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Essay: Mad about baseball in 1961

New York Yankees teammates Roger Maris, left, and

New York Yankees teammates Roger Maris, left, and Mickey Mantle in 1961. The sluggers vied to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. Mantle got hurt, but Maris broke the record on Oct. 1 with his 61st home run. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

My father knew his baseball.

In the summer of 1961, my two older brothers, Joe and Tom, and I were going crazy over the New York Yankees. Joe, 11, was a Roger Maris fan and was convinced that this was the year the outfielder would beat Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs. Tom, a year younger, was enamored of Mickey Mantle and thought that No. 7 would shatter the Babe’s record. At age 8, I was just along for the ride.

That summer, we spent our days playing baseball in our backyard in Wantagh. There was a dirt path from the pitcher’s mound to home plate and another from home to first base, better known as my mom’s umbrella-shaped clothesline. Every night after our dad, Joseph Sleckman, arrived home from his job at the insurance office and had eaten dinner, we dragged him outside to pitch batting practice or play catch.

When the Yankees were on TV, we stared at the screen, absorbing every word from announcers Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto and Red Barber. Our dream was to see a game at Yankee Stadium, and we badgered Dad to take us, but something always came up. Thinking back, I can see my father’s dilemma. Working full time as the sole breadwinner of the family, and being the only driver, his weekends were filled with chores to raise his three sons and two daughters.

One night in early September, Dad arrived home and surprised us with four tickets to the Yankees on the final game of the season on Sunday, Oct. 1. They were playing the hated Red Sox. The Yankees had clinched the pennant on Sept. 20 and Mantle was sidelined by a hip infection, but Maris was still chasing Ruth’s record.

On the day of the game, the three of us hopped into Dad’s 1952 Plymouth and took the long drive from Wantagh to the Bronx. I remember entering the Stadium amid a huge crowd of fans and felt a little intimidated by the whole scene, especially the long, steep escalators. We finally settled into our seats on the third-base side and I was able to take in the wonder of the picturesque green grass of a major league ballpark. That feeling never gets old.

In the fourth inning, good old Roger Maris hit home run 61 and the place went nuts. When the ball left his bat, everyone stood up. Luckily, because it was hit so high, even little me saw it clear the rightfield fence.

But the thing that stands out most in my memory happened in the first inning. As the third batter for the Red Sox stepped to the plate, my dad stood up and started clapping. A few fans around us booed, and I felt slightly embarrassed. In my score book, I saw the player’s name.

“Why are you cheering for YAS-O-AM-SKI?” I stuttered.

My father replied, “His name is Carl Yastrzemski. He’s the son of a potato farmer on the East End. Remember his name, Jamie, because he will be in the Hall of Fame someday.”

My father knew his baseball.

Reader Jim Sleckman lives in Southold.

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