50 Years of the San Francisco Giants - 1961

Off a disappointing 1960 season, the '61 Giants looked to bounce back. They did nicely, and at the age of 23, the Baby Bull showed everyone he was a baby no more. And Candlestick hosted its first-ever All-Star Game – windbreakers, anyone?


Record: 85-69 (3rd, National League)
Ballpark: Candlestick Park
Manager: Alvin Dark
All-Stars (5): Ed Bailey, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Mike McCormick, Stu Miller
Awards: NL Gold Glove – Willie Mays

The '61 Giants had a lot of numbers, star power, and promise.  They improved from the previous season, but still fell short of the ultimate prize.

The 1961 Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Felipe Alou LF
  2. Harvey Kuenn 3B
  3. Willie Mays CF
  4. Willie McCovey 1B
  5. Orlando Cepeda RF
  6. Tom Haller C
  7. Chuck Hiller 2B
  8. Eddie Bressoud SS
  9. Sam Jones P

New manager Alvin Dark gave some of the kids a chance to play early, and got the ball rolling on a number of changes.  Original San Francisco Giants catcher Bob Schmidt was packaged with last year's bust, Don Blasingame, to the Cincinnati Reds in late April in exchange for All-Star Ed Bailey, who would backstop the team for most of the season.  Kuenn may have played his first game as a Giant at third base, but he spent most of 1961 in the outfield alongside Mays, Cepeda, and Felipe Alou.  Hiller and Bressoud both started the season as the everyday middle infielders, but both eventually gave way to Joey Amalfitano and Jose Pagan, respectively.

The end result of this roster juggling was a potent offense that ranked first in the NL in runs scored and second in home runs hit.  Batting in front of McCovey and Cepeda, Mays had a terrific season (.308/40/123) in which he led the league in runs scored.  But he was outdone in '61 by a monster year from the 23-year old Cepeda (.311/46/142), who led the league in home runs and RBIs but finished runner-up to Frank Robinson (.323/37/124) for the MVP award.  Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Cepeda's success was that he put up his offensive number without having a consistent fielding position – with McCovey playing first and the outfield crowded with Mays, Alou, and Kuenn, Cepeda split time evenly between first base (his natural position) and the outfield.

Looking back, one must wonder how differently things would have worked out in '61 if Sam Jones didn't begin his precipitous decline that season.  After assuming the role as the staff ace the previous season, Jones at age 35 was only a shell of his former self (8-8, 4.49 in only 17 starts).  This left veteran Jack Sanford (13-9, 4.22) and youngsters Mike McCormick (13-16, 3.20) and Juan Marichal (13-10, 3.89) to pick up the slack, with the two Billys – Loes and O'Dell – making spot starts to fill the void.  A nice source of victories came from an unlikely source – All-Star reliever Stu Miller (14-5, 2.66, a league-high 17 saves), who became even more famous by his experience in the All-Star game at Candlestick Park that year (more on this later).

After an inconsistent April, the '61 Giants pulled off four straight victories on the road in early May to take over first place in the NL.  They stayed there until the first of June, when they lost 7-6 to the St. Louis Cardinals at Candlestick Park (where up to that point they were a disappointing 12-13) to fall to 26-17 and a half game out of first behind the surprising Cincinnati Reds.  Trouble is, the Giants would never see first place again.  A three-game winning streak versus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves later that month finally put the team over .500 at home, and despite their rough home start the Giants finished the season with a 45-32 record at the ‘Stick.  But while the team looked very good at times – most notably a 19-3 pasting of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Independence Day in which Cepeda went 5-for-5 at the plate with a home run and 8 RBIs – the team immediately followed this game with six losses in a row – five at home – and a few winning streaks later on came far too late to save the season.  Despite having only one losing month (13-15 in July), the team finished eight games behind the Reds and four behind the Dodgers.  The Reds' magical season would come to a harsh end in the World Series, where they ran into Mickey Mantle, home run champ Roger Maris, and the New York Yankees who hoisted yet another world championship in five games.

1961 was also the first time San Francisco hosted baseball's All-Star Game – one of two All-Star Games that year, as baseball experimented with having two such games a season for four years during 1959-62.  The first All-Star Game in '61 was held at Candlestick Park on July 11, and the home team was represented with by four players – Cepeda, Mays, McCormick, and Miller (Ed Bailey was on the roster for the other All-Star game, held at Fenway Park on July 31).  It was on this day that all of baseball would get to know the legendary winds out at Candlestick Point.  Mostly docile for eight innings, the wind began to play havoc in the top of the ninth inning with the National League ahead 3-1.  With one out, a double and a single by Detroit Tigers Norm Cash and Al Kaline, respectively, off of Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Roy Face made it a one-run game.  Sandy Koufax was brought in to face Maris, who promptly singled to put runners on first and second.  Stu Miller was then summoned, at which point the fun only escalated.  With yet another Tiger, Rocky Colavito, at the plate Miller was literally blown off the mound by the winds, which resulted in the umpires calling a balk on Miller – perhaps the most famous balk in baseball history.  Colavito later reached on an error that also allowed Kaline to score the tying run.  Miller escaped the inning without further damage, but what should have been the second out in the inning by Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek was instead a wind-aided dropped foul ball.  Another error in the top of the tenth led to the go-ahead run for the AL, but a two-run rally led by Hank Aaron, Mays, and Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente led the NL to a thrilling victory in the bottom of the tenth, with Mays scoring the winning run.

All-Star heroics aside, it was to date the most successful season in San Francisco Giants history, as they finished the season with 85 victories.  But the Giants were just getting started in establishing a winning tradition, and the youngsters were just beginning their maturation processes.  The expansion draft for the Houston Colt .45's and New York Mets in October resulted in the departures of five Giants, including Amalfitano, Bressoud, and Sam Jones.  Cepeda was now an established superstar, and McCovey and Marichal would take steps to eventually join his ranks.  Could the Giant do even better?  Much better – perhaps even a few inches away from immortality.

The complete 1961 roster:

#5 Hobie Landrith
#6 Ed Bailey
#7 Harvey Kuenn
#9 Bob Schmidt
#10 Don Blasingame
#12 Jim Davenport
#14 Joey Amalfitano
#15 Jose Pagan
#16 Eddie Bressoud
#18 Bob Farley
#19 Sam Jones
#21 Ernie Bowman
#23 Felipe Alou
#24 Willie Mays
#25 Jim Marshall
#26 Chuck Hiller
#27 Juan Marichal
#28 Billy Loes
#30 Orlando Cepeda
#31 Billy O'Dell
#33 Jack Sanford
#34 John Orsino
#36 Dom Zanni
#37 Stu Miller
#39 Eddie Fisher
#39 Dick LeMay
#40 Mike McCormick
#41 Matty Alou
#42 Bobby Bolin
#44 Willie McCovey
#45 Jim Duffalo
#51 Tom Haller

Don Shin eats, breathes, thinks, and bleeds in Orange and Black. Pac Bell Park officially opened on his 25th birthday (the one year he decided to move out of the Bay Area!!!). For the 2000 playoff drive, he dyed his hair orange while studying in Korea. He watched Game 6 of the '02 World Series at a restaurant in LA, and couldn't finish his meal afterwards. Feel free to write him at dongsoo411@yahoo.com to commiserate, cheer, and complain.

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