The unforgettable baseball fan

Sports fans usually have their 15 minutes of fame and disappear into anonymity. There was the guy who”cost” the Chicago Cubs their first World Series appearance in almost a century….what was his name again? (Steve Bartman, I looked it up). Other than him, the two guys who followed Hank Aaron home on his 715th home run, and Morgana The Kissing Bandit (more of a side show), I can’t think of any.

Except Sal Durante.

He was sitting in the right-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium the night Roger Maris hit his 61st home run to break Babe Ruth’s unbreakable record. He caught the ball and later was photographed with the Yankees’ slugger. I never forgot his name. He is the one trivia answer I would always get right, if anybody ever asked.

Durante was a 19-year-old truck driver in 1961. He was broke but convinced his 17-year-old girlfriend, Rosemarie Calabrese, to buy four tickets for them and another couple. The cost was $10, for all four tickets. He never became a celebrity beyond his 15 minutes, or so, but Rosemarie became his wife, for 53 years, and mother to their three sons.

There were 23,830 other fans at Yankee Stadium that night, but only Durante was able to hand the historic ball to Maris. He visited the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, ball in hand, because he wanted to give it to Maris in person… for nothing in return. Told that his young fan was soon to get married, Maris told Durante to keep the ball: “Sell it. You’ll need the money.”

Maris knew that a restaurant owner in California, before the ball had been hit or caught, offered to buy it for $5,000. Wanting to make sure

Durante got his money, Maris accompanied the young couple to Sacramento, home of Sam’s Original Ranch Wagon. The owner, Sam Gordon, taking the ball and advantage of the publicity, wanted a photo of the slugger and the ball to hang in his restaurant. Then he gave Maris the ball, and the Durantes a honeymoon trip to Palm Springs.

Maris kept the ball for a dozen years, then donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gordon kept the promotional picture hanging in his restaurant (later sold to Denny’s) and, when last seen — a little tattered and discoloured by age — it was being auctioned for $500. Durante kept his memories of the famous catch.

He used the money ($50,000 in today’s dollars) to pay some debts, to furnish the New York apartment where he was taking his young bride to live and to help his parents. Six months before high school graduation, Durante dropped out because his Dad became disabled. He later owned a messenger service and became a school bus driver. He died last December, eight years after his wife, of dementia. He didn’t know that Aaron Judge had broke the Yankees’ home-run record set that night in 1961.

Maris died of cancer in 1985. He’s buried in Fargo, where he grew up and where his personal museum is, in the West Acres Shopping Center. I have been there, and hope to visit it again.

Among the photos on the wall is one of Sal Durante.