Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961. And 61 years later, Aaron Judge has become the first American League player to top that mark. On Tuesday night, the New York Yankees outfielder smashed his 62nd homer of the 2022 season in a 3-2 loss at the Texas Rangers.
Judge’s status as the greatest home-run hitter in American League history is unquestioned. But his status as the greatest home-run hitter in Major League Baseball history now needs to be acknowledged, despite the fact that MLB records currently place his feats this year down in seventh spot.
The six that rank above him are shared between former National League stars Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but each of their achievements carry the kind of asterisk which would have seen their records expunged in other sports.
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McGwire and Sosa’s incredible race to overhaul Maris’ long-standing record in 1998 was the subject of the wonderful ESPN documentary ‘Long Gone Summer’. The St Louis Cardinals’ McGwire and Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, shared a season-long battle to reach the hallowed 62. When McGwire eventually made it to the new milestone – against Sosa’s Cubs – the whole of America stopped to mark his achievement. After the players’ strike of 1994-95, this was the spectacle the game had needed.
He eventually finished that campaign with 70 home runs and Sosa ended with 66, and the following season they smashed 65 and 63 respectively. But by that time the country had started to wise up to what was really going on. Towards the end of that ‘Long Gone Summer’ in ’98, an Associated Press journalist had come across a bottle in McGwire’s locker containing a drug which was banned in the Olympics but not in baseball. By the end of that year, team doctors were warning players of the side effects of Androstenedione, the drug McGwire admitted to taking and claimed “everybody in the game of baseball” used.
After his 63 homers in ’99, Sosa hit another 64 in 2001, but a couple of years later his name was on a list of players who had tested positive in what became known as baseball’s ‘Steroid Era’. The only difference between him and McGwire was that Sosa never admitted it.
Such is the ill-feeling over his refusal to come clean, the Cubs have never once invited him back to their Wrigley Field home since he left the club in 2004. In a sport which holds its heroes close, the Cubs have repeatedly distanced themselves from Sosa under multiple ownership groups. They even unveiled a 56-strong team Hall of Fame in 2021, with Sosa’s name nowhere to be seen.
MLB currently observes Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001 as the highest mark ever reached, but he too took performance-enhancing drugs. The San Francisco Giants slugger claimed in court that he had been misled by his personal strength trainer when using what he believed was flaxseed oil and arthritis cream, but his ex-girlfriend testified that he had identified a continued elbow injury as being caused by steroid use.
All of which makes Judge’s 62 home runs in 2022 the greatest single-season achievement in baseball history among clean athletes. So why doesn’t he get the recognition he deserves as the greatest of all time?
In cycling, records show Lance Armstrong as having won a grand total of zero Tour de France titles after he admitted taking PEDs during his previously storied career. Italian football’s governing body credits Juventus with only 36 of their 38 Serie A crowns due to the two stripped from them during the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. And just this week, it has been announced that Formula One teams Red Bull and Aston Martin could see their 2021 and 2022 achievements downgraded or even expunged due to them breaking financial regulations.
Yet baseball refuses to crown Judge as its number one. Even Maris’ son, Roger Jr, believes this is the real moment when his father’s record was beaten for the first time.
“He’s clean, he’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way,” he said of Judge. “I think it gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs, and not just as a guy who did it in the American League.
“He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ. That’s really who he is, and I think that’s what needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records, and I think baseball should do something.”
Followers of countless other sports will be in agreement with him.
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