Aaron Judge is a baseball player as Michelangelo might have conceived of one. He looms over 6½ feet tall and packs his New York Yankees pinstripes with 282 pounds of lean muscle. He could be a Roman monument but for the cobra quickness with which he whips his bat through the strike zone. When Judge hits the ball squarely, as he is doing frequently this season, a home run seems the mildest of possibilities. Orbit does not feel out of the question.
Similar things were said in a long-ago summer of a taciturn ballplayer from Fargo, N.D., named Roger Maris. Though he was built on a less titanic scale, at 6 feet tall and nearly 200 athletic pounds, Maris was a fearsome figure in the Age of Eisenhower, and he shared with Judge the sort of eyes that can read the caliber on a passing bullet.
In the 1960 season, his first with the Yankees, Maris delivered a magnificent all-around performance, winning a Gold Glove for his defense in right field while leading his league in slugging percentage. He was named the American League’s most valuable player. But only dedicated fans remember that. Because the following season was an epic that overshadowed everything.
More than 60 years later, Judge is launching home runs with the power of a howitzer and closing in on a record that defined Maris in ways both good and ill. With 54 homers and 27 regular-season games left to play, Judge is a good bet to hit more than 61 — the number Maris hit in the year he broke the favorite mark of baseball’s most celebrated hero.
Maris started the 1961 season epitomizing the idea that baseball was a matter of running down flyballs, stretching singles into doubles, bunting cleanly and knocking the occasional home run. But there were so many of those occasions as 1961 unfolded that Maris discovered a less appealing aspect of his beloved sport. Especially in those days, when baseball was truly the national pastime, the sport was also infected by myth, hype and convenient fictions.
No one was more mythologized than George Herman Ruth Jr., Zeus of the baseball pantheon, the Babe, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. Among the White men who were allowed to compete in Major League Baseball between the world wars, Babe Ruth was unquestionably the greatest player and the greatest celebrity, star of the greatest team in the greatest city of the greatest nation on Earth.
When the mythmakers summed that greatness into a single number, it was 60, the tally of home runs Ruth hit for the storybook Yankees of 1927. And here was this kid from nowhere, this upstart, this nobody who “couldn’t carry Ruth’s jock” — in the scornful words of Rogers Hornsby, a brilliant hitter turned mean old cuss — daring to challenge the myth by erasing that record.
In 1973 and 1974, Henry “Hank” Aaron of the Atlanta Braves received death threats as he chased down Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs. The scorn and animosity Maris experienced were less violent — but Maris was less resilient than the mighty Aaron. When, at 2:42 p.m. on Oct. 1, 1961, Maris turned on an outside fastball from Boston’s Tracy Stallard and drove it into the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium, he felt little joy at his 61st home run of the season — only relief that his ordeal was over.
Or so he hoped. The rest of his fine career failed to measure up to this season of audacity, and Maris never really put 1961 behind him. He finished his days in Florida, endlessly watching old films of himself, wondering where the power came from and where it went.
No one is angry at Aaron Judge, thank goodness. His home runs don’t dismay — they delight. If, as seems likely, he blows past 61, he will have the Yankees club record for homers in a season and the highest total outside the steroid era. As I write this, Judge has lately been hitting a dinger per game.
My father, who believed in the baseball of hard running and clean bunts, raised me to appreciate Roger Maris. He spent his last seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals — Dad’s favorite team — and collected his third World Series ring. To be a Maris fan, one must find joy in the breaking of records, and I do. We can never have too much magnificence, too much aspiration, too much achievement.
In Aaron Judge, we see the human embodiment not of perfection (which is unattainable) but of improvement. If he can do better, perhaps I can, too. And that is cause for happiness because it is cause for hope.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated where Roger Maris lived following his retirement from professional baseball. He lived in Florida and is buried in North Dakota. This version has been corrected.