The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The sanctimonious baseball purists want to elevate Aaron Judge. Don’t let them.

Aaron Judge and Barry Bonds. (Adam Hunger/AP and Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/AP) (AP)
5 min

Because of historical denialism, it was reported in some places that New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge on Tuesday broke Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record with his 62nd blast. He didn’t. The record is 73, set by should-be Hall of Fame outfielder Barry Bonds on Oct. 7, 2001. Much of the sports journalism profession should regret the error.

But it is not surprising that the keepers of the sport have not made this clear. They rarely do. Over the years, they’ve selectively disguised dishonesty in baseball under the cloak of folklore and corrected the record only under duress.

Cap Anson’s Hall of Fame plaque venerates him as the greatest hitter and player-manager of the 19th century but ignores his role establishing the game’s color line. Many around the game still celebrate Babe Ruth as the greatest player and slugger despite his excelling during the 60 years when Black athletes weren’t allowed to play the game — under a racist policy spearheaded by Anson that the game’s historians neutered in description as a mere “gentlemen’s agreement.”

For half a century, the game celebrated Bobby Thomson’s 1951 walk-off, pennant-winning home run for the New York Giants as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” until Joshua Prager exposed in the Wall Street Journal in 2001 that a Giants coach with a handheld telescope stole signals and electronically relayed to the batter what pitch he would be thrown.

Aaron Judge hits home run No. 62 to pass Roger Maris’s single-season mark

And now much of baseball’s cognoscenti would have you believe Roger Maris has been the home run king, given the 61 homers he hit in 1961 — one more than Ruth smacked in 1927 against all-White competition — though if Maris accomplished his feat during a later era, it might have raised all manner of suspicion. After all, it was an anomaly of a season for Maris; he tallied one-and-a-half times as many home runs as he had or would in any other campaign of his career. It also came during a season when Yankees superstar Mickey Mantle was forced out of part of the pennant race by an infection he suffered after being injected by Max Jacobson, a doctor described at the time as an amphetamine dispenser, a quack. Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” said the injection was described as a “vitamin” shot. Speculation over the years suggested the shot was a cocktail of steroids and amphetamines, but Leavy said she did not believe it contained either.

New York Yankees star Aaron Judge became the most prolific single-season home run hitter who did not play in baseball's steroid era on Oct. 5 in Arlington, Tex. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post, Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images/The Washington Post)

But somehow, some way, Maris and Mantle, Thomson and Ruth, and all those who’ve excelled in between and around them — except for Bonds and a few of his peers — still pass baseball’s purity test. They accomplished what they accomplished, but Bonds somehow did not, according to the baseball intelligentsia and its manufactured sense of holiness about a game for which so many records are built upon a reality as sturdy as a heap of sawdust.

If there has ever been a sport more sanctimonious than baseball, I don’t know it. The keepers of the game have found more religion than the greatest evolutionary anthropologists.

Many of their targets committed supposed crimes against the game — not crimes against humanity, like those committed by the crooks and violent offenders, including Klansmen, who are among baseball’s honored.

Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader, is still held out of the Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball, but the other greatest hitter in the game — Ty Cobb, also a jerk by all accounts — was commemorated in the inaugural class in 1936 despite being implicated in a game-fixing scheme years earlier.

Gaylord Perry was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 despite admitting in his 1974 memoir, “Me and the Spitter,” that he illegally doctored the ball with spit, Vaseline or K-Y jelly.

As John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, told the New York Times years ago: “Plaster saints is not what we have in the Hall of Fame. Many were far from moral exemplars.”

John Feinstein: Aaron Judge is chasing real history, not Barry Bonds’s phony version

The perpetration of Bonds as an unworthy holder of the home run title — single-season and all-time — didn’t begin when his former wife accused him of physical abuse. It didn’t commence when he was sentenced for misleading a grand jury investigating charges of steroid use. It began when he was anointed the leader in the steroid era clubhouse, an era that lasted who knows how long but probably not as long as baseball’s Jim Crow era. The national nausea was summed up perhaps most disturbingly by now-retired longtime sports columnist Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who wrote upon Bonds’s successful ascent: “It is now officially a national day of mourning. Black bunting should hang from every ballpark in America. A riderless black horse, its saddle empty, its stirrups filled by a pair of Hank Aaron’s cleats turned backward, should be led around every warning track tonight. The greatest record in sports has fallen to a liar and a cheat.”

But all Bonds did was what the others before him did: He was the best among his contemporaries, no matter what theoretical ills defined that contemporary period. Unless and until those before him are so cited, the game’s keepers haven’t a leg to stand on in disqualifying Bonds. To do so is the height of disingenuousness.

Judge pointed out as much as he approached Maris’s mark.

“[Bonds’s 73 is] the record,” Judge told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “I watched him do it. I stayed up late watching him do it. That’s the record. No one can take that from him.”

Still, some of those Judge spoke to will try to diminish Bonds. They will ignore Judge’s observation, no matter how truthful, to continue maybe the greatest tradition in baseball — upholding the mythology of its greatest mileposts.