Now batting in our Pinch Hitters series is John Ettinger, who wrote in appreciation of a broken record.
A sophomore economics major at Yale — “and a proud member of Saybrook College,” he wrote — John grew up in New York City and hopes to one day write public economic policy. Although he worked last summer as an intern with the Mets, John has always been a Yankees fan, counting Phil Hughes as his favorite player, “since the day he was drafted.”
“My father and grandfather inspired in me a love for both the sport and the team,” John wrote.
In a sport of hallowed records, there is none quite as sacred as the single-season home run mark. A home run is, in every sense, the perfect physical feat: the sweet “crack” of the bat, the eerie stillness as the ball disappears into the night, the skyward gaze of the helpless fielders. Americans hold a special reverence for the home run and for those heroes who can launch not just one or two, but dozens over the course of a season.
One such hero is an under-appreciated country boy from Fargo, North Dakota. Roger Maris did the unthinkable in 1961 by supplanting the Great Bambino (albeit given 8 more games) as America’s home run king. His 61 dingers stood for over three decades as the unrivaled pinnacle of sporting achievement. Today? The single-season home run tally looks like this:
1) Barry Bonds, 73 (2001)
2) Mark McGwire, 70 (1998)
3) Sammy Sosa, 66 (1998)
4) Mark McGwire, 65 (1999)
5) Sammy Sosa, 64 (2001)
6) Sammy Sosa, 63 (1999)
*7) Roger Maris, 61 (1961)
*8) Babe Ruth, 60 (1927)
9) Babe Ruth, 59 (1921)
T-10) Jimmie Fox, 58 (1932)
T-10) Hank Greenberg, 58 (1938)
T-10) Mark McGwire, 58 (1997)
T-10) Ryan Howard, 58 (2006)
Maris’ legacy has fallen far and fast. Once a king, he has now dropped to seventh on the all-time list. You may, however, have noticed an interesting trend among the top ten (or perhaps deduced the theme of this article). When we control for players who have tested positive for steroids, have admitted to using steroids or have heads the size of a watermelon, the list takes on a different shape:
*1) Roger Maris, 61 (1961)
*2) Babe Ruth, 60 (1927)
3) Babe Ruth, 59 (1921)
T-4) Jimmie Fox, 58 (1932)
T-4) Hank Greenberg, 58 (1938)
T-4) Ryan Howard, 58 (2006)
7) Luis Gonzalez, 57 (2001) (this is a generous inclusion)
T-8) Ken Griffey, Jr., 56 (1997)
T-8) Ken Griffey, Jr., 56 (1998)
T-8) Hack Wilson, 56 (1930)
The point here is simple. Maris’ 1961 season still stands unmatched by any clean sluggers. Despite remarkable advances in technology, training and medicine, despite the gradual shrinking of ballparks, despite the furious attempts of thousands of would-be heroes, Maris /still/ stands alone. This mark, now 49 years old, is truly one of the most treasured achievements in the history of sport.
Will Roger Maris make the Hall of Fame? No. Will he ever again wear the single-season home run crown? No. But to all true fans of sport, we will always know. We will always remember that the power of a record comes not from a silly number but from a shared memory—the memory of a boy (my father) scrambling through the morning paper to read a box score; the memory of a hero toppling baseball’s greatest giant; the memory of a legacy that will never die in the hearts of true baseball fans.