Aaron Judge Is a Home-Run King

Long before Roger Maris hit his sixty-first home run of the 1961 season, people were arguing about what that mark might mean. Major League Baseball’s commissioner at the time was Ford C. Frick, a former sportswriter and P.R. man who ghostwrote “Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball” in 1928, the year after Ruth hit sixty home runs—a record that stood for the next thirty-four years. Frick seemed intent on letting it stand a while longer. Until 1961, M.L.B.’s regular seasons consisted of a hundred and fifty-four games; that year, the American League added two teams and eight more games per season. (The National League lengthened its season the following year.) In July, as Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle hit homers at a Ruthian pace, Frick announced that any hitter who took longer than a hundred and fifty-four games to reach sixty home runs would have a “distinctive mark” next to his accomplishment in the record books. This is typically remembered as an asterisk, but what the stats bureaus actually settled on was a parenthetical: (162 G/S).

Perhaps Frisk’s edict would have been ignored if the more glamorous Mantle had been the one to top Ruth; Mantle had the sort of charisma that sportswriters appear to want in their home-run king. But he limped out of contention for the record in September, with a hip infection, and finished with fifty-four. Maris, a quiet Minnesotan playing just his second season for the Yankees, kept pulling the ball deep. The attention on him was brutal and unforgiving. After every game, reporters would hound him and goad him; under the pressure, Maris lost clumps of hair, or so the legend goes. But night after night he rounded the bases, chasing a ghost who could never be beat. He hit No. 61 in the season’s hundred-and-sixty-first game.

Thirty years passed before M.L.B. announced that, in its view, Maris had the record clear. But the record didn’t stand for long: within a decade, it had been broken six times, by three different players. None of them—Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire—are in the Hall of Fame. All admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. There is no “(P.E.D.)” next to the current mark, of seventy-three home runs, which was set by Bonds in 2001, but many people seem to believe that there should be. Last month, as the Yankees’ Aaron Judge neared sixty home runs, some of those people began hailing the prospect of a “clean” home-run record, free of the taint of steroids. Sportswriters and fans celebrated Judge’s pursuit of the American League record—Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire all posted their marks with National League teams—though that’s not a distinction anyone cared much about before.

Judge, for his part, knew that he wasn’t chasing the real record, any more than Ruth held on to it after Maris. “Seventy-three is the record. In my book,” he told Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated, shortly before slugging his sixtieth home run of 2022. “No matter what people want to say about that era of baseball, for me, they went out there and hit 73 homers and 70 homers, and that to me is what the record is.” The numbers are what they are, even if they have never told the whole story. (Imagine what Josh Gibson might have done with the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium, if the game’s racist gatekeepers had ever let him play there.)

Unlike Maris, Judge fits the role of home-run king as beautifully as Ruth did, albeit in a different way. At six feet seven, with a chiselled jaw, he projects a kind of granite integrity. He is a Yankee in the Yankees’ own image, with that peculiar mix of self-regard and humility lately personified by Derek Jeter. (When Verducci asked what Judge is most proud of this season, he said, with apparent sincerity, his improved baserunning.) That Judge has not broken Bonds’s record doesn’t take anything away from his own accomplishment—the kind of dominance he has shown is for the ages. This season has been a revelation: Judge has always hit for power, but now he is collecting hits consistently, and striking out less; he has a chance to win not only the home-run crown but the triple crown, and leads in all but a handful of the advanced statistical categories. And, although Maris had Mantle to push him, Judge is all alone: the player with the next most home runs this year, the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber, has hit about two-thirds as many as he has. Even during those rare stretches in which Judge hasn’t hit home runs, he has got on base nearly half the time. On the night the Yankees clinched the A.L. East division title, last week, he went 0–1 with four walks and scored two runs.

Of course, TV producers aren’t cutting away from the broadcasts of college football games so that sports fans can watch live as Judge draws a walk. Baseball, like no other sport, creates steady, predictable opportunities for its players to make history. The chase draws you in and makes you care. This past weekend, in the regular season’s final home stand, against the Baltimore Orioles, the crowd booed every time the pitcher missed the strike zone when Judge was at bat. (In thirteen trips to the plate, he was walked five times.) Home runs can be a little cheesy, but no one can deny the thrill of watching the big man hit the ball far.

By Tuesday night, Judge was experiencing what constituted, for him, a rough stretch. He had gone without a home run in the series against the Orioles, and was 2-for-9 in the first two games of a series against the Texas Rangers, in Arlington. Surpassing Maris had seemed inevitable; now the sheer difficulty of the feat had reasserted itself. But then, at last, in the first inning of the second half of a doubleheader, Judge faced Jesus Tinoco, saw a slider in the strike zone, and swung. His hips uncoiled with violent force, his long body thrust back at an angle, his patient hands whipped around. The loud crack of the bat filled the momentary silence, and then up went a roar.

As Judge rounded the bases, his teammates gathered around home plate to greet him. The fans, many of them rooting for the home team, gave him a standing ovation. In the season’s hundred-and-sixty-first game, sixty-one years after Maris hit sixty-one home runs, Judge hit No. 62. It was eleven home runs fewer than the record, but it was enough. ♦

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