Man who caught No. 61 back at Stadium

Sal Durante looks on in monument park next Sal Durante looks on in monument park next to the retired number of Roger Maris during a tour of Yankee Stadium. (Feb. 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Sal Durante stared at a particular picture in a hallway connecting the suites at Yankee Stadium Friday morning, and it had to be a little like looking in the mirror for the man who caught Roger Maris' 61st home run.

If all you'd seen of Durante was the classic photo of him and Maris holding the milestone ball, you still could easily identify him.

Just like in that photo taken Oct. 1, 1961, Durante sported a leather jacket and had his hair combed straight back. About the only differences between the 19-year-old Durante and the nearly 70-year-old version were a bit thinner hair and no pack of cigarettes under his shirtsleeve.

"This is an amazing part of history. It's just a great feeling, especially for me to reach 50 years," Durante said, laughing. "That was my goal, try to reach 50 years. The anniversary."

Durante was joined by Frank Prudenti, the Yankees batboy who greeted Maris at home plate after No. 61, for the trip down memory lane. The two were given a private look by director of tours Tony Morante.

Prudenti, 17 in 1961, showed up decked out in a Yankees hat and jacket. He canvassed the hallways repeating, "This is bew-tee-ful."

It's nearly a half-century since Maris overcame the press and the pressure to pass Babe Ruth as the single-season home run king on the final day of the season. Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998 and Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, but if you ask Durante, you still can call Maris champ.

"How 'bout if I just say Roger deserved it?" he said, skirting any mention of steroids. "Roger, I still think, holds the record."

That Durante was in position to achieve his 15 minutes of fame is a minor bit of serendipity. "My wife was sitting the row behind me with a couple of other people, and I was with my cousin and his girl," he said. But just before Maris' fourth-inning at-bat, Durante offered to switch seats with his fiancee - he married Rosemarie four weeks after catching the ball - because he "knew the game."

As soon as Maris connected, Durante jumped on his seat and made the catch - one-handed with no bobble. It was the only time he ever caught a ball.

"In a way, I think it was meant for me," he said. "To go to the game that day, ask for tickets in rightfield, which you wouldn't think you would be able to get that day . . . switching seats with Rosemarie, me jumping on the seat. Everything seemed to click."

As Maris crossed home plate, Prudenti was there to greet him. He said the team acted as if it were a regular home run until the fans demanded a curtain call. Then the other Yankees pushed the reluctant Maris out of the dugout to oblige them.

Meanwhile, Durante was being ushered into a Yankees office to safeguard the ball. He offered it to Maris, who told him to sell it. Restaurateur Sam Gordon paid $5,000 for it, with Durante giving half the money to his parents, before the ball ultimately was returned to Maris.

As reminders of that October day, Durante has Maris' cigarette lighter and a ball signed by Maris, Durante and Tracy Stallard, the pitcher who gave up the homer in the 1-0 game.

And of course there are plenty of pictures, taken 50 years ago but still like a mirror.

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