Sal Durante, who became an quick celebrity when he boldly snared Roger Maris’s record-breaking 61st home run in a single hand at Yankee Stadium throughout the final game of the 1961 regular season, died on Thursday on Staten Island. He was 81.
His son Sal Jr. said the cause was dementia.
On that fall afternoon, Maris was tied with Babe Ruth for the single-season major league record of 60 home runs. Mr. Durante, a 19-year-old truck driver who delivered auto parts and had played sandlot baseball, got seats in right field for himself; his fiancée, Rosemarie Calabrese; his cousin John; and John’s date. Mr. Durante was broke, so Ms. Calabrese paid $10 for the 4 tickets.
“I watched the pitching motion, the discharge of the ball, and I had my eye on the ball all of the method to Roger’s bat,” Mr. Durante said at a commemorative event 50 years later at the brand new Yankee Stadium, which had replaced the old one in 2009. “I didn’t take my eye off that ball for a second.”
Because the ball soared toward him, he said, he jumped onto his seat and caught it within the palm of his right hand. “I got it! I got it!” he shouted, before falling into the row behind him.
After a scuffle with other fans, two security guards hustled Mr. Durante to the Yankees’ clubhouse, where he planned to offer the ball to Maris.
But as they stood together, Maris refused to take it. He knew that Sam Gordon, a restaurateur in Sacramento, had offered $5,000 for the ball Maris hit for his 61st home run to whoever caught it. He told Mr. Durante to take the money.
Mr. Durante did, and Mr. Gordon then gave the ball to Maris. He kept it until 1973, when he donated it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
After meeting Maris, Mr. Durante was delivered to the WPIX-TV broadcast booth to be interviewed and was greeted by Phil Rizzuto, certainly one of the team’s announcers and a former star shortstop for the Yankees. Mr. Durante recalled Mr. Rizzuto telling him, “I’m glad you’re a paesano.”
Salvatore Durante was born on Nov. 11, 1941, in Brooklyn. His father, Gabriel, was a postal employee who had to offer up his job after he became disabled, causing Sal to drop out of highschool six months before graduation to assist support his family. His mother, Catherine (Marino) Durante, was a homemaker.
Mr. Durante and Ms. Calabrese were married at a church in Brooklyn a couple of weeks after he caught the ball after which flew to Sacramento to gather the $5,000 (nearly $50,000 in today’s dollars). Half the cash went to begin the Durantes’ married life, half to assist Mr. Durante’s parents. Mr. Gordon also paid for the couple’s honeymoon in Palm Springs.
The subsequent August, Mr. Durante was invited to the Seattle World’s Fair, where he was offered $1,000 to catch a ball off the Space Needle. When it was determined that a ball thrown from the 605-foot-tall tower would generate an excessive amount of speed, the stunt (with Stallard, then pitching for a neighborhood minor league team, throwing the ball) was moved to a 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel.
After catching some practice throws from lower heights, Mr. Durante dropped the one for all the cash (he got the cash anyway). When Stallard asked what happened, Mr. Durante told United Press International, “I suppose I wasn’t relaxed after I knew the cash was riding on the toss.”
Along with his son Sal Jr., Mr. Durante is survived by two other sons, Robert and Thomas; six grandchildren; his sisters, Mary Serpe and Susan Monaco; and his brother, Joseph.
Mr. Durante later owned a messenger service after which drove a college bus before retiring to deal with his wife, who died in 2014.
On the Fiftieth-anniversary event, Mr. Durante was asked if Maris’s 61-home-run season should stand as the main league record despite having been exceeded many years later by Barry Bonds — who holds the mark with 73, which he hit in 2001 — and by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. All three men’s legacies are clouded by ties to performance-enhancing drugs.
“How about if I just say Roger deserved it,” he said. “He did it on his own, you understand, the skill.”
Due to his dementia, he was unaware that the Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit 62 homers last season.