Remembering Luis Arroyo and the 1961 Yankees

Luis Arroyo

Luis Arroyo (appropriately backing up) Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford in 1961

Luis Arroyo, the first Puerto Rican player for the New Yankees died a couple of weeks ago at 88. Arroyo was a two-time All-Star, first as a rookie starting pitcher with the Cardinals in 1955 and then again, with the Yankees in 1961 when as a reliever he finished sixth in MVP voting.

I want to share a story from that 1961 season.

I know it’s hard, even for me, to believe but I wasn’t always a middle-aged man in love with baseball; in 1961, I was a little kid in love with baseball.

Living in Manhattan, there was only one team in New York, and what a team that was. The 1961 NY Yankees had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battling to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Mantle finished with 54 and Maris, of course, broke the record hitting 61, a record, in my revisionist history, that still stands today.

But there was so much more to that team. Elston Howard was behind the plate and battling for the AL batting title. Ellie finished at .348, but was beaten out by Detroit’s Norm Cash who hit .361. Ellie hit 21 homers that season. His back-up (!), Johnny Blanchard, hit 21 as well. Yogi Berra only caught 15 games in 1961, playing 87 games in the outfield hitting 22 homers. Bill Skowren was at first, and Moose was the sixth member of the team with over 20 homers, hitting 28.

They also had Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at short, and Clete Boyer at third. Not too shabby.

The pitching staff had four starters with over 10 wins: Rollie Sheldon with 11, Bill Stafford with 14, Ralph Terry with 16, and the Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford, the Cy Young Award winner (back in those days there was just one for both leagues). Slick went 25-4 in his 39 starts that year, and finished fifth in the AL MVP race.

In 1961, Maris, for the second straight season, was the AL MVP. He was followed in the voting by Mantle, Orioles slugger Jim Gentile, Cash, Ford and Luis Arroyo.

Now, that you know a little about this team that went 103-59 and won the World Series in five games over the Reds, so let’s get back to my Luis memory.

As I have shared, Whitey Ford was having a season for the record books. Very few pitchers who have made as many as 30 starts, and none who made as many as 39 starts have had as high a winning percentage as Ford’s .862 that season.

But Ford would never had had his success that season without Arroyo.

Saves were barely a stat in 1961. The great baseball writer Jerome Holtzman developed the concept of the “save” and unofficially started tracking the stat in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1969 that it became an official MLB statistic.

Because of its relative obscurity, relievers really weren’t paid for saves, and for the most part were unknowns and/or failed starters. In 1960, only Roy Face and Lindy McDaniel had 20+ saves and in in 1962, only Face and “The Monster,” Boston’s Dick Radatz, had 20+ saves. But in 1961, Luis Arroyo was the only reliever with 20 saves, recording 29, far ahead of the runner-up, future HOF-er Hoyt Wilhelm, who had 18 (his career high to that point).

The primary beneficiary of Arroyo’s finishing skills was Whitey Ford. By early September, Ford was 22-3 and in 33 starts, the left-handed screwball artist, Arroyo appeared in 21 of his games and earned “saves” in 12 of them.

On September 3, the New York Times reported that an “extra day would be squeezed into the upcoming baseball week at Yankee Stadium – ‘Whitey Ford Day’.”

Today, a day to an honor a player’s season would never take place in that same season, but the Yankees were going to honor the 32-year old lefty the following Saturday and my father and I were there, in the upper grandstands between home and third.

So, let me set the stage: here the Yanks were having an amazing season, Whitey Ford was being honored and Roger had 55 homers, and The Mick had 52, the Yankees had won nine straight (on their way to 13 in a row) and we had no trouble getting tickets. There were 37,161 of us in the stands that day in a ballpark that could fit in excess of 56,000.

The pre-game ceremony for Whitey brought his family out to the field as he was showered with gifts that included a car, a golf cart and a new set of clubs, a cruise for Whitey and his wife, a trip to Bermuda for the whole family, patio furniture, a tape recorder, and assorted other items.

The ceremony was just about over when one more item was driven out from the bullpen: a six-foot tall roll of Life Savers on the back of a truck. It was driven straight to Ford, and as all of us were abuzz, out popped the portly 5’8” Luis Arroyo in an (as you can see) unforgettable promotional moment.

Then the game began, and for a while, it was pretty ugly. The Yanks were trailing 7-2 entering the bottom of the 7th (the Indians knocked Arroyo around in relief in the top of the inning), but Maris hit his 56th homer of the season in response. That gave the M & M boys 108 homers, one more than Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit in 1927. Blanchard and Howard also homered giving the team 216, just five short of the season record jointly held by the Reds and the Giants (the Yankees finished with 240).

The Yanks were down by three entering the bottom of the 9th, but they rallied for four runs to walkoff and keep their winning streak alive and sending the Indians to their 16th straight defeat at the Stadium. Tito Francona, Terry’s dad, was one of four Indians to get two hits in a losing cause. The winning pitcher was Luis Arroyo.

Luis had one of the great season for a reliever in 1961

In the magical 1961 season, working out the pen, the fun-loving Yo-Yo went 15-5 with a 2.19 ERA. He appeared in 65 games and pitched 119 innings and had a 1.109 WHIP. Oh, Luis also hit .280 (7-25).

Following one of the greatest seasons ever for a reliever, the Yankees rewarded Arroyo with a $10,000 raise boosting his salary to $20,000.

One final story about Arroyo from that season: In 1959-61, hijacking planes to Cuba was something that passengers feared, since it had happened over a dozen times. In mid-August the Yankees had an extended road trip during which relief pitcher Tex Clevenger purchased a hunting rifle. On the flight home, Luis asked Clevenger whether he could borrow the weapon for a few minutes (oh, how the times have changed). The NY Times quoted Luis saying, “I want to take it up front and talk a little Spanish to the pilot.” His request was emphatically denied.

Thank you Luis, you will be remembered with a smile.