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History Will Be the Judge
62 homers is an amazing feat, but it's not the record
Tonight, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run. This dinger moved him into seventh place on the all-time single-season home run list. It’s a particularly exciting feat, as 61 is a sacred number in baseball history: it’s how many fellow Yankee Roger Maris hit in 1961, which set the then-record by eclipsing the legendary 60 swatted by Babe Ruth.
Maris’ former record had already been surpassed six times by three different players: Mark McGwire, who hit 70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999; Sammy Sosa, who peaked at 66 in 1998 but also exceeded Maris’ standard in 1999 and 2001; and Barry Bonds, who mashed 73 bombs in 2001. Yet Maris’ son, Roger Maris Jr., has argued that Judge is now the single-season Home Run King. The observant reader will note that McGwire’s 70, Sosa’s 66, and Bonds’ 73 are all greater than Judge’s 62, but Maris Jr. insists that their accomplishments don’t count, and so his father still held the record prior to Judge taking the crown this year.
It’s sweet that Maris Jr. devotes so much time and energy to evangelizing about his father’s heroism. (A cynical observer could also note that dismissing the previous record-breakers as illegitimate helps justify his public platform.) I don’t have an issue with a member of Maris’ family finding ways to advocate for his legacy. The problem is that so many other prominent voices — from national news outlets to well-sourced reporters — around the game agree.
The case for calling Judge the new MLB Home Run King can be summed up in four letters: PEDs. McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa’s gaudy dinger totals were almost certainly fueled by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire was caught and admitted to using steroids in the midst of his 70-homer season; his doping was so widely known at the time that I remember knowing about it as a six-year-old. Sosa was suspected of using PEDs during his career and was alleged in 2009 to have tested positive six years earlier (a result that was supposed to remain anonymous and that he still denies). And of course Bonds tested positive for steroids a year before he hit 73 dingers and has acknowledged using them in 2003. It’s easy to see the appeal of striking known cheaters from the record books.
The problem with dismissing McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa’s feats as illegitimate is that their juicing is considered much more contemptible now than it was at the time. For over a century chemical enhancements were an open secret in baseball, and at times even overtly celebrated, before the Major Leagues’ first formal PED policy was implemented in 2004 — i.e., after each of the three had surpassed Maris’ record. One can fairly note that the Commissioner’s Office considered steroids to be illegal as early as 1991, but there are many things that the league has technically banned but does not even pretend to crack down on: players from different teams fraternizing during a game, base coaches staying in their boxes before each play, and pitchers taking more than 12 seconds to throw the ball, just to name a few. It’s hard to understand McGwire getting caught red-handed with androstenedione in his locker and facing no consequences as anything but the sport condoning his actions. There’s also evidence that the public outrage about Bonds’ juicing was partly driven by his race.
McGwire retired three years before MLB’s first punitive testing plan was implemented. Bonds played into the steroid-testing era and was never punished by MLB. Sosa was suspended in 2003 for using a corked bat but not for anything related to PEDs. This does not mean that doping was the right thing to do or that any of the three would be a good role model. (Bonds in particular has been accused of far worse things than juicing, and viewing such moral questions in a sports framework diminishes their importance.) Yet it’s hard to argue that their accomplishments are illegitimate when the league knew what they were doing and made no contemporaneous effort to intercede.
A more-nuanced corollary to this argument is that, legal or not, these players’ gaudy homer numbers reflect artificial enhancements beyond their personal abilities. It’s hard to disagree with that, but it raises the uncomfortably thorny issue of quantifying how much the chemical assistance helped them. Was it one extra dinger? Six? Forty-two? An intellectually honest attempt to reckon with this question also means opening the Pandora’s Box of other exogenous factors like ballpark size, quality of pitching, and even the bounciness of the ball. Who had a bigger advantage, Mark McGwire with his andro or Ruth batting against only white players in a segregated league? Would a clean Barry Bonds have hit more than 61 homers if he had faced the slower velocities Maris swung against forty years prior? Friend of The Lewsletter Mike Petriello recently argued that Judge’s climb to 60 home runs was harder than any that came before it, and the decades-long trends that apply to this year’s chase apply to some extent for Maris’ other successors, too.
We can’t know for certain that the historic Home Run Kings were clean, either. According to one well-known allegation, Ruth sought an edge from an elixir made with sheep testicles; it made him sick rather than stronger, but (if true) we don’t know that that was his only attempt. I’ve never heard a credible connection between Maris and PEDs, and I am not remotely accusing him of juicing. Having said that, amphetamines were rampant in the sport when he was playing (allegedly including the Yankees roster the year he set the record), and in another circumstances a player who hit 61 homers one season but otherwise never reached even 40 would be looked at with suspicion. Throwing out Maris’ record based on such circumstantial evidence would be ridiculous, but is it paradigmatically different than disregarding the 66 homers Sosa hit in 1998 because he tested positive for a banned substance five years later?
Yet the most ironic thing about insisting Maris was the rightful record-holder before Judge is that, six decades ago, people around baseball were questioning the legitimacy of his achievement. Before 1961, the MLB regular season was 154 games long. It so happened that the schedule expanded to the now-standard 162 games the same year Maris challenged Ruth’s legendary benchmark of 60. Commissioner Ford Frick decreed that a player could be credited with breaking Ruth’s record only if they did so within the first 154 games of the season; Maris did so only in overtime. For 30 years until the asterisk was officially removed, his accomplishment was recognized concurrently with Ruth’s, not above it.
Retconning universal recognition of Maris’ place on top of the leaderboard isn’t just ahistorical. It’s also a perfect demonstration of how small and inconsequential such controversies seem when the stories pass to future generations.
Sixty-one is a sacred number in baseball history. In surpassing it, Aaron Judge has done something remarkable. It could be decades before we see another hitter match what he has done this season, whether in number of home runs or overall offensive output. He deserves better than to hear endless discussions of what he has not achieved. Yet the record is clear about the most home runs ever hit in a season — and it’s not 62.
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