Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2022

60, 61, ….62?

Numbers are essential to the allure of all our sports, but they are utterly interwoven with the fabric of the Great Game.  In a distant time, when telephones had dials and the internet was the stuff of science fiction, generations of fans began their mornings perusing the previous day’s box scores in the sports section of the local newspaper.  The tiny agate type told the story of each game, and the statistics that mattered were either right there or could be easily calculated from the rows of numbers.

The world has turned many times since those days, and box scores are now most likely reviewed online.  That at least means larger fonts, no small advantage to aging eyes.  Metrics have changed as well.  Many of the old stats, if not quite discredited, have been deemed less meaningful than newly devised statistics based on complex formulas that can no longer be done in one’s head.  Yet even that change only emphasizes how important numbers are to baseball, and to how it measures greatness.

Fans born long after the playing days of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had ended still immediately recognize the numbers 56 and .406.  Those who rightly honor Cal Ripken’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played are still awed by the 2,130 record that the Orioles’ hero broke in September 1995, more than half a century after Lou Gehrig set it.  And if the first thought of most fans at the mention of the 1988 Dodgers is Kirk Gibson’s improbable home run to win Game 1 of that autumn’s World Series, it takes only a little prompting to get any longtime L.A. supporter to wax rhapsodic about Oral Hershiser’s streak of 59 scoreless innings pitched over the final month of that regular season.

Which brings us to 60, a number as instantly meaningful to a fan of the Great Game as any associated with a sport.  On the next-to-last day of the 1927 season, Babe Ruth stepped to the plate at Yankee Stadium in the 8th inning of a tie game against the Washington Senators.  Having tied his own major league record of 59 home runs, set six years earlier, with a pair of blasts the previous day, Ruth established a new standard with a two-run shot off Washington’s Tom Zachary, propelling the Yankees to a 4-2 victory.  After the win an exultant Ruth proclaimed “Sixty, count ‘em, sixty!  Let’s see some other son of a bitch match that!”

There are multiple reasons why sixty homers became imbedded in the Great Game’s lore, only one of which is the fact that for 34 years, no other son of a bitch could match Ruth.  First, and this is no small thing, it’s a nice round number.  In addition, 60, along with his 715 career round-trippers, a record that stood even longer, quickly came to define Ruth and the way in which he remade his sport.  Just a decade earlier another Yankee, Wally Pipp, best known today as the first baseman whose struggles at the plate in 1925 gave a young Gehrig a chance at playing time he did not soon relinquish, led the majors in 1917 with 9 home runs.  In 1918 Ruth first appeared at the top of the homer list with 11 while working mostly as a starting pitcher for the Red Sox.  Two seasons later he moved to New York, became a fulltime outfielder, and the Great Game was changed forever.

In the ensuing decade there were several years when Ruth was the runaway leader – his 54 home runs in 1928 doubled the number hit by runner-up Gehrig.   But as baseball evolved, in time other sluggers began to catch up.  Still, except for Hank Greenberg’s 58 in 1938, no one came close to Ruth’s 60.  Only Mickey Mantle’s 52 in 1956 joined Greenberg in passing the half-century mark. 

So it was until 1961, by which time Ruth’s record had achieved mythic proportions.  That season Mantle and teammate Roger Maris fed off each other’s slugging until late in the campaign, when injuries finally slowed the Mick.  Maris kept on going however, finally hitting his 60th with three games to play, then sending his 61st into Yankee Stadium’s right field seats in the 4th inning of New York’s final regular season game.  It was a new home run record, except for fans who insisted it was not.

There were plenty of cheers for Maris and Mantle that year.  But there were also catcalls and no shortage of vitriol from fans, skepticism from sportswriters, and anonymous hatred in each day’s mail.  Most was directed at Maris, who had been traded to the Yankees from Kansas City just the previous season.  Mantle, at least, was an established hero in the Bronx.  So powerful was the mythology around Ruth that many diehards were appalled at the notion of anyone breaking his record, a viewpoint unfortunately enhanced by an ill-timed statement by MLB commissioner Ford Frick that because 1961 was the first with a 162-game schedule, a new mark set after game number 154 should be shown separately in the record books.  Many years later there were still fans insisting that the “real” record belonged to Ruth, since Maris matched and passed the Babe in games 159 and 162.

Both Ruth and Maris were passed by three National League sluggers during the steroids era.  Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds have all been strongly linked to performance enhancing drug use, though only McGwire has admitted to using PEDs.  Still, the record books are clear.  The single-season home run record was McGwire’s 70 for a time and is now the 73 hit by Bonds in 2001.  Yet those fans who have been dismissive of the past week’s events based solely on those numbers would do well to note that suspicions about all those players were more than enough to keep them out of the Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately, the same doubts didn’t bar Cooperstown’s door to Bud Selig, the commissioner who happily abetted the steroids era for the sake of higher TV ratings.

But one can readily accept that Aaron Judge did not tie the major league home run mark Wednesday night and will not set a new one if he hits another home run in the next few days while still understanding and enjoying all the attention that has been focused on him as the longest season winds down.

Above all else, 60 remains a magical, mystical number in the Great Game.  Any player’s chase to match or beat it will always elicit outsized attention, at least until some far-off future time when the sport has changed so much that the home run record approaches triple digits.  Also, Maris’s 61 in ‘61 remains the highest homer output in the history of the American League until Judge, who has now matched both of his fellow Yankees, hits another in a campaign that comes 61 years after Roger’s epic season.  Finally, in an age when the nexus between sports and gambling has become accepted and even endorsed by many professional leagues, there is the wondrous achievement of a player betting on himself and thoroughly beating the house.  Judge declined what most fans and pundits described as a very generous contract from the Yankees just before the season started, believing he could do better in free agency.  All those months ago, most reactions ranged from second-guessing to outright condemnation.  With a season for the ages, Aaron Judge has silenced all those voices.  Now, just one more majestic swing of the bat remains between Judge, the American League and Yankee record books, and a phenomenal amount of money.

On the other hand, New York’s hero did go eight days between slugging number 60, which tied the Babe a week ago Tuesday, and matching Roger with his 61st Wednesday night.  Meanwhile the longest season kept unrolling, which meant that Judge didn’t pass Ruth until the 155th game on New York’s schedule.  Any Babe diehards still drawing breath are already making their “asterisk” case, and somewhere, maybe in an Iowa cornfield, the baseball gods are laughing hysterically.

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