Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is on his way to making history. He has a little less than a month to hit eight home runs, at least: if he does that, he will become the franchise’s single-season home run king, breaking Roger Maris’ record and setting a new American League plateau in the process.
Judge, who homered again on Monday in the New York’s win against the Minnesota Twins, has 54 for the season. He has already eclipsed his own career-high of 52, established in 2017, and is now aiming at making Yankees history.
Judge is currently on pace to break the record, but it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. It’s definitely not a given, like some boring paperwork that a person pushes to get something done. He will have to face elite men on the mound who also frequently pitch around him, as he’s virtually carrying the Yankees by himself. Furthermore, Judge will need to cope with the pressure from media and fans who are expecting him to hit 62 homers or more.
It’s much easier said than done. If we are going to talk about pressure, though, Maris knew all about it. Back in 1961 when he broke the 34-year-old of 60 home runs that belonged to the legendary Babe Ruth, society was quite different than it is today.
Maris wasn’t built to deal with the media: he was an introverted man who grew up in North Dakota and just wanted to play baseball. The former set him apart from his teammate and friend, Mickey Mantle, a matinee idol and already a budding legend in his own right. “The Mick” was much more charismatic than his seemingly awkward teammate, and had the seal of approval from fans and most media members to go for the record himself.
At the time, people generally felt that a guy like Maris wasn’t worthy of holding the single-season home run record. They didn’t think he measured up to Ruth or Mantle’s standard, and he continually received hate mail and death threats. Maris was under so much stress that his hair began to fall out. His son, Kevin, recently discussed his father’s tiresome pursuit in with MLB.com’s Bill Ladson:
The pressure that dad had day-in and day-out — New York had a ton of papers back in the day ... Dad would sit there for hours pinned up in his locker, just giving answers to reporters. They would ask him the same questions day-in and day-out.
Some interviews from back then have been preserved, like the one below with Maris and longtime Yankees announcer Mel Allen. It was difficult for him to talk about at the time, and it’s hard to miss the weariness in his voice.
In addition to all the pressure, the comments on the streets, and the incessant media attention, Maris had to endure people telling him that his record, if achieved, wouldn’t be fully valid if it was done in more than 154 games.
In 1961, the American League expanded its calendar to 162 games, and it took Maris the full slate to surpass Ruth on the season’s final day, October 1st. Commissioner Ford Frick said that any 162-game record should have an asterisk attached to it, and while it was never formally put into the record books, Maris’ achievement sparked a hotly-contested debate around baseball about the legitimacy of his feat.
Maris’ incredible power performance earned him his second consecutive MVP award. The lefty hit .269 with the 61 round-trippers, 141 RBIs, 132 runs, 366 total bases and a .993 OPS.
To the contrary of what some people believe, Maris and Mantle were actually friends and shared an apartment in Queens during that iconic 1961 season. They were also roommates on the road and had a friendly rivalry while chasing Ruth’s record. Unfortunately, Mantle was hospitalized with an abscessed hip after a flu shot he had received late in the season, and got stuck in 54 dingers.
Regardless of what the critics said about Maris’ record, it stood strong for 37 years. He had come through, and despite the adversity, he was in possession of one of the most revered records in professional sports.
Sadly, Maris did not have all that long to enjoy his time on the mountaintop. Cancer took him away from us in 1985, less than 25 years after his remarkable season. As the decades have gone by, we have learned to appreciate the dimensions of his accomplishments, achieved in very difficult circumstances.
In 1998, both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa comfortably eclipsed his 61 homers, as the former established the new record, with 70. Barry Bonds would smash it three years later, with 73. Although all those players have been tied to the use of PEDs, it’s hard to forget about McGwire’s touching tribute to Maris’ family in 1998.
Judge won’t have to deal with such an extreme situation as he chases the record, but it will still be stressful and extremely difficult. Some even say that he will be the single-season home run king if he gets to 62 or more, because Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, the only men who have eclipsed Maris’ output, are connected to PEDs. That, of course, is a debate for another day. For now, we get to enjoy true greatness in the form of a home run chase. Will Judge deliver? As Ladson noted, Maris’ family wouldn’t be opposed to that.
We may be witnesses of one of the most impactful moments in MLB’s recent history if Judge keeps hitting homers at his current pace. If it happens, it will be a perfect time to remember one of greatest feats ever accomplished by a man in pinstripes — and all that it took to get there.