Aaron Judge put a definitive stamp on one of the great single-season performances by any hitter in baseball history on Tuesday night, smashing his 62nd home run of the year to eclipse Roger Maris’s long-standing American League record and topple one of the most hallowed numbers in all of sports.
Before a crowd at Globe Life Field buzzing in anticipation, the New York Yankees slugger drove a 1-1 slider from Texas Rangers right-hander Jesús Tinoco into the left field seats to lead off the top of the first inning in the second game of a day-night doubleheader. Having bested Babe Ruth’s total of 60 for the 1927 Yankees six days ago, Judge finally surpassed Maris’s 61 in the penultimate game of the regular season – exactly 61 years after his predecessor set the mark for the 1961 Yankees.
Few records have endured in the American sporting consciousness like Maris’s 61 home runs. Although the number was topped six times in the National League at the height of baseball’s steroid era – by Barry Bonds (the official major-league standard bearer with 73 in 2001), Mark McGwire (70 in 1998, 65 in 1999) and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 64 in 2001 and 63 in 1999) – the Maris mark has stood the test of time in the American League since he famously chased down Ruth’s 60 on the final day of the season. And Maris’s record has stood untainted by the specter of performance-enhancing drugs that loomed over the game at the turn of the millennium, leading some to consider it the legitimate single-season record.
The stress of chasing down Ruth’s mark was so taxing that it famously, perhaps apocryphally, led to Maris’s hair falling out in clumps. While Judge’s pursuit was far less stressful on the surface – he’s handled the ceremony and media barrage of often repetitive questions with an uncommon professionalism and grace throughout the extended final stretch – the fortnight it took him to equal Ruth and then Maris before going clear of them both offered a callback to the difficulty of getting over the final hurdles.
He had gone nearly two months since taking a day off – a 5 August game at St Louis was his last day out of the lineup – and the mounting fatigue had taken a visible toll on his mechanics. Still, Judge came to bat 53 times after hitting his 60th homer two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, reaching base 27 times for a .509 on-base percentage amid the elevating pressure. Opposing pitchers, no doubt wanting to avoid becoming a trivia-question answer, have foisted a steady diet of down-and-away pitches on Judge rather than the inside fare he’s dined out on throughout his banner year. Indeed, Tuesday’s record-breaker came on an 88mph slider that hung a bit too high over the plate.
“I think it’s been a lot,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on Sunday, after Judge managed just one hit in 13 plate appearances in this weekend’s three-week series against Baltimore at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily worn him down any more than just it’s that time of year that it is. I’m sure on some level, he wants to get it done and get it over with, but I don’t think that’s something that’s weighed on him too much.”
But now, after a wait, it is accomplished. And remarkably, the 30-year-old Judge’s record may go down as a footnote in the scope of his larger body of work this year. He’s vying to become the first Triple Crown winner in a decade – and only the second in 55 years – having almost single-handedly led his team to first place in baseball’s toughest division. He leads the majors with 131 runs batted in with a .311 batting average that’s only a few points behind Minnesota’s Luis Arraez, the AL leader at .315. The next most home runs in the majors after Judge’s 62? Kyle Schwarber’s 46 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Judge is also the AL leader in runs scored, bases on balls, total bases, extra base hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and WAR, for those keeping score at home.
And he’s doing it all in a season where he bet on himself, turning down a seven-year, $213.5m contract extension because he was confident he was worth more. That will prove to be a good call when he almost certainly signs one of the richest deals in baseball history this winter. Among the first to offer congratulations was US president Joe Biden, who wrote: “History made, more history to make.”
When Ruth set the major-league record with his 60th homer in 1927, he was hardly shy about leaning into the sense that it would stand for a long time. “Sixty!” he yelled, according to several biographers. “Count ‘em, 60! Let’s see some other son of a bitch match that!” When the far more modest Maris finally overtook him, the sport’s gatekeepers did everything in their power to deny him the accomplishment, even slapping an official asterisk on the record – one that was finally removed decades later – to denote that he achieved it over 161 games as opposed to Ruth’s 154.
Now they have both given way to this mountain of a man at 6ft 7in and 282lbs, a pinstripe-clad marriage of Ruth’s brutish physicality and Maris’s self-effacing comportment. For nearly more than a century, the American League mark has called the Bronx home and there it will most likely remain for years to come.