It is going, it is going, it is gone


Sixty-one years ago, a seven-year-old boy and his six-year-old brother were in bed at an early hour on a Wednesday night in mid-September. A school night. But they weren't quite asleep, because they knew their parents were watching the Yankee game on the black and white TV at the other end of the apartment. The folks had promised that they'd wake the boys up if the outfielder Roger Maris of the Yankees hit a home run. The older boy, that was me.

Maris was in pursuit of Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season. His teammate and fellow outfielder, Mickey Mantle, had also been shooting for that mark, but the Mick had faded with injuries. As Maris approached the record, the TV guys fired up a videotape machine to record his every move on the field. If he hit a homer, it would be instantly replayed – the first time any of us had ever experienced something like that.

On that Wednesday night, not long after lights-out, Mom and Dad came and got us up quick. Maris had hit no. 59, and we hustled into the living room in time to see it played back. There was a graphic of the number 59 superimposed on the upper corner of the screen as he ran around the bases. (Years later I came to learn that the number was put on the TV screen by means of something called a "tel-op" machine. I even got to work one once in college. It was quite a contraption.)

Anyway, we cheered for Roger and then were ushered back to bed. I'm sure we stayed awake a lot longer to see if he would hit another one that night, but he didn't. It took almost another week for him to hit no. 60, and it wasn't until a Sunday afternoon, the last day of the season, that he put no. 61 over the fence.

They never gave the guy his due, really, because he hit his 61 homers in a 162-game season, whereas Ruth's mark was reached in a 154-game season. The baseball commissioner, Ford Frick, said there would have to be an asterisk in the record books. Besides, everyone had been rooting for Mantle, not Maris. 

Since then, some National League guys who were clearly pumped up on steroids have hit more than 61, but given that they broke the rules, their names and numbers don't really matter. Maris did it without any chemical help except from nicotine. Occasionally the TV camera would catch him enjoying a smoke in the dugout.

Anyway, I saunter down Memory Lane with Roger today because the current Yankee who plays the same position, Aaron Judge, just smacked his 60th home run of the year last night. This is the real deal, as players get tested regularly for steroids nowadays, and Judge would be in big trouble if he tested positive. And last night was only game no. 147. If he hits one more in the next seven games, he'll pass Babe Ruth without an asterisk. And if he hits two more before the season is out, he will hold both the Yankee and American League all-time single-season records.

Judge is also hitting for average and has a shot at the "triple crown" (best batting average, most home runs, and most runs batted in in the same season). That is rarely done. By my count, exactly one guy has pulled it off in either major league since 1967.

Big Aaron's baseball talent is something, but the ability he has to take some of us back in time, way back, is something else entirely. Maris, circling the bases in his New York pinstripes, wore uniform no. 9. Judge is doing the same thing wearing the same uniform, only no. 99. Seems like it was meant to be.

Comments

  1. thanks Jack...it was so great to be a kid back in 1961!

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  2. Jack, you missed you calling. You should have been a sportswriter.

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    Replies
    1. I was one! In high school. I handed the torch to a classmate named Fred Kerber. He went on to make a great career out of it in the Big Apple.

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  3. I also remember Maris rounding the bases with the number 59 on the screen (much earlier in the evening out here in the west). I believe it was against the Orioles, with Jack Fisher (maybe?) pitching. I was only 6 years old and just becoming a baseball fan. Quite a season to begin with.

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