Sal Durante, who became an instant celebrity when he boldly snared Roger Maris’s record-breaking 61st home run in one hand at Yankee Stadium during 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 four tickets.
With one out in the fourth inning, Maris smashed the third pitch off the Boston Red Sox right-hander Tracy Stallard beyond the short fence in right field.
“I watched the pitching motion, the release of the ball, and I had my eye on the ball all the way to Roger’s bat,” Mr. Durante said at a commemorative event 50 years later at the new Yankee Stadium, which had replaced the old one in 2009. “I didn’t take my eye off that ball for a second.”
As the ball soared toward him, he said, he jumped onto his seat and caught it in 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 give 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 cash.
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 brought to the WPIX-TV broadcast booth to be interviewed and was greeted by Phil Rizzuto, 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 worker who had to give up his job after he became disabled, causing Sal Jr. to drop out of high school six months before graduation to help support his family. His mother, Catherine (Marino) Durante, was a homemaker.
Mr. Durante and Ms. Calabrese were married at a church in Brooklyn a few weeks after he caught the ball and then flew to Sacramento to collect the $5,000 (nearly $50,000 in today’s dollars). Half the money went to start the Durantes’ married life, half to help Mr. Durante’s parents. Mr. Gordon also paid for the couple’s honeymoon in Palm Springs.
The next 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 too much speed, the stunt (with Stallard, then pitching for a local 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 money (he got the money anyway). When Stallard asked what happened, Mr. Durante told United Press International, “I guess I wasn’t relaxed when I knew the money was riding on the toss.”
In addition to 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 and then drove a school bus before retiring to take care of his wife, who died in 2014.
At the 50th-anniversary event, Mr. Durante was asked if Maris’s 61-home-run season should stand as the major league record despite having been exceeded decades 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 know, the skill.”
Because of his dementia, he was unaware that the Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit 62 homers last season.