Aaron Judge, like Hemingway’s definition of a great novelist, competes only with the dead. As we post this piece, Judge leads the league in Home Runs, Runs Batted In, Runs Scored, Total Bases, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Average, and a bunch of other categories that sound like they were invented by characters on The Big Bang Theory. Most spectacular, of course, is the Yankee outfielder’s 55-home-run mark, a whopping 19 dingers ahead of second-place Kyle Schwarber, of the Phillies. Judge is having the kind of season where any stat he’s not leading the league in doesn’t matter.
There’s no doubt that Judge is the leading candidate for the American League MVP, even in a season where Shohei Ohtani, of the Angels, has hit 33 home runs and pitched 136 innings to win 11 games with a 2.58 ERA.
As of today, the Yankees are currently leading the AL East by 4.5 games and are headed for the playoffs (despite their dismal performance since the All-Star Game). Without Judge, they would be more like the fourth-place Baltimore Orioles (10.5 games out of first place), wondering if they’d have any shot at catching the third-place Toronto Blue Jays.
Aaron Judge isn’t competing with his contemporaries. This season he’s up against the all-time greats: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and, yes, Babe Ruth.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
With 24 games to go (including tonight’s game), Judge is six short of Roger Maris’s 1961 American League record of 61 home runs; MLB.com’s home run tracker currently projects that he will hit 64. (Ruth, hitting 60 homers in 154 games, sent one out of the park every 2.56 games—if Judge actually hits 64 in 162 games, that will have him going yard at the slightly better pace of one every 2.53 games.)
Many baseball fans hesitate when asked who holds the AL record; it takes a few seconds to recall that the steroid-pumped sluggers Mark McGwire (70 in 1998, 65 the next year), Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 64 in 2001), and Barry Bonds (73 in 2001) were all National Leaguers. Maris is the only AL player to ever surpass 60, the record set by Babe Ruth in 1927.
Many fans, too, would just as soon forget that brief era, and blanch at the thought of any or all of them being elected to the Hall of Fame—all three have been eligible for several seasons now, but HOF voters have so far decided that taking performance-enhancing drugs is a disqualifier.
If the thought of a steroid cheat being a home-run king disgusts you, then Maris is your man. Roger played his entire career (12 seasons altogether, 7 with the Yankees) without a shred of controversy … except for that asterisk. (See archive story, below.)
The Maris asterisk was so hard to kill precisely because it never existed in the first place. It was a self-perpetuating myth. As the newspaperman in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” If Judge sets a new record, he’ll be regarded by many as baseball’s real all-time home run champ, the man who did it all without a boost from PEDs. He will also free Roger Maris once and for all from the myth of the asterisk—and, with luck, he can tie that asterisk around the necks of McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds. ❖
For those of you too young to remember, here’s a story I wrote for the Voice in 2011, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maris surpassing the Babe’s 1927 record of 60 home runs, in 1961.
Phil Pepe’s superb new book, 1961: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase (Triumph Books, $20.00) is the best thing yet written—or likely to be written—about the amazing season 50 years ago which captivated the country.
Pepe dispels several myths about the legendary pursuit of Ruth’s 60 home runs by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, one of them being that the two were hostile rivals. In fact, Mantle admired his quiet, reserved teammate and actually shared an apartment with him (also with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv) in an effort to get his own life in order. Later in the season, Mickey rooted hard from his hospital bed for Maris to break the record.
Another myth Pepe tried to bust is the myth of the asterisk that was supposedly placed after Maris’s accomplishment in the record books. Sunday’s Daily News included an excerpt from 1961 in which Pepe states the case for the asterisk that never was:
There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
The myth that an asterisk was used to denote that Roger Maris needed expansion and a longer schedule of games to exceed Ruth’s single-season home run record has been perpetuated in story on and film. But it’s not true. It never was. There never was an asterisk. What there was for almost 50 years, however, were two entries in baseball’s official record books, as such:
Most Home Runs, Season.
61 Roger E. Maris, AL: NY, 1961 (162 G/S)
60 George H. Ruth, AL. NY, 1927.
So there was no asterisk on the books.
Pepe’s account is mostly correct, but I want to add a couple of things. I’ve been fighting the myth of the asterisk for years. First, in the 1996 book That’s Not The Way It Was or (Almost) Everything They Told You About Sports Is Wrong and then in my 2002 book, Clearing The Bases, The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century. In the latter I wrote:
That anyone ever thought there was an asterisk is at least as much the fault of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young as of Commissioner Ford Frick. Frick worshiped Ruth and was at his bedside the day before he died (and made much of that in interviews and after-dinner speeches). Maris had the bad luck to have his greatest season in 1961 at a time when Frick was commissioner of baseball. As early as July 17, when Maris and several sluggers were ahead of Babe Ruth’s 1927 pace, Frick, apparently distressed that the new 162-game season would give someone an unfair crack at Ruth’s record, called a press conference and issued this ruling:
“Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”
In his biography of Maris, Roger Maris, A Man for All Seasons, my late New Jersey neighbor Maury Allen got it right. Dick Young, he said, called out loud “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.”
What Pepe and other baseball historians haven’t understood is that Frick’s statement was not a ruling but merely an opinion: Frick had no power whatsoever to make a ruling on the subject. To put it simply, he was grandstanding. What escaped most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to escape the sports media today, is that major league baseball had no “official” record book and didn’t have one until Total Baseball got the job in the late 1990s. So, in essence, Frick was trying to pressure publishers over whom he had no authority to print his version of the Maris/Ruth home run chase.
No matter how many games Ruth and Maris played, it should be noted that Maris hit his 60th home run in his 684th plate appearance, while Ruth didn’t reach 60 until he had had 689.
What everyone seems to have forgotten is that Frick himself denied that the asterisk ever existed. The reason is that practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography, published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” He failed to mention that there was no “official” record and that some record books chose to list the record for “Most Home Runs Season” the way Pepe related, but several more (including Gillette’s record book) did not. Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us that “His [Maris’s] record was set in a 162- game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.”
Frick’s denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from fans’ memories. In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record.
Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk than Vincent’s “removal” of it.
I don’t know if the combined efforts of Pepe, Frick, Vincent, and myself are ever going to convince the fans that there never was an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s name in the record books. But here are a few observations:
One, no matter how many games Ruth and Maris played, it should be noted that Maris hit his 60th home run in his 684th plate appearance, while Ruth didn’t reach 60 until he had had 689. Two, there was an oft-repeated theory by sportswriters who didn’t like Maris that Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch was responsible for many of Maris’s “cheap” home runs. The right field fence at Yankee Stadium was as short or shorter in Ruth’s time, but it was simply assumed that Ruth, who hit home runs longer than Maris did, didn’t need a short porch. In any event, Maris actually hit 30 home runs in Yankee Stadium that season and 31 in all other American League ballparks.
On second thought, what has probably perpetuated the myth of the asterisk more than anything else for this generation’s fans is Billy Crystal’s wonderful 2001 film, 61*, which, after Bull Durham, gets my nod as the best baseball film ever made. I’ll give Crystal a pass for making the mistake, but as far as everyone else is concerned, it’s time to dispense with the notion of the asterisk and recognize Maris for what he did. ❖
* There never was one.
Allen Barra is a longtime contributor to the Voice. He writes regularly for the Daily Beast, the New Republic, and the National Book Review. He is the author of several books, including Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee and Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.