Aaron Judge, like Hemingway’s definition of a great novelist, only rivals the dead. As of this writing, Judge leads the league in home runs, hits scored, runs scored, total on-bases, on-base percentage, slugging average and a slew of other categories which seem to have been 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 past Phillies second Kyle Schwarber. Judge has the kind of season where any stat in which he doesn’t lead the league doesn’t matter.
There’s no question Judge is the top contender for American League MVP, even in a season where the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani hit 33 homers and pitched 136 innings to win 11 games with a 2.58 ERA. .
To date, the Yankees currently lead the AL East by 4.5 games and are heading to the playoffs (despite their lackluster performance since the All-Star Game). Without Judge, they’d be more like the fourth-place Baltimore Orioles (10.5 games out of first place), wondering if they’d have a chance of catching the third-place Toronto Blue Jays.
Aaron Judge is not in competition with his contemporaries. This season, he faces the greatest of all time: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and, yes, Babe Ruth.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
With 24 games to play (including tonight’s game), Judge is six shy of Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 homers in 1961; MLB.com’s home run tracker currently predicts 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 to the yard at the slightly better rate of one every 2.53 games.)
Many baseball fans hesitate when asked who holds the AL record; it takes seconds to recall that steroid-packed punchers Mark McGwire (70 in 1998, 65 the following year), Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 64 in 2001) and Barry Bonds (73 in 2001) were all domestic leaguers. Maris is the only AL player to turn 60, the record set by Babe Ruth in 1927.
Many fans, too, would just as quickly forget that brief time 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 idea of a steroid cheater being a home run king sickens you, then Maris is your man. Roger has played his entire career (12 seasons in total, 7 with the Yankees) without the slightest controversy… except for that asterisk. (See archive story below.)
Asterisk Maris was so difficult to kill precisely because he never existed in the first place. It was a self-perpetuating myth. Like John Ford’s reporter The man who shot Liberty Valance says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” If Judge sets a new record, he will be seen by many as the baseball player real all-time home run champion, the man who did it all without the boost of PEDs. It will also free Roger Maris from the asterisk mythos once and for all, and hopefully he can tie that asterisk around the necks of McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds. ❖
For those of you who are too young to remember, here is a story I wrote for the Voice in 2011, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maris breaking Babe’s 1927 record of 60 homers, in 1961.
Roger Maris and the myth of the asterisk
by Allen Barra
June 27, 2011
Phil Pepe’s superb new book, 1961: The Inside Story of Maris-Mantle’s House Hunt (Triumph Books, $20.00) is the best thing yet written – or likely to be written – about the incredible season 50 years ago that captivated the country.
Pepe dispels several myths about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ legendary 60-home run pursuit of Ruth, one of them being that the two were hostile rivals. In fact, Mantle looked up to 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 heavily from his hospital bed for Maris to break the record.
Another myth that Pepe has tried to bust is the myth of the asterisk which was placed after Maris’ achievement in the record books. Sundays Daily News includes an excerpt from 1961 in which Pepe states the case of the asterisk that never was:
There was no asterisk. Not then. Not now. Never.
The myth that an asterisk was used to indicate that Roger Maris needed expansion and a longer game schedule to surpass Ruth’s single-season home run record has been perpetuated in history and the film. But this is not true. It never was. There was never an asterisk. What there have been for almost 50 years, however, are two entries in the official baseball records, as such:
Most circuits, season.
61 Roger E. Maris, AL: NY, 1961 (162 G/S)
60 George H. Ruth, AL. New York, 1927.
So there was no asterisk on the books.
Pepe’s story is generally correct, but I want to add a few things. I have been fighting the asterisk myth for years. First, in the 1996 book It’s not like that or (almost) everything they told you about sports is wrong then in my 2002 book, Clean the Bases, Baseball’s Greatest Debates of the Century. In it 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 Commissioner Ford Frick. Frick adored Ruth and was at her bedside the day before she died (and made a big deal of it in interviews and after-dinner speeches). Maris had the misfortune to have his finest season in 1961 when Frick was baseball commissioner. As early as July 17, with Maris and several sluggers ahead of Babe Ruth’s pace in 1927, Frick, apparently distressed that the new 162-game season would give someone an unfair chance to break Ruth’s record, summoned a press conference and rendered this decision:
“Any player who hit more than 60 home runs in his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having set a new record. However, if the player does not reach over 60 before that club has played 154 games, there would need to be a distinguishing mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set according to a schedule of 154 matches.
In his biography of Maris, Roger Maris, a man for all seasons, my late neighbor from New Jersey, Maury Allen, was right. Dick Young, he said, shouted aloud “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everyone does that when there’s a difference of opinion.
What Pepe and other baseball historians failed to understand was that Frick’s statement was not a decision but simply an opinion: Frick had no authority to make a decision on the matter. To put it simply, he was awesome. What eluded most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to elude the sports media today, is that Major League Baseball had no record books.” official” 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 homer in his 684th plate appearance, while Ruth only reached 60 having had 689.
What everyone seems to have forgotten is that Frick himself denied the asterisk ever existed. The reason is that hardly anyone remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography, published by Crown in 1973, Games, asterisks and people. “No asterisk”, he wrote, “appears in the official record in connection with this achievement.” He failed to mention that there was no “official” record and that some record books chose to list the “Most Home Runs Season” record as Pepe recounted, but several others ( including the Gillette Book of Records) did not. Frick, however, couldn’t help but remind us that “His [Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. Ruth’s record of 60 homers was set in 1927 during 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 saying he supported “The Single Record Thesis”, meaning that Maris held the record for most circuits in one season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’ record.
Thus, a baseball commissioner voiced support for removing an asterisk that a former commissioner denied ever putting there in the first place. Probably nothing has done more to reinforce the myth of the existence of the asterisk than its “removal” by Vincent.
I don’t know if the combined efforts of Pepe, Frick, Vincent and myself will ever succeed in convincing fans that there was never an asterisk next to Roger Maris’ name in the record books. But here are some observations:
First, 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 only reached 60 having had 689. Second, there was a theory from sportswriters who disliked Maris that Yankee Stadium’s small right porch was responsible for many of Maris’ “cheap” home runs. The right-field fence at Yankee Stadium was as short or shorter in Ruth’s day, but it was just assumed that Ruth, who hit home runs longer than Maris, didn’t need a short porch. Regardless, Maris actually hit 30 home runs at Yankee Stadium that season and 31 at every other American League stadium.
On second thought, what has probably perpetuated the myth of the asterisk more than anything else for fans of this generation is the wonderful 2001 Billy Crystal film, 61*who, after Bull Durham, gets my nod as the best baseball movie ever made. I’ll give Crystal a pass for making the mistake, but as far as everyone else is concerned, it’s time to ditch the notion of the asterisk and acknowledge Maris for what he did. ❖
Allen Barra is a longtime contributor to the Voice. He writes regularly for the daily beastthe New Republic, and the national book review. He is the author of several books, including Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee and Mickey and Willie: Parallel Lives from the Golden Age of Baseball.
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