Can you imagine the scene if Aaron Judge breaks Roger Maris’ American League home run record at Yankee Stadium?
Chances are the place will be packed as ticket sales soar once Judge gets within one or two of the mark of 61, which Maris set (eerie symmetry alert) 61 years ago in 1961.
Judge will hear nothing but cheers when he pops onto the field for pregame workouts, when his name is announced in the lineup, when he takes his defensive position and when his name is announced before he steps to the plate.
Cell phone cameras will be held high for every pitch, people watching on their tiny screens instead of pocketing their devices and enjoying a full-sized view of the moment.
If Judge hits No. 62, the sustained adulation will be unlike anything seen around these parts for a long, long time.
It will be the time of Judge’s life.
It’s unlikely he will refer to his magical season as “sheer hell.”
But that’s what Maris called his 1961 season, when he and teammate Mickey Mantle chased what was to that time baseball’s greatest individual record: Babe Ruth’s big-league standard of 60 home runs in 1927.
Thirty-four years later, Maris set a new standard when he lofted a 2-and-0 pitch from Boston’s Tracy Stallard into the rightfield stands at Yankee Stadium in the fourth inning of the Yankees' final regular-season game.
“Hit deep to right! This could be it!” Phil Rizzuto exclaimed on the Yankees' radio broadcast. “Way back there! Holy cow! He did it! 61 for Maris!”
The date was Oct. 1, 1961. Today, it is a date that is hailed in baseball history. Back then, and for years after, to many it was considered a date that will live in baseball infamy.
And it led to this thought spoken to then-Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson by Maris on the occasion of his No. 9 being retired by the Yankees in 1984: “My career was not an enjoyable experience. That’s the sad part. I went through a career that should have been very enjoyable. It turned out to be not so enjoyable.”
When Maris hit No. 61, there were only 23,154 fans in the stands. Three days later, the Yankees drew 62,397 to Game 1 of the World Series against Cincinnati.
By now, you probably know the outlines of the story. Many fans, and many people in baseball, didn't want to see Ruth's record broken, but if anyone was going to do it, they wanted it to be Mantle.
Mantle was the golden boy, the homegrown Yankee whose feats on the diamond led a generation of fans to consider him a deity. So many male babies named “Mickey”; so many Little Leaguers who wore No. 7, just as another generation wore No. 2 in honor of Derek Jeter (and, in the current time, No. 99 is popping up everywhere because that’s the number across Judge’s broad back).
Mantle finished with 54 home runs. He missed the final week of the regular season after a doctor’s shot, purportedly to help cure a virus, caused an abscess in his hip. The doctor was nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” because of his penchant for treating patients with amphetamine injections.
Maris was an outsider, a plain-talking, square-jawed North Dakotan who was traded to the Yankees from the Kansas City A’s on Dec. 11, 1959.
He was the AL’s Most Valuable Player in 1960, when he hit a then-career-high 39 home runs. He would win the award again in 1961.
Maris, by pedigree and personality, was a most unlikely candidate to break Ruth’s record.
“Maris was treated terribly in New York by everyone,” said Danny Peary, co-author along with Tom Clavin of the 2010 book “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero.”
“I won’t say ‘everyone,' ” Peary said. “I’ll say enough people to make it really hard on you, including fans. One of the telltale things is how few people were at the Stadium on the final game when he did break the record.”
As the M&M Boys vied for Ruth’s record, commissioner Ford Frick, the Yankees organization and the influential New York baseball-writing press all made it clear they did not consider Maris worthy of the moment.
Except that he was.
“When I hit 61, I had a feeling of exultation,” Maris said in 1984. “I also had the feeling that the season was over. I didn’t know what I’d have done if the season had gone on a little longer.”
The “sheer hell” Maris referred to included boos from home and road fans as he neared the mark; an unrelenting torrent of negative stories about him in the newspapers, and hair falling out of the back of his head as the pressure mounted.
“Nobody knows what the pressure is like unless they’ve gone through it,” Maris said in 1984. “You’re constantly thinking about what you’re doing, to the point where you don’t sleep at night.”
Maris also was undermined by an unfortunate decision by Frick — who had been the ghostwriter of Ruth's newspaper columns and book — that to this day is still mislabeled and misunderstood.
Fact: Frick announced in July that because it was set in a 154-game season, Ruth’s record would have to be surpassed in 154 games to be considered “broken” in official baseball records. The AL (but not the NL) had expanded its season to 162 games in 1961 to accommodate two expansion teams (the Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels; the Mets and Houston Colt 45s would arrive in the NL in 1962).
Maris broke the record in the final game of the regular season, his 161st of the year and the team's 163rd (including one tie). So Frick’s decree meant, in the official baseball record book, that Ruth held the 154-game home run record and Maris held the 162-game record. They were side-by-side in the record book, but there was no doubt which one official baseball considered the “true” home run mark.
Myth: Frick attached an asterisk to Maris’ record. Actually, there never was one next to Maris’ feat (even though Billy Crystal did title his 2001 HBO movie “61*” — a clever use of the supposed asterisk).
No, there was no asterisk, except in public opinion. And that negative opinion only grew.
“When I went to rightfield or to bat, I was booed everywhere,” Maris said in 1984. “It’s pretty hard to play when all the fans are against you. Maybe not all the fans, but it seemed like all.”
Finally, as the years passed, what Maris called a “curse” and a “blessing” finally became mostly a blessing.
Maris was traded by the Yankees to St. Louis after the 1966 season and went on to hit .385 with one home run and seven RBIs for the Cardinals in their thrilling seven-game World Series victory over the Red Sox.
Maris retired after the 1968 season with 275 career home runs, meaning 22% of his total came in 1961.
He moved to Gainesville, Florida, and ran a successful beer distributorship with his brother, Rudy. He and his wife, Pat, raised six children.
He didn’t return to Yankee Stadium until 1978, when he appeared at Old-Timers’ Day. But even then, Maris wasn’t sure how he would be received.
“Roger insisted that he not come out by himself,” Peary said. “He had Mickey Mantle with him, so there were cheers. Mantle, who loved Roger Maris, was completely happy to do it. Maris was genuinely surprised with how welcomed he was when he came back to Yankee Stadium.”
The thaw in the relationship led to owner George Steinbrenner deciding to retire Maris’ No. 9 in an Old-Timers’ Day ceremony that began on July 21, 1984, and continued the next day after it was interrupted by rain. Maris’ number was retired along with the 32 worn by the late Elston Howard.
What Steinbrenner knew was that Maris had been diagnosed with lymphoma the previous November.
During the 1961 season, Maris had been reluctant to discuss his personal life, which led to some of the negative press he received. Reporters wanted Maris to feed the publicity beast, and he refused.
In 1984, fighting cancer at the age of 49, Maris was open about it to Newsday’s Jacobson, saying he was in remission.
“It does shock you the first time they tell you that — cancer,” Maris said. “I’m going to look at it positively. I’ve done that all my life. No reason to change.”
Maris played in the Old-Timers’ Day game held on July 22. He didn’t homer, but he did drive in the game’s only run with a single up the middle.
Maris was given a standing ovation as he came out of the dugout for the rain-delayed number retirement ceremony. As he began his speech, he said: “I better look at this paper, because for the first time I could get emotional about this.”
Maris died 17 months later, on Dec. 14, 1985, at the age of 51.
In 1991, on the 30th anniversary of Maris’ feat, commissioner Fay Vincent ordered that the record books be revised so that Maris would be the sole owner of the single-season home run record.
Of course, Maris was eclipsed by Mark McGwire when he hit 70 in 1998. Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Both of those feats are considered tainted by performance-enhancing drug use, which McGwire has admitted and Bonds has denied.
Judge’s assault on Maris’ American League record has led to a renewed debate about the true MLB home run mark: Maris’ “clean” 61 or Bonds’ “tainted” 73.
Judge weighed in on that this past week when he told Sports Illustrated: “Seventy-three is the record, in my book. No matter what people want to say about that era of baseball, for me, they went out there and hit 73 homers and 70 homers, and that to me is what the record is. The AL record is 61, so that is one I can kind of try to go after. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s been a fun year so far.”
And "a fun year" sure beats "sheer hell" in any book.