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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Aaron Judge and the ghost of Roger Maris  

Tony Violanti
Tony Violanti

Sixty-one years ago – in 1961 – Roger Maris was able to pass the ghost of Babe Ruth when Maris hit a then-record 61 homers for the New York Yankees.

Now, in the summer of 2022, Yankee star Aaron Judge, 30, is chasing Maris’ ghost. The slugging, 6-7, 282-pound outfielder, has 28 homers thus far.  In 1961, Maris had 27 homers after 69 games.
Judge is batting near .300; scored 58 runs and has 53 RBI. He has more than half a season to go, and ESPN projected his 2022 stats as: 63 homers, 135 runs and 135 RBI.

Maris, who died in 1985, was 27 in 1961. That season, he batted .269, scored 132 runs and had 142 RBI.

Aaron Judge
Aaron Judge

One person rooting for Judge, is Roger Maris Jr. His father broke Ruth’s single-season record of 60 homers in 1927.
“You don’t want to see anyone get it, but I’d be very happy if Judge did do it,’’ he told The New York Post. “Dad always said records are meant to be broken. You don’t want to see Dad’s record go, but if it happened, I can’t think of a better guy to do it.
“He’s a great Yankee. To do it in New York, how cool would that be? First we had [Babe] Ruth, then we had Dad, and then to have Judge, that would be pretty awesome. I can’t think of a better storyline.”
During the controversial steroid era of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Maris’ record of 61 was eclipsed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
But those records are tainted.

After Maris’ record-breaking year, his 1962 salary was raised from $32,000 to $70,000.

Roger Maris 1961 Topps baseball card
Roger Maris’ 1961 Topps baseball card

Things have changed and if you think inflation is bad for gas prices, look what it’s done for baseball players.
Judge will reportedly make $19 million this year. It will go higher because Judge is eligible for free agency at the end of 2022.  The Yankees reportedly offered a $214 million, 7-year deal but Judge didn’t sign.
Now, with Judge having a monster MVP season and the Yankees sporting the best record in Major League baseball — won-52 lost-19– the stakes are much higher. Many insiders predict Judge will get a $300 million multi-year deal.

In this crazy time of outrageous sports contracts, Judge is worth it, as was Roger Maris all those years ago.
Both Maris and Judge are complete players. They excel on defense, run the bases with speed; deliver in the clutch and are consummate team players.

Judge is “consistently dominant,” Aaron Boone, manager of the Yankees, said in a recent post-game press conference. “He’s about the team. He’s about winning.”

Maybe that’s why Judge doesn’t complain when he bats leadoff; moves from right to centerfield, or pinch hits.

“Honestly, (I’ll do) whatever this team needs,” Judge told the New York Post. “I’ll play wherever they need me.”

Maris was the same kind of player with the same kind of attitude.
“Roger Maris was as good a man and as good a ballplayer as there ever was,” teammate and Yankee Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once said.
In that magical year of 1961, Mantle hit 54 homers and batted .317. He was in the race to catch the Babe, but injuries ruined Mantle’s chase.
The 1961 season and Mantle and Maris were immortalized in Billy Crystal’s movie, “61*” Also, in 1962, Mantle and Maris appeared as themselves in the movie, “Safe at Home,” which featured William Frawley, who played Fred on “I Love Lucy.”

The M&M boys were the stuff of legends but it took a toll on Maris. He was resented by old-time sportswriters and fans who worshipped Ruth. Also, most Yankee fans wanted Mantle to break the record. Ford Frick, the baseball commissioner, famously ruled there would be an asterisk attached to Maris’ record, because he played more games than Ruth.
Maris once said baseball would have been a “lot more fun if I had never hit those 61 homeruns…all it brought me was headaches.”
The Yankees traded Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, and he was happy to escape New York. “I’m crazy about this ball club (St. Louis) and I’m crazy about this city,” Maris told Sports Illustrated.
Maris lost his home run swing but was a solid player who appeared in two World Series with the Cardinals in 1967 and ’68.  Unlike the Yankees, St. Louis was built on speed, pitching and defense and Maris fit right in.

During his career, Maris hit 275 home runs, won two Most Valuable Players awards; played in seven World Series and seven All-Star games.

I’d put him in the Baseball Hall of Fame, not so much for his stats, but for Maris’ impact on the game.

Sixty-one years ago, Roger Maris made baseball matter to a generation coming of age. Aaron Judge just might do the same thing for a new generation of fans.

Tony Violanti covers arts for Villages-News.com. He wrote a nationally-published book “Miracle In Buffalo,” (St. Martin’s Press) about the history of baseball in that city, which included interviews with Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

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