Former Yankee bat boy relishes Maris yearsFARGO — Even though 50 years have passed, the images, emotions and sounds remain vivid for Fred Bengis.
By: Eric Peterson, Forum Communications Co.
FARGO — Even though 50 years have passed, the images, emotions and sounds remain vivid for Fred Bengis.
Bengis was one of the bat boys for the New York Yankees in 1961 — the year Fargo’s Roger Maris cracked 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth’s single-season Major League Baseball home run record.
“When he hit that 61st home run, after he hit it, I was crying in the on-deck circle,” said Bengis, who was 19 years old at the time. “When (Maris) came around and crossed home plate, Yogi (Berra) was up there and I was up there. … I had so much joy and happiness.”
The 28th annual Roger Maris Celebrity Benefit Golf tournament starts today with the first flight of golf at Rose Creek Golf Course and the silent and live auctions and celebrity banquet at the Holiday Inn. The event concludes Monday.
Bengis, 69, was a Yankees bat boy from 1959-1962 and still relishes being part of that historical summer in 1961 when Mickey Mantle and Maris chased Ruth’s record.
“All this stuff about him and Mickey being not friends and not really rooting for each other was all really just a made-up story because they were close friends,” Bengis said from his home in Longs, S.C. “And Mickey was rooting for Roger and Roger was rooting for Mickey.”
Bengis said he became “really close” with Maris that summer because “(Maris) needed someone to talk to and the players were all engaged and out doing what they had to do.”
Bengis remembers on most mornings that season he would hang out at Maris’ locker. Maris would drink coffee and Bengis drank chocolate milk. Bengis said Maris had a tough time with the media scrutiny he faced that summer as he chased the record.
Bengis said it was not uncommon to see around 50 reporters huddled around Maris’ locker, “shoving microphones and tape recorders in his face.”
“He held his cup of coffee sometimes and would just be shaking because he knew in a few minutes the locker room was going to be open to the press and they would just be all over him,” Bengis said.
Bengis appreciated that Maris would look after him when the Yankees were on road trips. Bengis said he and Maris a few times went to the movies together.
“At the hotel when we were on the road, if I walked into the restaurant in the morning and he was there, he would always call me over and say, ‘Freddie come here, sit over here.’ “ Bengis said. “He always took care of me as far as when we traveled. He made sure I wasn’t by myself or I had someone to eat with or go to the movie with. … He was great that way.”
Bengis said the media coverage was crazy the day that Maris hit his 61st home run. The locker room was packed with press prior to the game. He said the crowd at the stadium “was really not a big crowd that day.” None of the players really talked to Maris that day, Bengis remembers, and Maris was quieter than normal, too.
“As soon as he hit that ball, as soon as that crack of that bat, I knew it was gone. He just made good contact,” Bengis said of No. 61. “The right fielder just turned around … it was great, a big emotional experience.”
After the historical home run, Bengis ran the bat back to the dugout where a Yankees official then took the bat. Bengis said Maris didn’t want to go out for a curtain call initially, but did so after the urging of his teammates.
“And then he finally went out and he came back in the dugout and I was down near the water cooler and he came walking down. I still had his batting helmet,” Bengis said.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and he said ‘Freddie, we did it.’ “
Peterson is a sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.