60 years ago, Sept. 10, 1961, Cleveland Indians outfielder Jimmy Piersall was attacked, while playing center field at Yankee Stadium, during the first game of a doubleheader. It was part of an afternoon, when all hell broke loose at the “Big Ballpark in the Bronx.”
The Yankees were in the midst of a 13-game winning streak that broke open the tight American League pennant race between New York and the Detroit Tigers. In one week, the Tigers had gone from 1 1/2 games behind the first place Yankees to 10 1/2 out, helped by losing a three-game series to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Still, the Yankees were drawing big crowds, as fans were captivated with the battle by teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.
On a hot, steamy Sunday afternoon, Sept. 10, more than 57,000 fans turned out for the doubleheader between the Yankees and the Indians. Cleveland, to say the least, was not in the best frame of mind, sitting 26 1/2 games behind the Yankees and having lost 16 straight at Yankee Stadium, before the twin bill started.
In the first game, the Yankees used a six-run, second inning to jump out to a 6-2 lead. Cleveland rallied to tie the game in the fourth inning, helped by Vic Power’s three-run homer off of Jim Coates, who relieved Whitey Ford.
In the fifth inning Coates hit Power with a pitch. Needless to say, Power was none to happy being hit. The former, talented Yankees farmhand, foolishly scuttled by then Yankees GM George Weiss in the early 1950s because he was “too flashy,” continued to jaw with Coates, after the relief pitcher made several pick off moves to first base. In the broadcast booth, Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto remarked, “I’m glad I’m up here, if anything breaks out on the field. I was in too many of those bench clearing brawls, when I was a player.”
In the last of the seventh, after Mantle drew a two-out, bases empty walk, two fans ran onto the field and attacked Piersall, a Waterbury, CT native. Piersall, who was having a great season hitting .324 and among the league leaders in hits, hauled off and belted the attackers. He said he had made up his mind a few weeks before, when a fan accosted him on the field in Cleveland, if it ever happened again, he was not going to hold back.
Teammates Walt Bond and Woody Held were among those who came to Piersall’s aid. Mantle also broke from first base to assist Piersall, but stopped, telling The Sporting News: “He didn’t need me out there. He was taking good care of those guys.”
Security nabbed the two perpetrators and tossed them in the clink. Order was restored but moments later Piersall brought the crowd to it feet, robbing Johnny Blanchard of a home run by making a spectacular running catch near the Yankees bullpen in right center. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he came off the field. On radio, the “Voice of the Yankees,” Mel Allen, who had done a superb job describing the on field mayhem, summed up Piersall’s catch: “Jimmy Piersall, who was assaulted by two fans moments ago, just committed highway robbery on the field. And it was legal.”
As for the game, the Yankees won it, 7-6, scoring a run in the eighth on an RBI-pinch-hit single by Bob Cerv.
However, the afternoon’s antics were just revving up. In the second contest, featuring Mantle’s 53rd home run of the season, the Yanks took a 4-2 lead to the last of the sixth inning. With two men on, Clete Boyer hit a ball that appeared to be a home run. At least that was what second base umpire Charlie Berry seemed to indicate. So Boyer went into his home run trot, only to be shocked when he was tagged out at third base on a relay throw. Apparently Berry was indicating the flight of the baseball, which bounced off the 402-foot mark in left-center and caromed into center field. It didn’t help matters that third base umpire Frank Umont also misinterpreted Berry’s hand gestures and signaled home run too.
With Boyer called out at third, the Stadium crowd erupted, throwing debris of all kinds, from hot dog wrappers to soda and beer cups onto the field. Yankees manager Ralph Houk played the game under protest. Meanwhile, a loud, thunderous, persistent wave of boos cascaded over the Stadium for nearly 17 minutes, the likes, according to The Sporting News, the historic venue had never witnessed.
The game went on, however. The Yankees won, 9-3, for their 12th straight victory. Cleveland dropped its 18th straight at the Stadium and Houk removed his protest. The Sporting New devoted an entire page to the disruption and American League president Joe Cronin let it be known he was not in favor of Piersall or any player fighting back, when attacked.
The nation may have been riveted on the Mantle-Maris home run battle, but 60 years ago to the day, there were other battles that stole the attention, when all hell broke loose at Yankee Stadium.