c/o Ron Jenkins, Getty Images

c/o Ron Jenkins, Getty Images

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge walked up to home plate at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas with the eyes of his mother, 38,832 onlookers, and millions of fans around the world locked on him. He took a breath and stepped into the batter’s box ready to face Texas Rangers pitcher Jesús Tinoco. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Tinoco threw a slider right down the middle of the plate and just as he had done many times before, Judge swung through, getting underneath the ball just enough to send it screaming into the right field bleachers 391 feet away. The second that the ball landed (becoming his 62nd home run of the year), Aaron Judge cemented his name into the record books by hitting more home runs in a single season than any American League player ever has in the organization’s 122-season history. 

If you have been following Judge’s record-breaking campaign, then you know how monumental an accomplishment this is, but if you have not then you might be wondering what is so special about this. In 1927, the Yankees were the biggest story in the sports world, but even bigger was their beloved right fielder, Babe Ruth, who became the first player to ever hit 60 home runs in a season.

“Sixty, count ‘em sixty!” Ruth said after the achievement. “Let’s see some other son of bitch match that!”

A very bold statement by a larger-than-life man, one which was left unanswered for more than 30 years. In ’61 the Yankees were again winning at a superhuman pace, mostly thanks to their two stars, Mickey Mantle and a mild-mannered right fielder named Roger Maris. Mantle and Maris battled all year as both of their home run tallies crept closer to 60. A September injury took Mantle out of the race at 54 home runs and left Maris with a chance at eclipsing “the Babe.” In the final game of the ’61 season, he did just that, hitting his 61st and final home run of the season. He rounded the bases with his head down and reluctantly tipped his cap to the crowd as he ran back to the dugout. Despite the personality differences between Ruth and Maris, both men rose to the top of their game and are posthumously celebrated to this day.

Now whether through pure coincidence or serendipity, we land in 2022 in which Judge, a third Yankees right fielder, is pursuing the title exactly 61 years after Maris hit 61 bombs in ’61. I’m not overly superstitious but this sounds meant to be. As the months went on, progressing into July and August, Judge racked up dingers daily, recording his 50th blast before September. However, as he drew closer to the milestone, the pressure began to build, and he began to slump. Judge entered Oct. 4 with 61 home runs on the year and three games (two on that day) left in the regular season. In the first game of the day, he went one for five with a single, not the result that he or the fans were looking for, but in the next game, Judge led off and Tinoco threw that fateful slider destined for the bleachers.

Now some educated baseball fans might scoff at this feat with the knowledge that in the National League (Major League Baseball consists of two leagues, American and National) there have been several 60-plus home run seasons. Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals was first when he smashed 70 in 1998 and then added 65 a year later, and Sammy Sosa had seasons of 66, 63, and 64 between 1998 and 2001. Then in 2001, Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s recent record by hitting 73 bombs. This sudden burst of unprecedented power seems almost too good to be true, and years later we learned that it was. All three hitters— McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds— were using performance-enhancing drugs during their record-breaking seasons. 

“Aaron Judge is the new CLEAN HOME RUN KING!!”  Roger Maris Jr. said in a tweet the morning after number 62, “All the young kids who watched Aaron Judge set the single season record for home runs… you finally have someone to revere!”

This is a very obvious dig to the steroid-era hitters such as Bonds, as Maris is implying that Bonds and McGwire are not the real home run kings. To some extent, he is right, because Judge is the first player to hit more than 61 home runs without cheating.

More than just playing fair, Judge plays with a level of respect and humility that is rare among stars of his caliber. He plays for a positive team result and considers his individual accomplishments secondary, which makes him extremely easy to root for on and off the baseball field. Because of this, he has garnered praise from sports writers around the world, and the appreciation of millions of fans (myself included).

No image sums it up more than Judge greeting his team when he got to home plate after the record-breaking blast. He hugged each teammate with a sheepish grin on his face as if to say “I still don’t believe it.” Regardless of how improbable his feat is, his 62 home runs are the truth, and Aaron Judge is most definitely the home run king!
Ethan Lee can be reached at ejlee@wesleyan.edu

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