I had better things to ponder approaching this weekend. Things such as the showdown between the National League East-leading Mets and the second-place, defending World Series champion Braves entering the weekend a game behind the Mets.
Things such as the Triple-A championship game being played in Las Vegas Ballpark Sunday starting at 4 P.M. Pacific time, which I plan to watch in person from a choice field-level seat several rows up behind home plate.
But no. I had to bump into yet another analysis of Aaron Judge meeting Roger Maris as the American League’s single-season home run champion. That wouldn’t be a terrible collision by itself if not for the fact of the Associated Press writer offering it, David Brandt, joined Roger Maris, Jr. wading into waters that never really existed in the first place.
Maris, Jr., intends to be there when Judge passes his father before the regular season expires. He inserted the ginger into the tails in the first place when he opined that Judge should be branded, hallowed, and hosannaed as the actual, no-questions-asked, all-time, across-the-board single-season home run champion when he hits 62 or more.
A few sentences after citing that, Brandt saw and raised, sort of, after nodding toward the debate over whether National League bombardiers Mark McGwire (who broke Maris’s Show record in that memorable 1998 chase), Sammy Sosa (who settled for three 60+ home run seasons including ’98 yet didn’t win home run championships in those years), and Barry Bonds (whose 73 in ’01 yanked McGwire to one side) remain tainted because of their actual/alleged ties to actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances.
“For its part, MLB doesn’t appear eager to embrace the use of asterisks,” Brandt writes. “Neither does the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.” Uh-oh.
MLB has been down that road before. Maris’ record had an asterisk attached to it for 30 years because he played a 162-game schedule instead of 154 like Babe Ruth did when he hit 60. It remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by former commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record-holder.
Maris’s record had nothing of the sort. Once and for all. It had controversy. It had a country arguing passionately over whether the plainspoken, media-shy Dakotan “deserved” to even think about chasing ruthsrecord (once again, that’s the way they said it then) when his matinee-idol Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle was the “rightful” aspirant if anybody was.
But it had an asterisk only in the public imagination, stoked by a baseball commissioner laden with a fat conflict of interest and a sportswriter about whom “instigator” is one of the more polite epithets attached to his name and memory.
Ford Frick, remember, was once a Ruth ghostwriter. He also loved to engage dinner crowds with stories about how he’d been at Ruth’s bedside the day before Ruth finally lost his battle with throat cancer. Frick would sooner have been caught selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Empire than abiding anyone, no matter whom, pushing the Sacred Babe to one side in the records.
New York Daily News writer Dick Young was only too willing to abet Frick when he called a press conference midway through that 1961 season to expose himself as feeling just that. Together the compromised commissioner and the irascible columnist made poisoned applesauce of a singular achievement.
With the American League’s first expansion and a schedule change from 154 to 162 games, Frick cringed at the thought that somebody, Yankee or otherwise, would knock Ruth’s hallowed 60-bomb season in 1927 out of the record books at once. As recounted by Allen Barra in his 2002 book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century, Frick proclaimed:
Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.
At which point Young piped up and all but hollered, “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.”
Revisiting the controversy in the Village Voice in 2011, after another Daily News writer (Phil Pepe) published a book reviewing the 1961 home run chase, Barra told it as it actually was: Frick did nothing more than put on a show on behalf of his old benefactor. “Frick had no power whatsoever to make a ruling on the subject,” Barra began.
To put it simply, he was grandstanding. What escaped most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to escape the sports media today, is that major league baseball had no “official” record book and didn’t have one until Total Baseball got the job in the late 1990s. So, in essence, Frick was trying to pressure publishers over whom he had no authority to print his version of the Maris/Ruth home run chase.
Over a decade later, Frick published his memoir, Games, Asterisks, and People. (The front jacket featured a photograph of Frick side by side with Ruth.) The title to one side, Frick himself declared the asterisk on Maris’s record didn’t really exist, Dick Young notwithstanding: “No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment . . . ,” Frick wrote in that book. “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.”
Around the time Total Baseball finally got the official record book designation, another commissioner, Fay Vincent, appointed a Committee on Statistical Accuracy. They voted to purge any asterisk from Maris’s record, never mind that no asterisk existed lawfully in the first place. Not for the first time and hardly for the last, baseball’s government sold the nation a bill of goods about as valid as a 27-cent piece.
“Thus,” Barra observed, “a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied every having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s ‘removal’ of it.”
Along came Maris’s son, after his father was met by Judge Wednesday night, to plead for something about as close to a bona-fide asterisk as possible:
[Judge]’s clean, he’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way and I think it gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just 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 if he hits 62. I think that’s what needs to happen. I think (the MLB) needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.
Well, Judge is “clean”; major league players face mandatory drug testing and Judge hasn’t flunked once. But does it really matter that Judge is a Yankee? Since when was the single-season home run record ruled to be exclusive Yankee property? Would Judge be any less legitimate tying Maris if he’d been a Met? A Brave? A Cardinal? A Guardian? A Dodger? An Astro?
Then a Cardinal, McGwire embraced the Maris family publicly when it looked as though he had a shot at meeting and passing Maris in 1998. (Maris, Sr. finished his major league career with two seasons as a Cardinal.) They returned the embrace just as publicly. It was one of the signature embraces in the year once thought to have been the year that saved baseball, after the lingering clouds of the 1994 owners-provoked players’ strike.
If you saw Billy Crystal’s film 61*, you couldn’t forget the voice of Bob Sheppard, the longtime Yankee Stadium announcer, over a fading image of Barry Pepper as Maris hitting the money shot at film’s end, by referencing the Vincent committee and finishing with, “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged . . . to him.”
Crystal and his staffers must not have read Edward Kiersh’s Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio, a 1983 catch-up with a host of former players—including Maris. “I know I have the record,” Maris told Kiersh, “and that’s what counts.” Unconscionably, he just wasn’t allowed to enjoy having achieved it in the first place. From the best of intentions Crystal perpetuated Frick’s and Young’s asterisk fraud.
But only one man could have pushed Ruth to one side in the single-season record book. (It took that man five fewer plate appearances and 34 more pitchers faced on the year to do it.) Only one man going from there could push Maris to one side. Tainted or no, McGwire was the one. Only one man going from there could push McGwire to one side. Tainted or no, Bonds was the one.
You might wish to remind yourself, too—aside from baseball taking no formal action against actual/alleged PEDs until after the Mitchell Report and that parade before what George F. Will called the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids—that, if the only thing you needed to hit baseballs over fences was a chemical cocktail, any behemoth in the NFL, the WWF, the alphabet boxing councils, or on the bodybuilding circuit could have broken Maris’s record.
When McGwire eventually faced that House committee (don’t kid yourself that they cared more for the health of the game than for making suspect players do a perp walk to public humiliation), he was blocked by his legal team from owning up. (“I’m not here to discuss the past,” he said to the panel infamously.)
When he returned to baseball as a Cardinals batting coach in 2010, McGwire owned up in full: he said publicly he dipped into the PED waters in a bid to continue playing through frequent injuries, not to enhance what he could do already. However late, his confession was true enough. He could hit a ball of weeds 450 feet whether as a 1987 Rookie of the Year or an injury-wrecked hulk (he doesn’t dismiss that PEDs also instigated a few final injuries) in what proved his 2001 farewell season.
McGwire even apologised to Maris’s widow, Patricia, after his public admission. “My mom was very touched by his call,” said another Maris son, Richard. “She felt sorry for Mark—that he’s going through this. She conveyed that we all make mistakes and move on from there.” Richard’s brother says, retroactively, “Not so fast, Mom.”
Maris, Jr. wants baseball to do something about that post haste. Preferably the split second it appears Judge’s 62nd home run will reach the seats, if not the Sea of Tranquility. You understand his position, too, but good luck with that.
Despise the Sosas and Bondses all you wish. (McGwire accepts that he’ll never reach the Hall of Fame, but his public admission whenever it came bought a lot of good will, regardless of who denies it.) But you can’t just erase the statistics arbitrarily. Any more than Elmer Fudd Frick and Dick Young could impose an asterisk the commissioner himself had no real power to impose.
Pace Brandt, calling Judge the American League’s single-season home run co-champion with Roger Maris isn’t just a euphemism for calling them the “real” single-season home run champions. Judge won’t get beyond the AL record unless he can find a way to send thirteen more baseballs out of the ballparks’ ZIP codes over his next and final eight regular-season games. Settling for being the AL’s single-season bomb king is far from the worst fate he can face.