Here come the Judge.
Time to break out that old catchphrase — grammatically iffy — that was all the rage in the Sixties, popularized by the TV sketch comedy “Laugh-In.” It’s thoroughly applicable now that Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge, just short of baseball season’s halfway mark, is on pace to out-do Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961.
Hear ye, hear ye.
Judge hit his 29th home run on June 29, and this advance on Maris’ mark is significant because there are baseball connoisseurs who contend that Maris still holds the true single-season home run record. The argument is that Barry Bonds (who hit 73 in 2001), Mark McGwire (70 in 1998 and 65 in ’99), and Sammy Sosa (63 in ’98 and 66 in ’99), all were tainted by doping, leaving Maris as “legitimate” holder of the sport’s sexiest accomplishment.
Personal flashback: At an eighth-grade graduation party in suburban Los Angeles in June of 1961, several of us awkward 14-year-old boys became easily distracted from pool activities and hesitant attempts to dance with the young lasses because of a transistor-radio news bulletin: Roger Maris had just hit another homer against the local expansion team, the Los Angeles Angels.
At the time, the hallowed standard of 60 homers, set by the mythical Babe Ruth, had been around for 33 years. The closest anyone had come to Ruth over that span were the 58 each by Jimmie Foxx in 1932 and Hank Greenberg in ’38. That Maris and his Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle became engaged in a neck-and-neck chase to challenge that mark was a big deal in 1961, a fascinating rarity.
There have been other such home-run derbies since then, as when McGwire surpassed Maris’ mark 37 years later in 1998 while closely pursued by Sosa. The previous year, in fact, a similar multiple-player quest was afoot, to such an extent that Newsday sent me, mid-summer, to the West Coast in anticipation of a sort of early Louisville Slugger election return.
McGwire, then with the Oakland A’s, and Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr. both had accumulated more homes in mid-July of ’97 than Maris had at the same point of the ’61 season. So had Tino Martinez of the Yankees. Not that any of them wanted to talk about their possibilities.
“It ain’t a movie,” Griffey said.
Except it was, really. Just as a ruling on Judge is now, though the performers then obviously didn’t know any more about how the plot will unfold than the audience does.
“I know you want me to say something interesting,” Martinez said at the time. “But I’m not thinking about that.”
McGwire then: “It’s going to be tough. Really tough.”
Griffey finished with 56 in ’97, Martinez with 44, McGwire — warming up for his 70 the next year — 58, with the odd twist of having been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of July.
Sandy Alderson, the A’s general manager at the time, mused just before the trade that, “No, this is not something that happened to Roger Maris. Start with the premise that trading a player within range of Babe Ruth’s home run record wouldn’t even have been thought of in 1961. It wouldn’t even have been in the realm of possibility.”
But Maris wasn’t about to become a free agent. Alderson also noted, just before the trade, that Oakland had played more games than several other teams, so McGwire “could go to another team and end of playing more than 162 games,” which could prompt what Alderson called a “double asterisk if Mark breaks the record.”
Of course that stirred baseball’s numbers crunchers, still fussing over the fact that Maris’ 61 homers came in the first season that the Majors had expanded schedules from 154 to 162 games. What if McGwire got, say, 164 games? (He wound up with 156 for his 58 homers.)
More “ifs” to chew on. In 1932, rainouts before the fifth inning of two games wiped out two Jimmie Foxx homers, leaving him with 58 instead of a Ruth-tying 60. And Foxx later claimed he was gypped out of a dozen other homers that year by hitting a screen above the right-field fence in St. Louis’ old Sportsman Park, keeping the ball in play. That gripe appeared in rare, and difficult to pin down, accounts that surfaced much later.
Anyway, now we have Judge, who decreed after he walloped №29 that a season’s-end total in the 60s “would be something that’s pretty cool. But I think having a ring on my finger at the end of the year would be even better.”
Meanwhile, then, the Judge watch certainly has appealing drama for baseball aficionados — a reason to study daily box scores (thank you, Henry Chadwick, for that invention in 1858) — as well as grist for readers of the stars (the ones in the sky) and planets.
Might there be something to the fact that Ruth, Maris and Judge all were Yankees? Will Newton’s Second Law of Motion somehow apply? Could the pseudoscientific practice of numerology be helpful, since Ruth wore №3, Maris №9 and Judge wears 99? Something called powerfulmystic8.com declares that, “whether the Prophetic Numbers 3’s and 9’s repeatedly appears in dreams, visions, waking life or synchronicities, it is a sign and message that you are on the right path….”
CBS.com recently polled four of its “baseball experts” whether they believed Judge would get to 60 homes. Two said “no,” one “yes” and the other “I hope so.”
Another recurring line from the old “Laugh-In” works pretty well: Sock it to me.