Durante, one year after catching Maris' record home-run ball in 1961, was was brought to Seattle and offered $1,000 to catch a ball thrown from the Space Needle.
On Oct. 1, 1961 – in the fourth inning of the last day of a 162-game baseball season – New York Yankees right fielder Roger Maris hit his 61st home run off Tracy Stallard, Boston Red Sox pitcher, to break one of baseball’s most hallowed records: Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, set in 1927.
The history-making home-run ball was caught by Sal Durante, a 19-year-old Brooklyn truck driver who was seated in the tightly packed right-field bleachers with his girlfriend Rosemarie and a cousin and his girlfriend.
“I was broke at the time, and Rosemarie loaned me $10 so I could buy four tickets at $2.50 each,” Durante said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Staten Island, N.Y. “Rosemarie never let me forget the loan.”
In describing The Catch , Durante says, “I heard the crack of the bat and saw it headed toward the right-field bleachers where we were sitting. I jumped up on my seat and stretched as high as I could, and the ball slammed into the palm of my bare hand. Red Barber, handling the broadcast that day, described it as “a great catch.”
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Immediately after The Catch, Durante was surrounded by Yankee ushers. Roger would want the baseball that broke Ruth’s record.
“Fine,” said Durante, “But I want to give it to him personally.”
Durante was ushered to where Maris, his family and several Yankee officials had gathered.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, Rog, the kid wants to give you the ball personally.’ So I walked up to him and said, ‘Here’s the ball, Roger.’ ”
After Maris thanked him, Durante thought that would be the end of it. But – after signing the ball and dating it – Maris handed it back to Durante and said, “Keep it, kid. Put it up for auction. Somebody will pay you a lot of money for the ball. He’ll keep it for a couple of days and then give it to me.”
Durante – who expected nothing more than a “thank-you” from Maris – wound up selling the ball to Sam Gordon, a California restaurateur, for $5,000, which was a lot of money in those days. Gordon then turned the ball over to Maris.
End of story? Not quite.
The following year, the folks at Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair announced that the young man who caught Maris’ 61st home run would be flown out to Seattle to attempt to catch a baseball thrown from 600-foot-tall Space Needle. And if he succeeded, he would be paid $1,000.
A few minutes after a Seattle Times editor dumped the story in my lap, I was on the telephone to the University of Washington to ask some of the latter-day Isaac Newtons to figure how fast a baseball thrown from the top of the Space Needle might be traveling when it struck either Durante’s baseball mitt or a vulnerable part of his anatomy.
The UW’s brightest and best calculated the ball’s speed at approximately 134 mph, which is more than 30 mph faster than the hardest pitch thrown by Randy Johnson. Another source figured the baseball’s speed at 151.6 mph.
Armed with those numbers, Fair officials wisely decided against the Space Needle, for the safety of Durante and anyone standing nearby. The baseball would, instead, be thrown from the top of the fair’s 100-foot giant ferris wheel. And the “thrower” would be none other than Tracy Stallard, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who had thrown the baseball that Maris hit for his 61st home run.
By remarkable coincidence, Stallard had been unloaded by the Red Sox at the end of the ’61 season and was now pitching for the Triple-A Seattle Rainiers – just a short taxi ride from the ballpark to the fairgrounds.
Durante was a delightful young man, and we spent the morning of the day he would attempt the $1,000 catch wandering the fairgrounds and philosophizing on the strange twists and turns in life and on the baseball diamond.
Durante said he was a little sorry the Space Needle had been ruled out, saying, “I would have tried it. I’m that confident in my catching ability.” I threw a few baseballs to him, standing on hill above him. He laughingly caught several behind his back.
Frankly, I didn’t see how the kid could miss.
That afternoon would be the moment of truth – the $1,000 catch. A crowd gathered at the foot of the giant ferris wheel. A microphone was set up. Stallard, the pitcher, and Durante, the hopeful “catcher,” were introduced. A few warm-up balls were thrown to Durante by Stallard from distances below the peak of the ferris wheel’s ride.
As I recall, Durante made a circus, one-handed catch – partly behind his back – on the ball thrown from 75 feet. The crowd “ooh-ed.”
When the bucket carrying Stallard inched up to 100 feet, Durante says he decided to quit showing off and catch the baseball two-handed. And I, under my breath, started reciting a line from Casey at the Bat (tension does strange things to people): “ … and now the pitcher has the ball and now he lets it go, and now the air is shattered … ”
The ball came hurtling down. It landed with a thud on the heel of Durante’s mitt, then slowly dribble off to the side and ker-plunked on the pavement. There was a collective groan from the crowd. Durante’s shoulders sagged as he looked at the ball at his feet in utter disbelief.
Fifty-four years later, he says, “I should have caught it one-handed.”
For some years I thought Durante’s failure to catch the baseball meant he had returned to New York empty-handed. But I learned later that fair officials generously had authorized a $1,000 check for the young man. When we spoke recently, Durante said he had to do a little pleading.
Durante married Rosemarie when he returned to New York, and they had three children. Sam Gordon, the man who bought the home-run ball for $5,000, graciously paid for their honeymoon.
Rosemarie died two years ago, after 54 years of marriage, and Durante says simply, “I miss her terribly.” After spending much of his early life as a truck driver, he drove a school bus on Coney Island for 29 years before retiring.
The Yankees gave Durante season tickets the year after The Catch, although he was able to see only one game and gave the rest of the tickets to friends. Over the years, he has been interviewed by broadcasters, got to chat with Maris’ sons at Derek Jeter’s retirement, once sat in the Steinbrenner family’s suite and became fast friends with the man who was the batboy the day Roger hit his 61st home run. And, on the 50th anniversary of Maris’ 61st home run and the kid’s spectacular “Catch,” Durante was invited to throw a baseball around in right field with the former Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles.
Durante doesn’t think bulked-up players such as Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, all of whom shattered Maris’ record in a frenzy of home-run hitting in the late ‘90s, deserve a spot in the record book without an asterisk after their name. And, of course, he doesn’t think they are worthy of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, adding, “The sad truth is Bonds would have been a cinch if he hadn’t cheated.”
“Anyway, Roger played clean,” he says, “and so did your man (Ken) Griffey (Jr.).”
Durante, who’s still trim but graying on top, turns 75 in November. Time for complete honesty. He confesses he was rooting for Mickey Mantle, not Maris, to break Ruth’s home-run record. But after meeting Roger and his family, he was glad things worked out the way they did.
One final question: “Looking back over all those years, how significant in your life was The Catch, which lasted about one tick of a second hand?”
“That’s it,” he said after a bit. “That’s what it seems to come down to.”
Don Duncan was a longtime reporter, editor and columnist for The Seattle Times who at age 90 describes himself as the “world’s oldest general-assignment reporter.” He still lives in the Seattle area.
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