In 1961, Roger Maris of the Yankees mashed 61 home runs, breaking the major league record set by another Yankees star, Babe Ruth, who had hit 60 in 1927.
Maris’s record was eventually surpassed by three different players, all of whom have been connected to performance-enhancing drugs. But on Wednesday night at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Aaron Judge — yet another Yankee, and an outfielder who has played his entire career in the era of drug testing — matched Maris’s famous mark, hitting his 61st home run of what has been a spectacular season.
With seven games remaining, Judge is tied with Maris for the American League record and has ample opportunity to stand alone. A 62nd home run would not break Barry Bonds’s overall single-season record of 73, which was set in the National League in 2001, but for many it could erase some of the bad memories of an era in which steroids seemed to dominate the game.
Judge, who is leading the major leagues in numerous statistical categories, is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. And after going seven games and 31 plate appearances without a home run entering Wednesday — seemingly an eternity by Judge’s standards — his size and strength were on full display against the Blue Jays when he finally caught Maris by clobbering a 394-foot, two-run blast to left field in the top of the seventh inning against the left-hander Tim Mayza.
The runs broke a tie score and powered the Yankees to a win, 8-3.
“I was just trying to go up there and start a rally and get something going,” Judge said in an on-field interview after the game.
The reserved Judge talked about making sure the ball went over the fence and being surprised that his teammates were on the field to greet him after he rounded the bases.
“It’s an incredible honor,” Judge said of matching Maris at his postgame news conference. “Getting a chance to be associated with one of the Yankee greats, you know, one of baseball’s greats and being enshrined with him forever — words can’t describe it.”
While the ball was authenticated by Major League Baseball in advance of the homer, and speculation was rampant at how much it would be worth on the open market, No. 61 ended up landing in Toronto’s bullpen out of reach of any fans. It was caught by Toronto’s bullpen coach, Matt Buschmann, whose wife, the sportscaster Sara Walsh, tweeted shortly after that she could announce her retirement. Though a later post said he had turned the ball over to Zack Britton of the Yankees so it could be returned to Judge.
In the eighth inning, Judge had his first chance to break the record but hit a hard groundout. He will resume his quest to stand alone at the top of the American League on Friday, when the Yankees return to Yankee Stadium for a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles.
Like Maris before him, Judge has handled the pressure of the chase, and any momentary slumps, with a quiet smile and an insistence that his priority is winning games for the Yankees.
“He’s totally equipped for all this, and he’s proven to be right in that regard. He’s handled it perfectly,” Manager Aaron Boone said last week, adding that Judge keeps the game simple. “In a tough, difficult, not-so-simple game sometimes it’s important to keep it simple, and he does a great job of that.”
Judge, who may win his first A.L. Most Valuable Player Award this year after finishing as the runner-up as a rookie in 2017, is threatening the records books in more ways than hitting balls over the fence. Entering Wednesday, he was leading in the A.L. in batting average (.314), and he led in home runs (of course) and runs batted in (128). Should he finish the regular season still leading all three categories, he would claim the first triple crown since Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers did it in 2012 and only the second since 1967.
Judge, 30, hasn’t just been the best hitter in baseball this season, the margin between him and his peers is substantial.
The player with the next most home runs in the majors entering Wednesday? Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber with 42. The player with the next best on-base plus slugging percentage after Judge’s 1.119? Houston’s Yordan Alvarez with a 1.021. The position players with the next highest wins above replacement after Judge’s 10.9? Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals, with 7.1 each, according to Fangraphs.
By reaching the 60-home run plateau alone, Judge entered rarefied air in baseball. Only six players in history have hit that many in a season, and three of them — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds — have been connected in various ways to the use of performance-enhancers. While their statistics remain in baseball’s record books, their accomplishments are widely viewed with skepticism.
A wave of 50-homer seasons in the 1990s and early 2000s slowed with the implementation of Major League Baseball’s drug testing program in 2004, but Judge, with a relentless approach at the plate and no shortage of power in his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame, quickly established that he could reach that level when he hit 52 home runs as a rookie in 2017. Injuries suppressed his totals in the seasons that followed, but he hit 39 home runs last year while setting a new career high in batting average — .287 — helping set the stage for his breakout 2022 season.
Entering Wednesday, Judge had indeed broken out, homering every 9.13 at-bats, the 12th-highest rate in baseball history. In 1961, Maris had averaged a home run every 9.67 at-bats.
For the rest of the regular season, Judge, known for his reserve with the news media, will remain the center of sport’s attention. His eye-popping statistics will do most of the talking for him.
“I’m playing a kid’s game,” Judge said when asked if he was really as calm as he appeared. “I love this. I love these moments.”
Jesus Jiménez and Benjamin Hoffman contributed reporting.