If we weren’t a society that, even now, tends to think of defeat as a six-letter euphemism for mortal sin, for assorted perverse reasons, Tracy Stallard would be wearing a sweat shirt emblazoned thus: He had to hit a record breaker to hit me at all!!
Come 23 September, the New York Yankees plan a golden anniversary celebration for the record nobody really wanted to see Roger Maris break. Poetically enough, the Yankees are scheduled to play the team against whom Maris achieved it, the Boston Red Sox. A postseason trip could still be on the line with that series, the diametric opposite of where the two teams stood on the afternoon Maris launched his record-breaker.
It might be nice if the man who served the pitch, rookie righthander Stallard, should come out of his long, quiet post-baseball life and accept at least a little love. Even Yankee fans are known to appreciate and, in their peculiar ways, honour the goats for their heroes’ feats. But how do you convince a man to quit punishing himself for giving up a home run to a guy who never got another hit off him otherwise?
Don’t they always tell someone that if you’re going to get your only hit off someone else, make it count? All Stallard did in the bottom of the fourth 23 September 1961 was throw Maris a nice, clean 2-0 fastball. And all Maris did was line it into the right field seats. It’s not as though Stallard looked to throw something into Maris’s wheelhouse. He tried, did the best he could with what he had, and had to watch it fly into the record books.
Stallard may have been lucky to throw the fateful pitch in Yankee Stadium. It was bad enough that Maris had played that season with what must have seemed like seven-eighths of the world hoping he wouldn’t get anywhere near ruthsrecord. (So help me God, that’s how they said it in those days.) It’s not unreasonable to presume that, if the game were played in Fenway Park, Red Sox Nation would have let him have it for a sentence enough of shame.
But it seems to have been enough to keep Stallard very quiet for the most part about his baseball days. His final major league appearance, in relief for the St. Louis Cardinals 24 July 1966, midway through game one of a doubleheader with the Chicago Cubs, saw Stallard surrender a home run to his first hitter, Ron Santo. He worked into the seventh and surrendered another run before he was relieved by Joe Hoerner.
A modestly-capable pitcher who had his moments both ways, he retired in 1973, after spending six and a half years in the minors trying to rediscover his repertoire. He disappeared into construction work in his native Virginia, apparently, and has long since refused interview requests tied to Maris. On the other hand, Stallard has been known to autograph the occasional copy of photographs from the Maris bomb, either a photograph of himself taking a sign from his catcher, or the sundry images of Maris hitting the launch.
When Stallard reached his 61st birthday, at the height of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa attack on Maris’s record, New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass tried to get him to talk. Stallard was out of state at the time on a construction job; his wife and sister each told Chass the subject was all but taboo in the Stallard family. “Thirty-seven years after the pitch,” Chass wrote, “he should understand it carries no shame. Let him ask Ralph Branca about that.”
Stallard surrendering Maris’s 61st wasn’tthe kind of heartbreak that served so long as Red Sox identification papers. The Red Sox were nowhere near contention in 1961; they finished in sixth place, 33 games out of first place, well on their way to a spell of mediocrity they wouldn’t break until 1967. This wasn’t Luis Aparicio stumbling around third, Darrell Johnson lifting Jim Willoughby, Bill Lee throwing Tony Perez the wrong blooper, Don Zimmer starting Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, B.F. Dent hitting one into the Monster screen, Mookie Wilson’s grounder skipping Bill Buckner’s wicket, Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in, or Aaron Boone leading off with the pennant winner.
Branca, of course, managed to overcome his shame at surrendering Bobby Thomson’s pennant winner in 1951. The two players often made the memorabilia shows together in the years to come, and forged a sweet friendship along the way. When Thomson died last year, Branca didn’t hesitate. “I lost a ballgame,” he said, “but I gained a friend.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. Fans are cruel to sports goats, and baseball isn’t anywhere near an exception. Bill Buckner was tormented for years by witless New England neighbours who finally drove him back to his native Idaho. As late as 1990, Johnny Pesky would tell anyone who asked, “To this day I’m the son of a bitch who lost the 1946 World Series.” When Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams surrendered a World Series-losing home run to Joe Carter in 1993, Williams was a standup man in the postmortems—and, like Branca with Thomson, eventually forged a friendship with Carter—but he discovered assorted nails spread under the tires of his family vehicles afterward.
No baseball goat was more tragic than Donnie Moore, the California Angels closer who was on the mound, with the Angels a strike away from their first World Series, in 1986, when Dave Henderson’s home run sent the game to extra innings in which the Angels lost. For whom was Henderson playing? The Red Sox, who’d go on to win the American League Championship Series . . . and face their own nightmare in the World Series.
Booed and harassed incessantly by outraged Angels fans, Moore was finally out of baseball when he shot his wife and then, fatally, himself. His wife once said he’d come home from then-Anaheim Stadium and yet another round of booing and catcalling and break to tears. His agent said he blamed himself for the Angels missing the Series—forgetting they still had two more cracks to come at the Red Sox—and couldn’t stop talking about the Henderson homer. His teammate Brian Downing insisted the incessant coverage, analysis, and re-analysis of the homer “destroyed a man’s life over one pitch.”
But Branca, Buckner, Pesky, Williams, and Moore experienced their signature failures in championship rounds. They were bested in the biggest of baseball’s hours. And most could claim mitigating circumstances. Branca probably shouldn’t have been brought in to face a hitter who’d already taken him deep earlier in that 1951 playoff. Buckner, his ankles reduced to jelly by injuries, definitely shouldn’t have been left in the game to play first base in the bottom of the tenth with the Red Sox three outs from winning a Series. Pesky had no choice but to hesitate when center fielder Leon Culberson threw in high with Slaughter running like a madman. Pitching with a sore arm, Moore did nothing but throw Henderson a pair of knee-high fork balls that dove away from the righthanded hitter. The first Henderson foul ticked away. The second he managed, somehow, to send over the left field fence.
Stallard would have another moment on the wrong side of someone’s impressive feat a few years later. Toiling for the New York Mets on Father’s Day 1964, Stallard was the losing pitcher while Philadelphia’s Jim Bunning pitched the first National League perfect game in the 20th Century. At the time, the Phillies looked like they were going to run away with the pennant. Until . . .
Maybe Stallard feels a double clutch of shame, but if he does, he shouldn’t. It’s bad enough that the goat business wreaks havoc on many a championship player who turned out to be only too human. A guy who gives up a mere record-breaking home run, to a hitter whose team had the pennant in the bag well before, shouldn’t have to hide away. A guy who’s on the losing side of a perfect game, by a pitcher whose team went on to the nastiest pennant collapse of the 20th century, shouldn’t have to hide away. Sports has one law nobody can overthrow, even though most people forget it: You can’t do something great without beating somebody else.
It would be appropriate and decent should the Yankees reach out to Stallard. Bring him to Yankee Stadium. Tell him that Maris hit the best he had to offer, and that that ought to count for plenty enough. While they’re at it, remind him that the final score was 1-0, that it wasn’t Stallard’s fault the Red Sox went 0-for-3 with men in scoring position off three Yankee pitchers, that they left five men on in the game, and that Stallard pitched gallantly otherwise.
Two seasons earlier, Lew Burdette finished his evening’s work against the Pittsburgh Pirates on the other side of Harvey Haddix’s near-perfect extra-innings game. The Milwaukee Braves won it in the thirteenth, breaking the perfecto, the no-no, and the Pirates. The following winter, during contract talks, the puckish Burdette couldn’t resist crowing, “That guy pitched the greatest game of all time and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the best pitcher who ever lived!”
The Yankees can even tell Stallard that, really, their man was better against him for the only time in his major league life. In seven lifetime plate appearances against Tracy Stallard, Roger Maris hit .143 with two strikeouts and not a trace of working out a walk. The only hit Maris ever got at Stallard’s expense was the record breaker. Maybe Stallard can forge it into a little quiet satisfaction, if he can’t forge it into a gag about pitching greatness.