The Curse of the Home Run Record

On September 30, 1927 -- in front of an estimated 8,000 fans at Yankee Stadium -- Babe Ruth came to the plate with his Yankees and the Washington Senators tied 2-2. Yankees shortstop Mark Koenig -- the only one of the top four in that Yankees lineup NOT in the Hall of Fame -- tripled, so all Ruth needed to do was crack a little single to give Yankees the lead.

Instead, he pulled a home run to right field over the head of (Hall of Famer) Sam Rice. It was not a particularly impressive home run, certainly not by Ruth standards. "Witnesses of this act in the drama say it was only six inches fair," wrote W.O. McGeehan. "It was not one of those magnificent home runs banged against the dim horizon, perhaps, but it was a home run nonetheless, and the sixtieth."

Ruth, as he ran around the bases, took off his cap and waved it to the crowd.

"This was his sixtieth home run," wrote The Indianapolis News in a particularly prescient commentary, "not only for him, but for all time. Babe Ruth had come back. Nobody can tell about what will happen ... but nobody can take away from Babe Ruth the record he has made."

Nobody can take away from Babe Ruth the record he has made. Here we are, ninety years later, and in so many ways Ruth's 60 homers of 1927 are still the standard. Four players have hit more than 60 homers in a season, but in one way or another each of them has been wounded by it. Now, Giancarlo Stanton hits home runs at a dizzying pace, and he has a shot at 60 homers, and people talk about him potentially breaking the "real record."

But you have to wonder: Is the "real record" something that can ever be broken?

* * *

On July 17, 1961, with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hitting home runs at a dizzying pace, baseball commissioner Ford Frick held a press conference. There was a serious issue to discuss. Maris and Mantle both had a chance to break Ruth's cherished record of 60 home runs. But, there was a complicating factor. See, 1961 was the first season of baseball's 162-game schedule. Ruth, of course, had set his record in 154 games.

Frick, as has been noted many times through the years, was not the most unbiased of arbiters. He was a lifelong Ruth fan, having written some especially purple prose about Ruth when Frick was a sportswriter. They later became close friends. Frick was there at Ruth's bedside when the great man died.

"Standard yardsticks might suffice for ordinary mortals," Frick would later write in his autobiography. "Not for Babe. He was different!"

On that day in July, Frick announced (by the power vested in him as commissioner of baseball) that only someone who hit 61 home runs in the first 154 games would be considered to have truly broken Ruth's record in n baseball's official record book. If someone hit their 61st home run during the eight extra games tacked on at the end of the season, well, then there would be TWO records, Ruth's record for 154 games, and the other guy for 162 games.

"Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record," the writer and loudmouth Dick Young said. "Everybody does that when there's a difference of opinion."

And that's how the whole asterisk thing began.

Now, it should be noted: There was no asterisk. There was also official baseball record book then. The commissioner of baseball didn't have the power to determine how writers and fans and statisticians would view the record. But -- and this is the part that gets missed when people look back and mock Frick's ruling -- MOST PEOPLE AGREED WITH HIM. That's why the whole Maris asterisk myth even happened.

The Sporting News did a poll of baseball writers, and by a vote of more than two-to-one, they sided with Frick. In fact, most of the writers believed Frick didn't go nearly far enough. They wanted to tear the entire record book in half. They didn't think Maris should get the record even if he broke it in the first 154 games.

"You can't compare times for a 100-yard dash to a 100-meter dash because of difference distances," wrote St. Louis' influential writer Bob Broeg. "I favor complete separation of records based on 154-game schedules."

"I believe he or the Playing Rules Committee should rule that separate filings be set up for all baseball records," The Cincinnati Post's Tom Swope wrote.

"I favor two sets of records," Joe Cashman of the Boston Record said.

"All records should be preserved on the 154-game basis," wrote Dick Young, who believed that the 162-game thing was a farce and that baseball would soon regain its senses and go back to 154 games.

And so on. This was the passionate feeling of the day. "Maris has no right to break Ruth's record," Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby howled, and though it was a nasty thing to say (Hornsby could be quite nasty), it was how most people seemed to feel.

Now, there were a few sportswriters who disagreed with Frick and the majority -- my favorite being the legendary Larry Merchant, who was a 30-year-old writer for the Philadelphia Daily News then. "It is my opinion that Commissioner Frick is out of order," Merchant wrote. "He tries to change the tides. He cannot. What is a record? It is a recording of achievement. No amount of doctoring, by asterisks, question marks or exclamation points, will alter the fact that when Ruth's record of 60 home runs is broken, it is broken."

As sensible as that sounds now, it was a distinctly minority opinion then. Maris never stood a chance. His final days of chasing the record were unique miserable, n part because of the Frick controversy, in part because Maris shied away from attention, in part because the fans had chosen his teammate and friend Mickey Mantle as the worthy successor to Ruth, not him. Sportswriters wrote ceaselessly about his loneliness during the chase, not always with much empathy.

"Maybe I'm not a great man," he told reporters on the morning of October 1, "but I damn well want to break the record."

Roger Maris hit that record-breaking 61st home run on October 1, 1961 in front of 23,000 or so at Yankee Stadium. Only very few people saw it as record breaking. The 1962 Little Red Book of Baseball (the closest thing to an official record book) only gave Roger Maris the "162 Game Record." Ruth still had the 154-Game record.

It was that way until the Little Red Book changed its name to the Elias Book of Records in 1973 (and for some time after that). The Sporting News, which called itself the Bible of Baseball and was generally viewed that way, also printed Ruth's record alongside Maris'.

"It would have been a helluva lot more fun," Maris was quoted saying late in his life, "if I had not hit those 61 home runs."

* * *

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on their laser light show in the summer of 1998, it was the first time in years that baseball captured America's daily attention. People are always predicting the imminent death of baseball, always talking about how it moves too slowly for the kids, how it doesn't have enough violence to excite our dulled senses, how games are too long and too common and too familiar to grab us anymore. But the game rolls along anyway, drawing in record crowds, setting various money-making records and every then now and again -- the Cubs win the World Series, young Kansas City Royals electrify the Heartland, a kid from a tiny town in North Carolina gets everybody out, a bunch of self-proclaimed idiots beat the Yankees -- baseball reminds us of its power.

And so, it was nothing but good feelings when McGwire and Sosa exchanged monster home runs nightly in 1998. Baseball was at a low point, for sure. The strike of 1994 canceled a World Series. The threatened replacement player scam of 1995 hurt baseball in countless ways. The 1997 Marlins won the World Series and represented more or less everything crummy, they were a collection of baseball mercenaries bought up up by Blockbuster Video titan Wayne Huizenga, and then the team was quickly dismantled after the season ended (the 1998 Marlins went 54-108, the most embarrassing World Series defense ever).

And then here was McGwire, a larger-than-life Californian hitting Ruthian home runs not only during games but also in spectacular batting practice displays for the fans. And then there was Sosa, the ultimate baseball story, a once-poor-kid from the Dominican Republic who swung hard and for the fences and with obvious joy. Back and forth they went, mashing baseballs, thrilling crowds, blowing minds, putting the game of baseball on the front pages of America's newspapers.

McGwire broke Maris' record on September 8, 1998 -- fittingly in a game against Sosa's Cubs. He hit No. 62 off Steve Trachsel on a a very un-McGwire trajectory; it was a line drive hit so low that McGwire did not think it would get out. But it did, barely sneaking over the fence, and McGwire was so overwhelmed by the moment that he initially missed first base. He promptly went over to hug the Maris family in a touching scene that seemed pulled from a movie.

Six days later, Sammy Sosa hit his 62nd home run off Eric Plunk of the Milwaukee Brewers.

McGwire famously ended up with 70 home runs that year, Sosa with 66, and both men would surpass 60 homers again the next year (Sosa would do it a third time in 2001). But, of course, their achievements would begin to lose luster. A reporter noticed a legal-supplement -- androstenedione -- in McGwire's locker, and there was a bit of a commotion about it (most of it, at first, focused on the reporter). Rick Reilly, then of Sports Illustrated, asked Sosa to take a drug test, and there was a bit of a commotion about it (most of it, at first, focused on Reilly).

Bob Costas, among other national baseball people, began to question the authenticity of these home run records. Congress began to ask questions. Players and owners began to fight over drug testing. Tom Verducci's "Totally Juiced" story for Sport Illustrated -- featuring an explosive interview with the late Ken Caminiti -- made an overwhelming case that steroid use in baseball was out of control.

And we know what happened then.

Mark McGwire ended up tearfully apologizing for his steroid use in an interview with Costas.

Sosa continuously denied ever using drugs -- the New York Times did report that he failed a 2003 drug test that was supposed to be anonymous. In 2017, despite a career with more than 600 home runs and those three seasons where he "broke" the record, Sosa received just 8.6 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.

* * *

By the time Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run on October 5, 2001, almost nobody was buying it. He mashed it off Chan Ho Park, first inning, and the celebration was, at most, muted. Everyone seemed tired. There were too many home runs. It was like the morning after Halloween, the sugar high had dissipated, all that was left was the crash. Few people outside of San Francisco liked Barry Bonds anyway, and one of the sports of the day was finding photographs to compare Bonds' bulk and head size through the year. Anyway, all of this was in the wake of 9/11, and there was a general somberness in America. Bonds hit a second home run off Park two innings later, No. 72, and it all felt kind of pointless.

"Our only error," the television producer Albert Freedman would say in the wake of the "Twenty One" quiz show scandal in the 1960sl, "was that we were TOO successful."

Bonds -- unlike McGwire -- never really had a stretch of time where America at large viewed him as the rightful home run king, despite his 73 home runs in 2001. Oh, sure, he has his supporters. Baseball has never seen ANYTHING like what he did from 2001-2004. He put up four of the craziest seasons in baseball history, capped by managers' league-wide boycott of him -- they intentionally walked him 120 times in 2004. Bonds got so good that he essentially broke the game.

But nobody really thought he was doing it clean. People have very different views of how much steroids helps a player perform and how we should view those players who never failed a drug test (in large part because there WERE no drug tests). But what is not in dispute is that Bonds' insane performance just inspired more outrage about PEDs and what they were doing to the game and what it meant for the beloved history of baseball. Our only error was that we were too successful.

In 2007, when Bonds was chasing another beloved home run record -- Henry Aaron's career record of 755 homers -- baseball comissioner history repeated itself. This time the commissioner was Bud Selig, a lifelong friend of Aaron's. And though he did not make a public proclamation the way Ford Frick had, did not suggest displaying two records in the official books of the games, his actions and unhidden disdain suggested that he did not view Bonds' record as legitimate and that he would continue to view Aaron as the true king.

And, like with Frick in '61, the vast majority of people seemed to agree with Selig.

Barry Bonds has never admitted to taking steroids (though he did at one point say that he used various steroid substances in the belief that they were legal nutritional supplements). Bonds was indicted, went through trials, was found guilty of Obstruction of Justice, had the conviction overturned in appeal.

He once told reporters that he would boycott Cooperstown if his home run records were tarnished by asterisks. There are no asterisks -- his 73 homers in a season and 762 career homers are listed in the Hall of Fame as the official records. As of today, in the plaque room of the Hall of Fame, there is also no Barry Bonds.

* * *

Now it is Giancarlo Stanton with 49 home runs and 35 games left to get into the range where he might break whatever home run record you think is legitimate. He has hit 20 home runs in his last 35 games, if that gives you any guidance to what's possible.

Stanton is a wonder. I wrote about him a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned then that he is my daughter's favorite player. I suspect he is many kids' favorite player because he, paradoxcially, is both fearsome and lovable, a bit like that Linderman character in the film, "My Bodyguard." Stanton doesn't just hit a lot of home runs, he hits scary and one-of-a-kind home runs, missiles that scream out of parks. He's baseball's must-watch player at the moment.

And as he keeps adding to this incredible season, the ghosts of Babe Ruth's challengers begin to howl. Stories about the "real record" have already begun, and they will only multiply. What is the "real record?" Some will see if he can hit 61 home runs before his 154th game. Some will see if he can reach 62. Some will see if he can approach the Sosa, McGwire, Bonds stratosphere ... and if he can do so without spoken or unspoken charges tearing him down.

Then, it has always been this way, at least since that day in 1927 when Babe Ruth his hit 60th home run. It's funny, it was even true that day. Ruth broke his own record of 59, set six years earlier in 1921.

"When Babe Ruth poled his sixtieth homer," wrote The Chicago Tribune, "he ecliped his own season's record, which many had never expected to see equalied."

Wait for it ...

"Of course, fences in many ball yards are closer to the home plate than they used to be, because in these days mroe space is used for seats for cash customers."

So the fences were closer and ... oh, theres more:

"Another thing, Babe's reputation as a home run hitter is recognized as a turnstile stipulator and George Herman is encouraged to try his distance clouts."

Yes, even Babe Ruth wasn't quite as good as Babe Ruth.

So maybe the real record is 59.