Alfred Santasiere III
There are two larger-than-life bobbleheads on the Main Level concourse at Yankee Stadium, depicting two of the greatest players in Yankees history. Just behind the press box, fans often stop to photograph the giant plastic statues of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. But for all of the accomplishments that these two Hall of Famers achieved, their names are not linked to each other in the same way that each is linked to Roger Maris.
Decades after Ruth set the single-season record for home runs with 60 in 1927, Maris eclipsed it, smashing 61 in 1961, forever linking his career with that of the Great Bambino. During that magical summer of ’61, Mantle gave Maris — and Ruth — a run for his money, but tapped out at a career-high 54 home runs.
The Mantle bobblehead celebrates the center fielder’s most storied season, which was not 1961. It instead features the slugger wearing a crown and holding three bats, each with a number on it. In 1956, Mantle became just the second Yankees player ever to win the American League Triple Crown, pacing the Junior Circuit with 52 home runs, 130 RBI and a .353 batting average. Only Lou Gehrig had ever accomplished the feat in pinstripes, having done so in 1934.
More than six decades have passed since Mantle won the coveted title, and since then, in either league, only Baltimore’s Frank Robinson, Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera have brought home the triptych honor. Almost 100 years have gone by since Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927, and save for a controversial four-year span in which National League sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds eclipsed Ruth’s total six times, Maris was the only player to have so much as matched 60.
In his chase for the American League home run record and the Triple Crown — one of which he got, the other he just missed — Aaron Judge had connected Ruth with Mantle in a way that will last far longer than the bobbleheads at Yankee Stadium.
More than just eye-popping figures on the back of his baseball card, Judge’s home runs, more often than not, contributed to a more significant ledger: the Yankees’ win total.
Case in point: In front of a packed house at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 20, Judge led off the bottom of the ninth against Pittsburgh, but things were not looking good for the Yankees, as they trailed the Pirates, 8-4.
Every fan in the Stadium had held their breath during each of Judge’s previous at-bats that night. With the outfielder sitting on 59 home runs, they were in the Bronx to witness history, and that was made clear by the atmosphere in the Stadium whenever Judge was up.
The slugger’s ninth-inning at-bat was no different. Despite the team’s four-run deficit, Judge was greeted with a standing ovation as he stepped into the box to face Wil Crowe. Then, an eerie silence hovered over the Stadium. So silent was it, that when Crowe’s first offering hit the Pittsburgh catcher’s mitt, the smack of the baseball into the leather echoed at least as high up as the level where the Mantle and Ruth bobbleheads reside. The same silence preceded each pitch that brought the count to 3-1. Then, Judge did what he has done at an incredible rate this season: He launched home run No. 60 deep into the left-center field bleachers.
For Judge, No. 60 came in his team’s 147th game, worth noting because when Ruth reached the same number, baseball had yet to expand its slate from 154 games to 162.
From silence to an absolute frenzy, the atmosphere in the Stadium resembled something between a rock concert and the final out of a postseason game. As Judge hustled around the bases in the same humble fashion that he exemplified when he hit his first career home run in 2016, the giant video board in center field showed images of Judge and Ruth, permanently linking them together, in Yankees history and in baseball lore.
For manager Aaron Boone, it wasn’t the photos on the scoreboard that caught his attention.
“When he was running around the bases, I just kept seeing 60 on the board,” Boone said after the game. “That was hard for me to grip. It’s one of those almost unreachable numbers.”
Moments later, Boone was asked about McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, all of whom surpassed the “unreachable” total while he was playing.
“When you think about the context of this season, it makes what Aaron is doing that much more spectacular,” Boone said. “When I was playing, guys were routinely hitting in the 50s, 60s and even 70s, but they were all bunched up. That’s not happening now; the guy with the second highest total this season has 40. For Aaron to be that far ahead of the field, while also getting on base as often as he is, pushing for a batting title, that puts what he’s doing on a different level from what those guys did. That makes it even more amazing. That might seem like a footnote now, but we’re going to look back at that in awe 50 or 100 years from now.”
As first baseman Anthony Rizzo followed Judge to the plate, the Yankee Stadium crowd continued to cheer for their hero. Reluctantly, Judge emerged from the dugout for a curtain call.
“I was just trying to help my team win,” Judge said afterward from the Yankee Stadium press conference room, with his parents, his wife and four of Maris’ children looking on. “That’s what was important in that moment; trying to come back against a tough closer.”
That’s exactly what happened. Four batters after Judge made history, Giancarlo Stanton — whose 59 homers in 2017 with Miami had been the most of any Major Leaguer since Bonds hit 73 in 2001 — lined a game-winning grand slam into the left-field seats.
“Aaron definitely ignited a magical spark, leading off with a home run,” Boone said. “That was special.”
“We worked hard until the very end,” Judge said. “I will remember that signature Giancarlo Stanton home run. He’s seen it all; he’s done it all. He’s helped me grow as a player by leaps and bounds.”
Although Judge would have preferred to keep the press conference focused on team-oriented topics, it was only a matter of time before he was asked what it meant to reach the Babe’s seemingly mythical total.
“It’s tough to stay,” said Judge, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and his pinstriped uniform pants. “I don’t think about the numbers. But when you talk about Ruth and Maris, players who did so many great things in the game, you never imagine that you’re going to be mentioned with them. That’s an incredible honor. It’s something that I don’t take lightly.”
Sign up to receive our daily Morning Lineup to stay in the know about the latest trending topics around Major League Baseball.
There’s no question that chasing a record gets more stressful as the accomplishment gets closer. It’s well documented that the pressure in 1961 hovered over Maris like a dark cloud, partly because of the negative treatment he endured for “daring” to outperform the much more popular Mantle and for attempting to break the beloved Ruth’s record. But in 2022, Judge has overwhelming support, and he seems to be smiling as often as he reaches base.
“I’m trying to enjoy it,” Judge said. “I’m trying to soak it all in, but I have a job to do every day. I have to keep my head down and stay focused.”
As Judge left the stage in the press conference room, Stanton sat down. One of the only people on the planet able to truly understand the pressure of staring down 60 home runs, which he did in the last days of the 2017 season, Stanton was asked how he approached those games.
“How did I deal with it?” he said through a laugh. “By not getting to 60. You can’t run from it; you can’t hide from it. You can tell in the stadium what is going on. There is a lot of outside noise, and you have to be able to stay in your zone and stick to your approach. Aaron’s done that all year. He’s amazing to watch. We get to see all of the behind-the-scenes work he does. He hit 60 tonight, and it’s like nothing happened. At least, that’s his mindset.”
Two games after blasting No. 60, Judge came to the plate against Boston in the bottom of the ninth, again in position to make history and send the home crowd to the exits with a victory — he had already hit three walk-off blasts in 2022. Just like with every one of his at-bats during the late September homestand, Judge heard an eruption from the crowd as he walked to the plate, and then the noise gave way to silence and people taking videos and photos with their phones. He then launched a 2-2 pitch from reliever Matt Barnes to deep center field, where it was caught at the wall.
That would be as close as Judge would come to tying Maris’ team and American League record before heading to Toronto.
As Judge and his teammates got ready for a middle-of-the-night flight to Canada after heavy rain brought the Sunday night game against Boston to a premature end, the 30-year-old Californian again put things in perspective.
“How can you be unhappy when we won every game during this homestand?” Judge said from his locker. “That’s the most important thing. The other stuff will take care of itself.”
With 61 at his fingertips, Judge and the Yankees began a three-game set at Rogers Centre on Sept. 26, and the right fielder quickly found out that the most significant roadblock between him and history would be getting the chance to swing.
Judge led off the first game with a single. A few innings later, he walked for the first of seven times in the series. The most memorable or forgettable free pass that Judge got came in the top of the 10th, when Toronto expedited Judge’s saunter to first base with an intentional walk that loaded the bases with two outs.
The following night, Judge lined out in his first at-bat, then walked in his last four plate appearances of the game.
“I tried not to change anything in terms of my approach,” Judge said. “My job is to be the best hitter I can be, and if that means taking a walk, then I need to take a walk. I never tried to change my plan. I walked a few times, and we won the game.”
That win had added significance; it clinched the division for the Yankees a few games prior to the conclusion of a roller-coaster season.
“Every team goes through ups and downs,” Judge said from the Champagne-soaked celebration in the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre on Sept. 27. “I think what makes the good teams great is that they look adversity in the face and deal with it head-on. We started off hot; everything was going our way. Then, we had some adversity, but we never wavered. We never faltered or blamed anyone. You have to admire the mental toughness of this team to compete every day the way we have. We knew that if we continued to play hard, things would work out.”
The final game in Toronto proved to be one in which Judge’s own mental toughness and steadfast approach paid incredible dividends. On Sept. 28, a day on the calendar already steeped in Yankees history — Mantle and fellow Hall of Famer Derek Jeter played their last career games on that date, both at Boston’s Fenway Park — Judge made it even more memorable.
Following a game-tying three-run rally for the Blue Jays in the bottom of the sixth inning off Gerrit Cole, Judge came to the plate with Aaron Hicks on first base and no outs in the following frame. In front of 37,008 fans, mostly wearing attire that matched the blue seats in Rogers Centre, Judge launched a blazing line drive to deep left field off Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza that was clocked at 117.4 mph off his bat. Almost in the blink of an eye, the baseball cleared the field of play, smacking into a wall at the back of the Blue Jays’ bullpen, just beyond the outstretched arms of a few fans. Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann snagged the ball off a ricochet, and it ultimately was handed over to Judge, who gave the souvenir to his mother much later that evening.
As Judge rounded the bases, the Toronto crowd gave him a standing ovation, and his teammates assembled between the first-base dugout and home plate. He was initially greeted by Hicks, and during a brief delay in the game, every other Yankees player and coach embraced the team’s most recent right fielder to reach 61 home runs in a single season.
Judge tipped his cap to the division-rival crowd, and a few feet above the dugout, an even more touching scene unfolded. Sitting together for the third time in as many nights, Roger Maris Jr. and Judge’s mother, Patty, hugged.
“When I hit it, I thought I had gotten enough,” Judge said after the game from the Blue Jays’ press conference room in the bowels of Rogers Centre. “But I had not hit a home run in a few days, so you never really know if it’s going to get out or not. Once it got over the fence, I felt some relief because we were winning the game. Also, knowing that I had tied Roger Maris, that’s the stuff you dream about. It didn’t even seem real.”
Also surreal was the location of Judge’s home run that eclipsed Ruth on the single-season record board. About a mile from Rogers Centre, in September 1914, the Bambino hit his first home run as a professional, clearing the fences at Maple Leaf Park as a member of the Minor League Providence Grays. Although the stadium is no longer standing at Hanlan’s Point, Ruth’s legacy has stood the test of time.
When asked to share his thoughts on having done something that even the most storied baseball player hadn’t accomplished, Judge was initially speechless.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Judge said a few seconds later. “But there’s a lot of things that Babe Ruth did that I wouldn’t be able to do. Getting a chance to sit at 60 for a while with the Babe was nice. Now, sitting at 61 with another Yankees right fielder who hit 61 home runs and who was an MVP and world champion, this is pretty overwhelming.”
Not long after the final out of the Yankees’ victory was recorded, Judge made his way from the field toward the clubhouse, but was intercepted by his mother and Maris’ son on the way.
“He congratulated me, and he told me that he had spent a lot of time with my family,” Judge said about the conversation with the 63-year-old Maris Jr. “He said a lot of great things. I thanked him and told him that it’s an honor to be associated with his father. It was important for him to be here; he came all the way up to Toronto after spending several days in New York. That means a lot to me.”
Judge wasn’t done speaking about the man who hit 61 home runs 61 years ago.
“It’s an incredible honor to be associated with one of the greatest Yankees, one of baseball’s greats,” Judge said. “To be enshrined with him forever, words can’t describe how much of an honor that is. That’s one thing that’s so special about the Yankees organization; all of the guys who came before us and paved the way. What Roger Maris did in this game, how he represented the game and the type of person he was — being linked to him is something I will always cherish.”
A few days earlier, standing in front of his father’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park with three of his siblings, Roger Maris Jr. spoke emphatically about the admiration that he and his family have for Judge — not only for his home run–hitting prowess, but also for the dignified road he took to 61.
“When you watch Aaron hit a home run, he drops his bat and runs the bases,” he said. “When my dad hit his 61st, he dropped his bat and ran around the bases like it was his first. When Aaron hit his 60th, he acted like it was his first. There are a lot of similarities between them; they come to the park focused, and they are all about winning. Most importantly, they both represented the game the right way.”
Alfred Santasiere III