasted a home run deep into the lower right field stands. Yogi Berra followed with an even longer shot into the bull pen for his 19th home run.
Bunning was not distinguishing himself.
Jim settled down until the fifth, when Bobby Richardson single home Clete Boyer to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead, but the Tigers bailed out Bunning, who was replaced after going only six innings and allowing four earned runs
The Tigers scored single tallies in the sixth and eighth innings to pull within a run. Then came the dramatic ninth.
Luis Arroyo was in his second inning of work. Chico Fernandez struck out, but the left-handed Arroyo, whose best pitch was a screwball, walked left-hand hitting Dick McAuliffe.
Arroyo fooled Dick Brown, who took a defensive swing at a screwball. The slow-footed catcher hit a little topper in front of the plate.
Arroyo pounced on the ball and fired it to first baseman Moose Skowron, who failed to handled the ball. Detroit had the potential tying run at third and the potential lead run at second. Skowron was charged with the error.
Bubba Morton was intentionally walked to load the bases. Jake Wood followed with a single to put the Tigers ahead, 5-4. Bunning was off the hook.
Mantle and His Yankees
Leading off the Yankees' ninth, Mickey Mantle hit his second home run of the game deep into the right field bleachers off Gerry Staley to tie the game.
Yogi singled, bringing up Arroyo, who hit for himself. Did anyone say, designated hitter, pinch-hitter or pinch-runner? Luis sacrificed Yogi to second, the Moose was walked intentionally, and Elston Howard ended the Tigers' pennant chances with a three-run home run into the left field seats.
It is not likely that if Jim Bunning had stopped the Yankees, the Tigers would have won the pennant.
The 1961 Yankees are viewed as one of the great teams of all-time, but the 1961 Tigers were the Yankees' match until the first days of September.
If Bunning had beaten the Yankees, and his team did score five runs that game, the Yankees' lead would have been two and one-half, not four and one-half games.
The discouraged Tigers dropped their next five games.
In his next start, which was in Boston, with the Tigers' losing streak at seven games, Jim Bunning lasted only three and one-third innings as the Sox blasted the Tigers, 9-2.
In two critical starts, future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning had been less than sterling.
Yanks Beat Tigers Before 65,566 on Skowron's Two-Out Single in Ninth :HOWARD TALLIES FOR 1-0 VICTORY Three Singles in Row Help Yankees Win and Extend Lead to 2 1/2 Games By ROBERT L. TEAGUE. (1961, September 2). New York Times (1923-Current file),p. 10. Retrieved March 1, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 98542191).
By JOHN DREBINGER. (1961, September 4). Mantle Makes It 49 and 50 and Yanks Make It Three Straight Over Tigers :HOWARD'S HOMER CAPS 8-5 VICTORY Drive in 9th Defeats Tigers After Mantle Ties Score -- 55,676 See Game. New York Times (1923-Current file),p. 18. Retrieved March 1, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 98445654).