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VOL. 46 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 16, 2022

Judge not: I’m hoping my hero’s record will stand

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New York Yankees Roger Maris swings through his record-setting 61st home run Oct. 1, 1961, in the fourth inning of the game with the Boston Red Sox. The homer broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60. Now another Yankee, Aaron Judge, is threatening to surpass Maris’ total. If he does, it would be a new Yankee record. Others surpassed it during the steroid era.

-- Ap Photo

One of the biggest storylines for Major League Baseball this year is whether New York Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge can top the 61 home runs hit by Yankee Roger Maris in 1961, 61 years ago. (How’s that for numerical symmetry?)

I’d rather Judge didn’t. Or, if he has by the time you read this, I’d rather he hadn’t. Roger Maris was my very first hero.

There are those – and I’m among them – who still consider Maris’ total the real Major League record. The five times it’s been surpassed all involved players whose accomplishments were chemically augmented.

Judge is an apparent force of nature rather than of test tubes. At 6-foot-7, 280, he does not need artificial enhancement. But his one-man assault can’t compare to the drama of 1961, when two guys – Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle – took aim at a home run record that had stood since 1927: Babe Ruth’s 60.

They became known as the M&M Boys. I hope they cashed in on some lucrative chocolate candy endorsements.

I was then an erratic-armed, light-hitting second baseman in the lowest organized league in town. Maris was a strong-armed, power-hitting Big League right fielder, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, and possessed, in my estimation, of transcendent cool. So, of course I gravitated to him, and pulled for him to break the record.

No disrespect meant to Ruth. But to my 8-year-old self he might as well have played in the 1800s against Abner Doubleday.

My choice of Maris was not the majority opinion. If you’d asked most baseball fans that year who they’d like to see break Ruth’s record, many would have said nobody. Let it stay with the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. If forced to choose, most would have taken Mantle, already a Yankee legend with two MVP awards and a Triple Crown on his ledger.

Maris, despite that MVP win the year before in his first season with the Yankees, was considered something of a Johnny-come-lately by longtime Yankee fans. I was not a longtime Yankee fan. I was brand new and, yes, susceptible to bandwagon charges. So be it.

Though it can’t be true, it seems in retrospect that the Yankees were on the TV Game of the Week, hosted by Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, every Saturday that season. Of course I never missed it. And of course Maris hit a home run every game.

That can’t be true either. But it was a long time ago. Some tales grow with the telling.

I get carried away when I mentally travel to that year, so I started to give you a little bit of the homer back-and-forth between Maris and Mantle after a slow start (only one home run in April) by Maris. I also started to mention the controversy about the “asterisk,” and to write about how the pressure Maris felt led to his hair falling out in clumps and the physical issues that eventually knocked Mantle out of the race.

I won’t. My point is the impression athletes can make on kids, how devoted to the sport those kids can become, and how that devotion can last a lifetime.

How devoted was I then? I once leapt out of a bathtub and ran dripping wet into our living room because I heard Maris doing a commercial for Aqua Velva. My behavior has moderated since then, but not my baseball enthusiasm.

Much about the sport has changed over time, especially finances. Maris made $32,000 in 1961, which works out to about $525 per home run. Even allowing for inflation, that translates to $317,000 a year in today’s money and roughly $5,200 per dinger.

Judge is making $19 million this year. If he were to hit 61 home runs, it would work out to something like $311,000 each.

It’s a fair question whether any athlete deserves the kind of money lavished on them these days. And rest assured that Judge, who is playing out his contract with the Yankees, will make a whole lot more next year, wherever that may be.

I’d rather he stay with the Yankees, but don’t care about the money. I just hope there are a bunch of 8-year-old baseball fans watching Judge this year and, if the opportunity arises, jumping out of bathtubs to see him.

I wonder if Aqua Velva still exists.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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