Top 10 Championship Teams: No. 4, 1961

01/20/2010 10:42 AM ET
By Jonathan Tayler /

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were one of the best power combos in baseball history in 1961. (AP)
The Yankees' 27 World Championships are far and away the most in baseball. enters the top half of its countdown of top-10 championship teams. In at No. 4 are the Bronx Bombers of Mantle and Maris: 1961.

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In 1960, the New York Yankees, already known as a prodigious power team from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio, set a team record with 193 home runs. Forty of those came from Mickey Mantle, the wildly popular son of the earth from Oklahoma who already boasted a pair of MVP awards. Thirty-nine, meanwhile, came from someone who would spend his short Yankees career in Mantle's shadow despite the accomplishments that routinely put him ahead of the heir to DiMaggio. Roger Maris, a son of Croatian immigrants and a high school football legend in his home state of Minnesota, came to New York from Kansas City in 1960 and promptly won the AL MVP ahead of Mantle, giving the Yankees a power duo they had not had since the 1930s.

But in 1961, Maris and Mantle took the Yankees to new heights, each reaching a career-high in home runs while chasing a single-season record that hadn't been matched or even approached in 30 years. While Mantle and Maris clubbed their way into the history books, the Yankees followed suit, bashing their opponents en route to the team's first championship of the decade.

  • No. 10: 1977
  • No. 9: 2009
  • No. 8: 1956
  • No. 7: 1996
  • No. 6: 1941
  • No. 5: 1932
  • No. 4: 1961
  • No. 3: 1939
  • No. 2: 1998
  • No. 1: 1927

Regular Season Record: 109-53 (AL champions)
In the first year of the expanded schedule (from 154 games to 162) and the expanded league, the 1961 Yankees won the most games in franchise history since the '27 Yankees went 110-44. Guided by Ralph Houk, in his first year replacing Casey Stengel, New York outperformed its Pythagorean record by six games thanks in large part to a predilection for blowing out its opponents and a whopping home-field advantage (65-16). Nonetheless, the team started slow, going 23-17 in April and May before running away with the league in the summer. The team won 20 or more games each month of the season from June onward, grabbing a division lead in late July that it never surrendered.

Offense: 827 runs scored (second in the league)
The Yankees didn't just lead the league in power; they obliterated their competition. New York's 240 home runs that season were tops in the American League by 51 over Detroit and set a new single-season record that wouldn't be bested until 1996 by Baltimore. Four players on the Yankees -- Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra and Bill Skowron -- accounted for 165 of those bombs, with Maris and Mantle combining for 115.

Of course, a large part of New York's power explosion had to do with the expansion of the American League from eight teams to 10 that year. With the watered-down pitching of the two expansion teams -- the Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels each allowed nearly five runs a game in their inaugural seasons -- offense around the league went up, and the Yankees were the biggest beneficiaries.

Aside from Maris and Mantle, the Yankees received a stellar season from Elston Howard at catcher, whose .348 average led the team. Berra, with his career winding down, managed 22 home runs in left field. And on the bench, Johnny Blanchard and midseason acquisition Bob Cerv provided instant offense.

Pitching/Defense: 612 runs allowed (second in the league) Whitey Ford was the unquestioned leader of the Yankees' staff in 1961, logging 283 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts. Bill Stafford and Ralph Terry backed up the veteran left-hander, with Stafford following up his excellent rookie debut in 1960 with his first full season, leading the Yankees in ERA at 2.68. Not to be outdone, Terry turned in a 3.15 ERA in 188.1 innings. Rounding out the rotation were Rollie Sheldon and Bud Daley, each of whom pitched well in limited time. All told, each of the top five starters had an ERA below 4.00, an impressive feat in a tough year for pitchers.

  • Bobby Richardson 2B
  • Tony Kubek SS
  • Roger Maris RF
  • Mickey Mantle CF
  • Yogi Berra LF
  • Elston Howard C
  • Bill Skowron 1B
  • Clete Boyer 3B
  • Whitey Ford P
  • Whitey Ford
  • Bill Stafford
  • Ralph Terry
  • Rollie Sheldon
  • Bud Daley

Complementing the Yankees' strong rotation was a two-headed bullpen of Luis Arroyo and Jim Coates, combining for 260 innings of stellar relief. Twenty-two-year-old Hal Reniff made his Major League debut in July of that season, further bolstering the 'pen with 45.1 above-average innings. Another midseason acquisition, Tex Clevenger, gave the Yankees yet another short-relief weapon. Defensively, the Yankees were strongest up the middle, with Howard, the double-play combo of Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson and Mantle showing his range in center field.

The Postseason:
World Series, 4-1, Cincinnati Reds

Just as the Yankees outperformed their Pythagorean record, so, too, did Cincinnati benefit from some luck and better-than-expected performance. The difference, though, was that while the Yankees were a 100-plus-win team from the outset, the 1961 Reds were closer to an 80-win team. Having scored only 50 or so runs more than they allowed, the Reds were a poor offensive team, tallying 710 runs. Aside from Frank Robinson -- whose .323/.404/.611 line and 37 home runs won him the NL MVP -- the only other above-average hitters on the Reds were center fielder Vada Pinson, who led the NL in hits, and left fielder Wally Post, with first baseman Gordy Coleman chipping in 26 home runs.

But what the Reds lacked offensively they made up for with a deep pitching staff. All five full-time starters had an ERA+ of 100 or higher, led by left hander Jim O'Toole. O'Toole, Joey Jay and Bob Purkey combined to throw 750 of Cincinnati's 1,370 innings that year, each posting an ERA under 4.00, with O'Toole leading the way with 178 strikeouts. The bullpen wasn't far behind, as Jim Brosnan and lefty Bill Henry were tops as relievers.

But aside from Games 1 and 3, the World Series wasn't particularly close despite the matchup of strong staffs and despite the near-total absence of Mantle, who had suffered a hip injury late in the season. The Reds took only one game, knocking around Terry in Game 2 to tie the Series at one-all after Ford had shut down Cincinnati in a complete-game effort in Game 1. But the Yankees' offense quickly reasserted itself after a slow Series start, blasting O'Toole and the Reds' bullpen for seven runs in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead, and wrapping up the title with a 13-5 pasting of Jay and company. The Yankees staff easily kept the Reds offense in check, allowing just 13 runs in five games while holding Robinson to one home run and four RBI. Ford was the easy MVP selection with two scoreless starts and two wins.

Overall: The 1961 season has long been broken down as the Summer of Mantle and Maris, when two men -- cast as rivals in the media but friends in real life -- battled for arguably the biggest record in baseball's history. The chase has been well-documented, and left Maris perhaps worse off than he came into the year. Reviled by the press and fans, beset by pressure, Maris managed to break Ruth's record only to receive virtually no recognition from Major League Baseball or the press. But 1961 was also a changing point for the American League in general, and a last gasp for the great offensive era that preceded it: The 1960s would be an era dominated by the pitcher.

Maris' 61 home runs stood for slightly longer than Ruth's 60 did. But the 1961 Yankees -- one of the premier offensive squads in team history -- combined the records with one of the most dominant regular-season campaigns the franchise had ever seen. As is usually the case in the Yankees' history, records were capped with a trophy.

Jonathan Tayler can be reached at comments