It’s been all over the sports news — an obsession, one might call it — for the past week: New York Yankee Aaron Judge’s quest to break Roger Maris’s American League record of home runs in a single season.
Part of the reason for the obsession is that it’s a nice injection of excitement into a sport that suffers from turgid play and analytics-generated inaction that is running far behind the NFL and even the NBA in popularity. Part of the reason is that Judge is an appealing figure, a humble, engaging athlete in a look-at-me occupation. Part of it is that he plays in New York, where local snowstorms become national news, as do local sports phenomena. And part of it is that he’s a Yankee. It’s unlikely ESPN would be cutting into regular broadcasting for every at-bat if a Houston Astro or Seattle Mariner were chasing the record.
But part of it is also the iconic number: 61. That’s the number of home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961, who broke the heretofore sacrosanct number 60, held by Babe Ruth from 1927.
Judge’s manager, Aaron Boone, said after the game: “61; I’ve known about that number for my entire life. It’s one thing that makes our sport a little more special than the others — the numbers.”
And of those numbers, some are downright magical. These are the numbers implanted in the head of at least one little kid (if I may speak autobiographically) who filled shoeboxes with baseball cards; who hectored his parents for a subscription to the Sporting News back when it was the “bible of baseball,” and then curled up on the floor when it arrived on Mondays to scour the columns and analyze the box scores; and who bought with his own money an official MLB record book.
That kid, and lots of adults, knew those magical numbers by heart: 60; 61; 714; 96; 892; 56; 257; 4,191; .367; .424; 511; 2,130.
We thought they’d never be bested. But of course, they were; all but four of the above records have fallen. But it sure took a while. Baseball numbers have permanence, staying power; they mean something. They are so stable they allow fans to compare players across generations, across eras. How does Lefty Grove compare to Steve Carlton? Jim Thome to Jimmie Foxx?
They aren’t like basketball numbers; apart from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, who knows any basketball records? And football changes so often, so radically in some cases, that who holds records might mean something, but the numbers themselves don’t. Can you name any pro football records off the top of your head — passing yards in a season? Rushing yards in a game?
But baseball — the records last for decades. Following Maris in 1961, Mark McGwire knocked 70 home runs in 1998, followed three years later by Barry Bonds with 73. The Babe’s 714, charted in 1935, was eclipsed by Henry Aaron (755) only in 1976, and then by Bonds (762) in 2007. After Ty Cobb hung up his infamous sharpened spikes in 1928 with his records of 892 career stolen bases (96 in one season), 34 years passed before Maury Wills stole 104 in a season, and 49 until Lou Brock swiped his 893rd career base. Fifty-six years elapsed before Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record (4,191) was overtaken by Pete Rose (4,256). It took until 1995 before Cal Ripken Jr. could play in enough consecutive games (2,632) to beat a record established by Lou Gehrig in 1939 (2,130). And George Sisler’s record of 257 hits in a single season, accomplished in 1920, stood until 2004, 84 years, when it was taken down by Ichiro Suzuki with 262.
The four that still stand — .367, Ty Cobb’s career batting average; .424, Rogers Hornsby’s single-season batting average; 511, Cy Young’s career pitching wins; 56, Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-game hitting streak — might be there for a long time, along with Walter Johnson’s 110 complete game shutouts.
Baseball records mean something because the important ones are broken so rarely. And that’s because the game has stability. Rules don’t change much. The distance from home plate to first base has been 90 feet since 1857. It’s a perfect distance — 100 feet and there would be no infield singles whatsoever; 80 feet and Yadier Molina would be beating out bunts. And even with players getting faster, the distance has stood the test of time. Same with the distance from home to second — 127 feet, 3 and 3/8 inches. Runners have been caught stealing about 30 percent of the time since baseball started.
Rule changes comprise mere tweaks to the game. When hitting is too good, the mound is raised or the strike zone expanded. When pitchers are too powerful, the mound is lowered by a few inches or the strike zone straitened, or, more controversially, the baseballs are putatively wound a little tighter so more of them fly over the outfield fence. It’s no secret that more fans would rather sit through an 8–7 slugfest than a 2–1 pitchers’ duel.
Suspicions of an altered baseball surround the 1920 season, when baseball was anxious to bring back fans after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, and again in 1930 — how else to account for a stubby 5 foot, 6 inch Hack Wilson belting 56 homers and driving in 190 runs but a juiced baseball?
But in the late 1990s and first decade of the new century, it wasn’t the ball that was juiced, it was the players. And the numbers ballooned. The McGwire-Sosa homer chase for 62 during the dog days of the 1998 summer was hailed as baseball’s redemption from the embarrassment of the 1994 baseball strike. All the big hitting numbers of those years, culminating in Barry Bonds’s 73 homers in 2001, have now become tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, as has the pitching prowess of the likes of Roger Clemens.
Which is another reason for the Judge-mania of the past few weeks. He’s undeniably clean of performance-enhancing drugs. Many baseball hands don’t see this as an attempt to break a mere league record — after all, the official major league record stands at 73. They insist it is the major league record that Judge is chasing, the legitimate major league record, a clean 62 home runs.
One of those is Roger Maris Jr., who said after Judge’s 61st: “[Judge] should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ. I mean, that’s really who he is if he hits 62, and I think that’s what needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.”
Here comes the Judge. As they say, “All rise.”