A little over 100 years ago, a charismatic and portly slugger named Babe Ruth began swatting balls over outfield fences by volume, helping establish the home run as one of the most coveted individual achievements in sports, and the Yankees as the most honored franchise.
Ruth’s records, including 60 home runs in 1927, became sacred milestones, cherished for decades by millions. In 1961, Roger Maris, as humble and retiring as Ruth was gregarious, broke the single-season record when he hit 61 homers, also for the Yankees.
Now Aaron Judge, as physically imposing as Ruth and as modest as Maris, has passed them both, homering against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Tuesday to reach 62 for the season, setting a new American League record.
From Ruth to Maris and now Judge, the A.L.’s single-season home run record is stitched together in pinstripes.
Of course, long before Judge made it to the majors, Maris’s and Ruth’s marks had fallen in the National League, swallowed up six different times by musclebound, drug-assisted sluggers whose achievements were debated and disputed, at times even questioned under oath by Congress. The most coveted individual achievement in the sport had been publicly muddied and baseball’s reputation smeared amid revelations that it was all a sham, accomplished with the aid of a chemist’s vial.
Judge, a mammoth slugger who stands 6 feet 7 inches and weighs 282 pounds, has played his entire career in an era in which players are tested for performance-enhancing drugs. While no player can be guaranteed to be clean, Judge’s accomplishments in the testing era have helped restore enthusiasm among many fans for a benchmark that had lost much of its luster.
Judge’s pursuit has captivated the baseball world, especially at Yankee Stadium, where in recent days fans had stood for each of his at-bats and paused in quiet anticipation as the pitches were delivered.
He homered last week in Toronto to match Maris, and then on Tuesday, after failing to homer in three games at home and two games in Texas, he ended the suspense, drilling No. 62 to left field off the right-hander Jesús Tinoco in the top of the first inning in the second game of a doubleheader to stand alone with a new A.L. record.
Through the entire chase, Judge managed to keep a level head. When he hit his 60th home run on Sept. 20 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, tying Ruth, he had to be pushed out of the dugout by teammates — much like Maris was in 1961 — to briefly acknowledge the raucous applause with a sheepish wave of his dark blue helmet.
What’s more, Judge’s record-setting season has come as reaffirmation of a risky investment he made in himself in spring training, when the Yankees offered him a $213.5 million contract extension. Judge, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the season, turned down that offer, knowing that a poor performance on the field or serious injury could have jeopardized his receiving much of that money.
Instead, he has increased his own value, probably by more than $100 million, especially because Judge is not just hitting for power. He was also challenging for the so-called triple crown, entering Tuesday’s game leading his league in home runs and runs batted in (130), while trailing Minnesota’s Luis Arraez by percentage points for the batting title (.315 to .311). He could be only the second triple crown winner since 1967. For good measure, he was also leading all of baseball in runs scored, with 131, had stolen 16 bases and had played terrific defense in right and center field.
“I never saw it as bet on myself,” Judge said after he tied Maris last week. “I knew no matter what, I’d be playing this year for the New York Yankees, wearing pinstripes. We weren’t able to agree on something, but I changed my focus right then and there to, ‘Let’s go out and have a great season for my teammates and do what I can to put ourselves in a good position for a long postseason run.’ I’m just out there playing baseball.”
But it was his pursuit of Maris — and, at one point, Barry Bonds’s major league record — that has captivated the baseball world throughout this season. Fans who flock to his mild-mannered persona and thunderous swing relish the perception that Judge is restoring validity to a long-admired home run milestone.
“He should be revered and celebrated as the single-season home run champ, not just the American League home run champ,” said Roger Maris Jr., who has traveled to several Yankee games to witness history. “I can’t think of anyone better that baseball can look up to as Aaron Judge, who is the face of baseball, to actually do that.”
Of course, debates about the home run record are nothing new. Going back to the days of Ruth, players pursuing the record have often faced controversies of some kind. Some questioned if Ruth was ruining the game by placing such an emphasis on power, and Maris had the stress of chasing a player as beloved as Ruth wear on him deeply, only to have Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time, float the idea publicly of adding a mark to Maris’s total in the record books to indicate that it had come in a 162-game season rather than the 154-game season that Ruth had played in 1927.
No asterisk of any kind was ever added — some record books listed separate marks for 154- and 162-game seasons — but the mere idea of doing it became part of Maris’s legacy.
That would prove to be insignificant compared to the controversies surrounding the players who caught and passed Ruth and Maris a little more than 20 years ago.
Those players — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds — have all been associated with performance-enhancing drugs, either through legal investigations, dogged news reporting or, in McGwire’s case, a public concession.
McGwire was the first to break Maris’s record during a closely followed and celebrated home run race with Sosa in 1998, a few years before the rampant use of drugs became more widely known and the time frame would later be called the “steroid era.”
McGwire finished 1998 with 70 home runs, and Sosa, who surpassed 61 home runs in three total seasons, hit 66. Bonds obliterated their marks in 2001 when he hit 73, and by the time he passed Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 in 2007, much of baseball seemed almost embarrassed by the feat.
Asked if he thought the records set by Bonds, McGwire and Sosa are illegitimate, Maris Jr. responded, “I do. I think most people do.”
The ball that Bonds hit for 756 was eventually sold to a fashion designer who laser cut an asterisk into the ball before donating it to the Hall of Fame, where it is on display.
During the height of the steroid era, it was common for numerous players to reach 50 home runs. In 2001, four players hit over 50 and a dozen hit at least 40. The year before, 16 players hit at least 40 home runs.
This year, only three have hit at least 40 and Judge has nearly 40 percent more home runs than his next closest competitor, Kyle Schwarber of the Philadelphia Phillies, who hit his 45th Monday. Like Ruth, who often far outpaced the opposition, Judge has been well ahead of the pack all season.
Judge, known for being fairly tight-lipped with the news media, has stayed out of debates about the record, telling Sports Illustrated that “73 is the record in my book.” Instead, using his size and strength, Judge has quietly stood out among his flashier peers simply through the way he approaches his at-bats.
In an era dominated by analytics, modern techniques encourage players to alter their swing paths in an upward arc to create a higher launch angle of the ball and increase the chances of hitting home runs, even at the cost of increased strikeouts and fewer balls put into play. But as Alex Cora, the manager of the Red Sox, noted, Judge is not just an all-or-nothing slugger trying to pull every pitch he sees. His disciplined approach enables him to make contact and crush the ball in all directions.
In recent days, he had shown hints of frustration as opponents pitched him ever so carefully. But during his volcanic surge at the plate in September, for which he was announced as the A.L.’s player of the month on Monday, Judge hit .417 with 10 home runs over 25 games. Then, on the fourth day of October, he blasted his 62nd home run of the season to set a new standard for the Yankees, the A.L. and — to some, — all of baseball.
“He’s a great face of the game, a great representative,” said Aaron Boone, the Yankees’ manager, who added, “It’s more attention on our sport, more eyeballs on our sport. It’s documenting something that almost never happens. It’s important to appreciate that and appreciate what a magical season he has put forth.”