The Senators had struggled to finish in the first division of the American League over the 15 previous seasons—and expectations were low heading into 1961—but the franchise’s fortunes had begun to turn just prior to departing the nation’s capital. Homegrown talents Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison blossomed into premier sluggers, and Camilo Pascual and Jim Kaat became effective starters around which to build a pitching staff. In a key trade a year before the move to Minnesota, Griffith dealt power-hitter Roy Sievers, in his mid-30s and soon to decline, to the Chicago White Sox for two promising young players, catcher Earl Battey and first baseman Don Mincher.
On April 11, 1961, the Twins made their debut at Yankee Stadium against the defending American League champions. The 1960 season had ended with Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hitting a ninth-inning walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series against the heavily favored Yankees, who would start the new season with Ralph Houk taking over as manager for Casey Stengel. The Yankees returned a powerful lineup built around Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard and 1960 American League MVP Roger Maris. For the 1961 opener, staff ace Whitey Ford was on the hill to start New York’s AL title defense. It wouldn’t be an easy assignment for the Twins.
Minnesota manager Cookie Lavagetto, who moved from Washington with the club, called on Cuban-born Pedro Ramos to start Minnesota’s inaugural game. Ramos had already made quite a first impression on Twins fans. With Cuban-U.S. relations quickly deteriorating that spring, the flamboyant and outspoken Ramos livened the final days of spring training by announcing to the world that he might return to his homeland to fight Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. Days later, he was still in the United States and settled for taking on the Yankees.
This was the Opening Day lineup for the Twins’ debut:
Zoilo Versalles, SS
Lenny Green, CF
Harmon Killebrew, 1B
Jim Lemon, LF
Bob Allison, RF
Earl Battey, C
Reno Bertoia, 3B
Billy Gardner, 2B
Pedro Ramos, P
Ramos and Ford worked quickly through six scoreless innings. Killebrew drew a two-out walk in the first inning to become the first Twin to reach base, and his leadoff single in the fourth was the first Twins hit. The Yankees generated their only threat in the second, aided by a two-base error by Lemon in left and a walk to Tony Kubek, but with runners on the corners and two out, Ramos induced Ford to ground out to Bertoia at third to end the inning.
Leading off the seventh with the game still scoreless, Allison jumped on a 1-0 curveball from Ford and drilled it into the left-field seats—providing the Twins’ first run and home run. Battey then doubled to left and Ford walked Bertoia before Ramos stroked a single to center to score both baserunners. With the Twins up 3-0, Ford’s day was done.
Bertoia popped a two-run homer off the Yankees’ Ralph Terry in the eighth, and the Twins closed out the scoring in the ninth when Killebrew scored Versalles on a sacrifice fly in the 6-0 win. Ramos went the distance, scattering three hits and a walk, and fanning five Yankees—including Mantle twice. Soon after, Ramos announced that he intended to keep his day job and took himself out of the running for war duty. “I’m a baseball player,” he quipped, “not a fighter.”
It was a surprising debut, even more surprising in hindsight. The 1961 Yankees won 109 games and Ford, who took the Opening Day loss, lost only four times all season in a league-leading 39 starts. The southpaw finished 25-4 with a 3.21 ERA.
Twins wins against the Yankees were hard to come by in those early years in Minnesota. The Yankees won their second of five straight AL pennants in 1961, and the Twins went 25-46 against them in their first four seasons. Finally, in 1965, when the Twins replaced the Yankees as AL champs, they reversed their losing ways against New York.