A little over 100 years ago, a charismatic and burly hitter named Babe Ruth began hitting balls for volume over outfield fences, helping establish the home run as one of the most coveted individual achievements in the sport and the Yankees as the most honored franchise.
Ruth’s records, including 60 home runs in 1927, became sacred milestones cherished by millions for decades. In 1961, Roger Maris, as humble and reserved as Ruth was gregarious, broke the single-season record when he hit 61 home runs, also for the Yankees.
Now Aaron Judge, as physically imposing as Ruth and as humble as Maris, has overtaken them both by scoring a home game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Tuesday to take 62 for the season and a new American League record to set up.
From Ruth to Maris to Judge, the AL’s year-old home run record is stitched together in pinstripes.
Of course, long before Judge made it to the majors, Maris and Ruth’s grades in the National League had dropped, swallowed six times by muscle-bound, drug-assisted thugs whose performances were debated and contested, sometimes even challenged under oath by Congress. The sport’s most coveted individual achievement had been publicly besmirched and baseball’s reputation besmirched when it was revealed that it was all a sham accomplished with the help of an apothecary’s vial.
Judge, a mammoth slugger who stands 6ft 7in and weighs 282 pounds, has played his entire career during a time when players are being tested for performance-enhancing drugs. While no player can be guaranteed clean, Judge’s achievements during testing helped restore many fans’ enthusiasm for a benchmark that had lost much of its luster.
Judge’s chase has captivated the baseball world, particularly at Yankee Stadium, where for the past few days, fans have stood up for each of his bats and paused in silent anticipation as the pitches were delivered.
He scored in Toronto last week to face Maris and on Tuesday, after failing to homer in three games at home and two games in Texas, ended the suspense by dropping No. 62 to left field in front of the Right-hander Jesús Tinoco drilled the top of the first inning in the second game of a double header to stand alone with a new AL record.
The ball was caught by a fan in the left field stand identified as Dallas’ Corey Youmans. He was escorted by security guards so the ball could be authenticated by Major League Baseball. Whether he will hold the ball or return it to Judge has yet to be announced. Auctioneers have estimated home run #62 could be worth at least $1 million.
The judge struck out in his second at-bat of the game in the top part of the second inning. He took the field bottom of the table but was quickly removed by manager Aaron Boone to loud cheers from the street crowd, seeing the remainder of a 3-2 loss and leaving his hunt for No. 63 to tomorrow’s season finale in Texas.
Judge managed to keep a cool head throughout the chase. When he hit his 60th home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 20 and tied Ruth, he had to be pushed out of the dugout by teammates – much like Maris did in 1961 – only to briefly acknowledge the loud applause with an embarrassed wave from his dark blue helmet.
Additionally, Judge’s record season is validation of a risky investment he made in himself during spring training when the Yankees offered him a $213.5 million contract extension. Judge, who is set to become a free agent after the season, turned down that offer, knowing that poor performance on the field or a serious injury could have jeopardized his receipt of much of that money.
Instead, he’s increased his own worth, likely by more than $100 million, especially since Judge doesn’t just seek power. He also challenged the so-called Triple Crown, entering Tuesday’s games leading his league in home runs and runs batted in (130) while trailing only Minnesota’s Luis Arraez for the batting title (.315 to 0.311). He might just be the second Triple Crown winner since 1967. He also led all baseball runs with 131 runs, had 16 stolen bases, and played excellent defense in right and center field.
“I never saw it as a bet on myself,” Judge said after tying Maris last week. “I knew no matter what, I would play for the New York Yankees this year and I would wear pinstripes. We weren’t able to agree on anything, but I immediately changed my focus to, ‘Let’s go out and have a great season for my teammates and do what I can to set ourselves up for a long post-season run in to bring a good position.’ I’m just out there playing baseball.”
But it was his pursuit of Maris – and at one point Barry Bond’s major league record – that captivated the baseball world this season. Fans who flock to his mild-mannered personality and thunderous swing revel in the perception of Judge restating a long-admired home run milestone.
“He should be revered and celebrated as a season’s home run champion, not just an American League home run champion,” said Roger Maris Jr., who has traveled to several Yankee games to witness the story, after finishing 61st “I can’t think of anyone better for baseball to look up to than Aaron Judge, who is the face of baseball, to actually do that.”
Of course, home run record debates are nothing new. Going back to the days of Ruth, players chasing the record often faced controversy. Some questioned if Ruth ruined the game by emphasizing power so much, and Maris felt deeply inherent in the stress of chasing down a player as beloved as Ruth, only to levitate around Ford Frick, the baseball commissioner at the time to publicly bring up the idea of putting Maris’ total in the record books to indicate that it had taken place in a 162-game season and not the 154-game season Ruth had played in 1927.
No asterisk was ever added – some record books listed separate marks for 154-game and 162-game seasons – but the mere idea of doing so became part of Maris’ legacy.
That would be insignificant compared to the player controversies that caught up and overtook Ruth and Maris just over 20 years ago.
These players — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Bonds — have all been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, either through legal investigations, heavy-handed reporting, or, in McGwire’s case, public admission.
McGwire was the first to break Maris’ record during a highly publicized and acclaimed home run with Sosa in 1998, several years before rampant drug use became public knowledge and the time frame was later dubbed the “Steroid Era”.
McGwire finished 1998 with 70 homers, and Sosa, who hit 61 homers total over three seasons, hit 66. Bonds erased their mark in 2001 when he hit 73, and when he surpassed Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 in 2007, much of the Baseballs seemed almost embarrassed by this performance.
When asked if he thought the records set by Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were illegitimate, Maris Jr. replied, “I do. I think most people do that.”
The ball that Bonds hit for 756 was eventually sold to a fashion designer who laser cut a star into the ball before donating it to the Hall of Fame where it is on display.
At the height of the steroid era, it was common for numerous players to hit 50 home runs. In 2001, four players hit 50+ and a dozen 40+. The year before, 16 players hit 40+ homers.
Only three have hit at least 40 this year, and Judge has nearly 40 percent more home runs than his closest competitor, Philadelphia Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber, who hit his 45. Monday. Like Ruth, who often far outstripped the competition, Judge was way ahead of the crowd all season.
Judge, who is known for being fairly withdrawn from the news media, has stayed out of debates about the record, telling Sports Illustrated that “73 is the record in my book.” Instead, Judge’s size and strength has set him apart among his flashier peers simply by the way he quietly approaches his bats.
In an era dominated by analytics, modern techniques are encouraging players to alter their swing paths in an upward arc to create a higher ball launch angle and increase the chances of hitting home runs, even at the cost of more strikeouts and fewer balls thrown in . But as Red Sox manager Alex Cora noted, Judge isn’t just an all-or-nothing hitter trying to pull every pitch he sees. His disciplined approach allows him to hit and crush the ball in all directions.
In recent days he had shown signs of frustration as opponents set him up so cautiously. But during his volcanic upswing at the Plate in September, for which he was named AL Player of the Month on Monday, Judge hit a .417 with 10 homers in 25 games. Then, on the fourth day of October, he blew his 62nd home run of the season to set a new standard for the Yankees, the AL and – for some – all baseball.
“He’s a great face of football, a great representative,” said Boone, who added, “It’s more exposure to our sport, more exposure to our sport. It documents something that almost never happens. It’s important to recognize and appreciate what a magical season he’s had.”