Roger Maris was 19 days old when Babe Ruth hit his final home run for the Yankees in 1934. Maris’s career ended decades before Aaron Judge was born in 1992, and he died more than six years earlier, of cancer. When Maris was laid to rest on a bitterly cold December day in Fargo, N.D., Bobby Richardson gave the eulogy.
“Roger was quiet, a family man, a wonderful guy,” Richardson, the Yankees’ starting second baseman for all of their World Series games in the 1960s, said by phone last week. “He would be tickled to death that Judge would be the one breaking his record. And he would be pleased that steroids are not involved in it at all.”
Judge smashed his 61st home run on Wednesday in Toronto, passing Ruth’s career high and tying Maris’s 1961 mark for the single-season American League record. Judge connected off the Blue Jays left-hander Tim Mayza with a liner to left in the seventh inning, a two-run shot that broke a tie in an eventual 8-3 Yankees victory. Roger Maris Jr. watched with Judge’s mother, Patty, from the front row behind the Yankees’ dugout along the first base line at Rogers Centre.
“He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ,” Maris Jr. told reporters after the game. “That is really who he is, if he hits 62, and I think that that needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at their records and I think baseball should do something.”
Judge is the first hitter to reach 61 homers in the two decades that Major League Baseball has been testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa twice hit more than 61 homers in the late 1990s, and Barry Bonds belted 73 in 2001.
Judge’s feat, at least, brings a number with deep historical roots back to the Yankees, a franchise he has honored with all the traits Yankee fans love — pride, professionalism and respect for tradition.
“I came back for an Old-Timers Game, I was standing around the batting cage, and he came up to me and said, ‘Rich, I’m glad you’re still well enough to come experience this and be a part of it,’” said Richardson, 87, who still lives in his hometown, Sumter, S.C. “I was looking straight up at him.”
Richardson, who is 5-foot-9, never had his number retired by the Yankees, as Maris did for his No. 9. But the Yankees held a day to honor Richardson before his retirement in late 1966, a miserable year in which the team finished in last place for the first time since 1912.
It was also the final Yankees season for Maris, who hit only 13 home runs in his injury-marred pinstriped farewell. The Yankees did not hold a day that year for Maris, whom they would trade to St. Louis that off-season, but Maris took the time to commission a personalized gift for his friend.
“Roger, on his own, gave me a gold wristwatch,” Richardson said. “He had a friend who was a jeweler and had it made. It didn’t have 1-2-3-4 on the face; it had my No. 1 all the way around.”
The game on Richardson’s day — a Saturday afternoon with the Yankees 26 ½ games out of first place — drew a similar-sized crowd as the one for Maris’s record-breaking game on a Sunday five years earlier. It was Maris’s fourth game after hitting his 60th homer, and the meager attendance totals are hard to fathom today.
Maris took the day off against Baltimore on Sept. 27, 1961, just after tying Ruth. Only 7,500 people or so showed up that afternoon, and tickets for the three-game series against Boston on the final weekend were hardly in demand.
Those games, all with Maris one swing from breaking Ruth’s record, attracted 21,485 on Friday, 19,061 on Saturday and 23,154 on Sunday. The pennant race was over by then — the Yankees would host Cincinnati in the World Series opener that Wednesday — and, as every Yankees fan knows, there was doubt to the record’s legitimacy.
M.L.B. Commissioner Ford C. Frick had infamously declared that July that if it took a hitter longer than 154 games to eclipse Ruth, a “distinctive mark in the record books” would be affixed to the total. An asterisk came to symbolize the threat but was never actually applied.
Maris reached 61 homers in a 162-game schedule, which had never been used before. It was reasonable to think that others would also pass Ruth as the majors continued to expand and, presumably, the quality of pitching declined.
Yet Maris’s 61 stood as the record longer than Ruth’s 60, which had happened 34 years earlier. Maris reigned atop the single-season list for 37 years, until 1998, when McGwire and then Sosa toppled him. McGwire finished with 70 homers that season, four ahead of Sosa, and his last sold at auction for a record $3 million to Todd McFarlane, the comic-book creator and toy-company executive.
We may never know the value of Judge’s 61st. It caromed off the back wall of the Blue Jays’ bullpen and was retrieved, on a bounce, by the coach Matt Buschmann. Yankees reliever Zack Britton then retrieved the ball for Judge, who gave it to his mother, Patty.
When Maris connected, with a drive to right off Boston’s Tracy Stallard, the memorabilia craze was far off. The idea of paying for a milestone ball was so unusual that it was big news when Sam Gordon, a restaurant owner from Sacramento, offered to buy the ball for $5,000 from whomever happened to catch it.
That included the players, who were woefully underpaid at the time. Some Yankees, like the future Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, tried to strategically position themselves.
“Roger hit a lot of homers into the Yankee bullpen that year, so we figured we had as good a chance as anybody to catch the ball,” Ford, who won the Cy Young Award that season while earning only $36,000, wrote in “Slick,” his memoir with Phil Pepe. “After all, five grand was five grand.”
Instead, the 61st homer found its way to Sal Durante, a 19-year-old fan from Brooklyn who caught it on the fly in the stands. Durante said he wanted to give the ball back to Maris, but Maris insisted he keep it and claim the reward.
“What do you think of that kid?” Maris told Boston catcher Russ Nixon later in that game, as reported in The Times. “The boy is planning to get married and he can use the money, but he still wanted to give the ball back to me for nothing. It shows there’s some good people left in this world, after all.”
As Richardson recalls it, Maris did not care much about the record at the time; the 154-game mark had passed, after all, and the unrelenting scrutiny of the chase had so aggravated Maris that he had lost chunks of his hair late that season. Only later, Richardson said, did Maris appreciate the majesty of his accomplishment.
Maris was only 27 years old in 1961, and the 61st homer was the 158th of his career. For Judge, 30, his 61st was career home run No. 219, and with the long-term contract he is sure to get as a free agent this winter, he will almost surely cruise past Maris’s total of 275.
Judge’s legacy, then, may include much more than the record he now shares. For Maris, though, there is no doubting the majesty and meaning of 61. Etched onto his diamond-shaped tombstone in Fargo is an image of Maris in mid-swing: 61 above his bat, ’61 below it.