So Aaron Judge sits atop the American League record books for most home runs hit in a single season—62, breaking fellow Yankee Roger Maris’ 60-plus-year record. And by all accounts, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Michael Conforto, a former outfielder for the New York Mets, had this to say about Judge: “He’s huge but he’s one of the nicest guys that you’ll meet. And you kind of don’t expect that from such a big guy. That was my first impression, that he’s super nice. Kind of a gentle giant.” And despite Roger Maris’s son sitting in the stands alongside Judge’s own mom, game after game, waiting to see if history would be made, Judge never lost his cool. Or his hair, unlike Roger Maris.
In 1961, NY Yankee outfielder Roger Maris was engaged in a race with teammate Mickey Mantle to see who would beat Babe Ruth’s all-time-best 60 home runs in a season record. On October 1, in game 162, Maris blasted one over the left-field wall to hit number 61. (Mantle finished at a mere 58.) The stress of pursuing Ruth was so great at times that Maris admitted his hair would fall out in clumps.
Yet a celebration of this signal achievement was almost immediately followed by a qualification: It took Maris more games to get to 60 than it did Babe Ruth to get to 60: 162 to Ruth’s 154. And even more than that to pass the Babe. So even before the record had been broken, baseball commissioner Ford Frick and sportswriter Dick Young suggested the idea of the asterisk— if Maris got into the record books as the hitter of the most home runs in a season, that 61 should sport an asterisk denoting the longer season in which he played. (The asterisk never appeared, however, although the Guinness Book of World Records did make a distinction for years.)
But that was then and this is the post-steroids era. When news finally broke of Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s PED use and the affect “juicing” had on their respective record-breaking home run performances, the specter of the asterisk began haunting the record books again. And of course, when Barry Bonds shattered every home run record, including Hank Aaron’s astounding career total of 714, that same pesky wart on the buttocks of sports achievement popped up once again.
Here’s the problem with the asterisk game: Where do you stop? You can make the argument that cheaters shouldn’t prosper. McGwire and Sosa never had seasons like they enjoyed in 1998 and 1999 before they reportedly began using PEDs, nor after, so it would be hard to argue against the idea that verboten substances had given them an unfair advantage over competitors who relied only on steak and black coffee. But were they really the only ones who were on the stuff? Is it possible the use of PEDs like steroids, which McGwire finally admitted to, was much more pervasive than anyone would at the time admit or, at least from our vantage point, can prove? Is it possible they faced pitchers who were on something, just never caught? Moreover, is it conceivable that using PEDs in and of itself is no guarantee of record-breaking “enhancement”?
It’s hardly controversial to state that Barry Bonds would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer had he never taken anything more powerful than a Flintstone’s vitamin. And that’s the tragedy. Bonds wasn’t satisfied with being merely great. He had to be the very best. Between 1991 and 2001, when he hit his record 73 homers, Bonds gained more than 40 pounds. But can you say definitively that 40 pounds is the difference between being great and being the best? Certainly there are 228-pound center fielders who are never going to hit 53 home runs, never mind 73. If mere power is all you need to hit balls over walls, every winner of the annual Strongman competitions would be drafted as designated hitters. What of reflexes and eye-hand coordination?
When Willie Mays, arguably the best all-around baseball player the sport ever fielded, entered the game, he was 5’11” and 160 pounds; he would top out at 180 by the time he was playing for the NY Mets. By today’s standards, not a big guy. Yet he would go on to hit 660 home runs. (The debate rages as to whether he would have hit more had he been able to stay in Brooklyn instead of being moved to windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco.) Would 40 extra pounds have boosted that total significantly? Couldn’t you also argue that the extra bulk would’ve messed with his mechanics and made his movements more awkward and hinky? Oh for the days when coaches forbid professional athletes from lifting weights for fear it would make them “musclebound”!
Jim Bouton’s 1970 tell-all bestseller Ball Four exposed the PED of choice in his day: greenies, or amphetamines, which was backed up by none other than Pete Rose in a 1979 Playboy interview. Rumors of speed use had been heard before then, all the way back to the end of WWII, at which time returning pilots were supposed to have introduced the nervous-making drug to the sport. While speed was never going to add muscle to your frame, you could certainly make the argument that it enhanced your aforementioned reflexes and hand-eye coordination. (And let’s face it, when it comes to cheating as cheating, what of pitchers who were infamous for adding spit and tar to their throws?)
Consider this: When talk began of adding that asterisk to Maris’ 61, did no one consider that it could just as easily have been added to Ruth’s 60? Here’s how it could legitimately have read: 60 *Never had to hit against Satchel Paige. Or Smokey Joe Williams. Or Ray Brown. All superstar pitchers in the Negro Leagues at the time. So if we’re going to go down this road, let’s pave it right: Put an asterisk after every Major League record achieved before April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his MLB debut. The players of the Negro Leagues were some of the best of their generation—including those playing in the MLB. Not having to compete against them gave white MLB players an advantage of a sort, no? At least it made doing their job easier.
For this and other reasons, we should put the talk of asterisks to rest. A man stands at the plate 60 feet, 6 inches from the center of the pitcher’s mound. He makes contact with the pitch. The ball goes over the wall. If we’re going to stand judge as to the legitimacy of each and every such feat, there will be no end of it. Let the records stand as they are. (And put ’em all in the Hall of Fame, too. Include an exhibit that explains the “steroid era,” and then let God, and the fans’ common sense, sort em out.)
So back to Aaron Judge. One of the reasons it has been such a joy to watch his march to the history books is that it has given us all a palate-cleansing. At least as far as American League records go. No talk of asterisks. No more open questions. No more whispers. As far as anyone can tell: He’s clean. And nice. And it’s been a blessing to watch.