When Roger Maris Jr. declared that Aaron Judge should be the single-season home run king with his 62nd blast and that “baseball should do something” to make it so, it further extended the pretzel logic that has fueled debates surrounding the sport for more than six decades — and originated with his father.
In a game that treasures both its home run records and comparative analysis, perfect symmetry remains difficult to replicate when eras are different and the sport keeps changing.
When Roger Maris clouted his 61st home run of 1961 to pass Babe Ruth and set the Major League Baseball single-season record, the American League had moved to a 162-game schedule from 154 (the National League followed suit one season later).
It was then-Commissioner Ford Frick who first brought up the idea of placing “some distinctive mark in the record books” to denote that Maris’s mark was set in a season that extended eight games beyond the schedule that Ruth’s Yankees had played. He said this pre-emptively in July 1961 after Maris smacked his 35th homer to move some three weeks ahead of Ruth’s record pace. Notably, Frick did not use the word “asterisk.” But that word quickly became shorthand to describe the spirit of his sentiment.
Now, 61 years later, it is Maris’s eldest son who favors something akin to a “distinctive mark” to distinguish Judge’s A.L. record as the “clean” mark over the scandal-scarred M.L.B. single-season record of 73 set by Barry Bonds in 2001.
There has been no official comment from baseball’s current commissioner, Rob Manfred, nor is there expected to be one, said a person with knowledge of his thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly. But the “asterisk” idea has stubbornly persisted in public debate over the years through changing numbers and transformative circumstances. With it, the so-called steroid era persistently ripples through modern times.
Instead of an asterisk, the broadcaster Bob Costas, honored with the Ford C. Frick Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018 for his decades of excellence, promotes the idea of an introductory page that would be placed at the beginning of baseball’s official record book.
“It would read,” Costas said, “something to the effect of, ‘Baseball has the longest and richest history of any American sport. Over time, the game has gone through many changes, among them segregated, integrated, entirely day ball, mostly night ball, 16 teams and now 30 teams, train travel, cross-country air travel, higher mound, lower mound, reliance on relief pitchers, analytics, and significant among them the so-called steroids era in which many performances, especially by power hitters, were disproportionate to any other era in baseball history. Fans may want to take into account all those facts when considering the records reflected in the pages that follow.’”
Costas favors that approach over an asterisk because “then you’d have to consider asterisks for other circumstances.”
Others don’t think the sport needs to go down the asterisked path of separating records from each other because, as the journalist and author Howard Bryant said, “there already are emotional asterisks that exist.”
“No. 1 is 1947. By mentioning the year, there’s the asterisk,” said Bryant, author of a definitive book on the steroid era, “Juicing the Game” as well as biographies of Henry Aaron and Rickey Henderson. “It was the year Black players got to play. So you know if it’s pre-1947, all those great players, Lou Gehrig never got to play against Black players, Honus Wagner never did, Babe Ruth never did. Conversely, Black players never got a chance to prove themselves against white players.”
Maris’s record of 61 homers stood for 37 summers, until Mark McGwire hit 70 and Sammy Sosa 66 in 1998. Three years later, Bonds smashed 73 to break the record again. Sosa had two other seasons of 60-plus homers and McGwire one, all within that 1998-2001 span. M.L.B. did not begin testing players for performance-enhancing drugs with penalty until 2004.
“We know with Sosa’s numbers, there’s an asterisk just by mentioning his name,” Bryant said. “Ditto for Bonds, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and the rest of them.
“So the only issue is while we are living, we all understand it. But when we’re gone, people who don’t remember it may not associate those years with an asterisk. I think that’s OK. If we’ve done our jobs as chroniclers and storytellers, then history will remember this time for what it was. And then history will change and it will shape and it will reshape as history always does.”
Home runs have fueled imaginations throughout the game’s history, and the sanctity of those particular records always has been paramount to fans relative to most other marks. As Costas noted, one year after Maris surpassed Ruth, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Maury Wills stole 104 bases to break Ty Cobb’s modern record of 96, set in 1915. Frick was still the commissioner in 1962, and though it was the first season of the National League’s move to 162 games from 154, he did not involve himself as he did with Maris and Ruth.
Another recent example resides in the Yankees clubhouse with a teammate of Judge’s. When the reliever Zack Britton established the A.L. record by converting 60 consecutive save opportunities in 2017 for the Baltimore Orioles, he was still 24 behind Eric Gagne’s M.L.B. record. Gagne, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League, was later linked to steroids through the Mitchell Report in 2007 and did not deny it. That led some to suggest that Gagne’s record should be struck down and Britton’s upheld as the true mark.
Britton disagrees and still recognizes Gagne’s record as the true standard. He applies the same thinking to the home run record.
“People at the time were like, ‘Do you think that’s still the record?’ and I said it was,” Britton said of Gagne’s mark. “It’s the record until it’s not. What Bonds did is the record, too.”
Even in the pandemic-shortened, 60-game season in 2020, M.L.B. did not consider special denotations for its statistics.
“In baseball there is neither crying nor the asterisk,” John Thorn, M.L.B.’s official historian, said in an interview then. “No excuses, no pointless shorthand directing you to wrinkle your nose.”
Part of the Maris/Ruth controversy, Costas said, existed because “there were many fans and members of the media who were still alive and had seen Babe Ruth play. Babe Ruth wasn’t like a mythical cartoon character to them, he was a real thing. And they weren’t wrong in saying that Maris, as admirable as he was, was not as transcendent a figure as Ruth. A lot of people figured, well, if anybody’s going to do it, Mickey Mantle’s a certified Hall of Famer.”
Some who did not think Maris was deserving of surpassing Ruth may have even worked in the Yankees’ ticket office. On the final two days of the 1961 season as Maris aimed for his 61st homer, the Saturday attendance at Yankee Stadium was announced as 19,061 and the Sunday attendance was announced as 23,154.
Andy Strasberg, author of the book “My 61,” which chronicles his young fandom rooting for his hero Maris throughout the 1961 season, grew close with the Maris family over the years and is both the namesake and godfather to Andrew Maris, the slugger’s grandson (and son of Randy Maris). Strasberg also worked in the ticket and marketing departments for the San Diego Padres from 1975-96. He’s always believed those attendance totals were a hidden dig at Maris, essentially adding an asterisk to the box score.
“There’s no question in my mind that the ticket office guy was not happy and that was his way,” Strasberg said. “My guess is he wouldn’t screw around with the 19,000 or the 23,000, but the other numbers, he did.”
Strasberg said that the 1961 reference on Saturday was understandable. But regarding the 154-game reference in the listed attendance of 23,154 on the record-breaking day, he said, “now you’re shoving it in my face.”
Similarly, those now chasing the past with asterisks think those who distorted the record book in the late 1990s and the early 2000s were flaunting it too obviously.
“I think what’s really in play here is that if this was only a Yankees record and an American League record, which technically it is, outside of New York it wouldn’t be that big a deal,” Costas said. “A huge percentage of fans, not a bunch of get-off-my-lawn guys, not haters, but reasonable fans who understand what transpired, put what Bonds, McGwire and Sosa did in a different category.”
It is one thing to place that group into a different category figuratively. But to do so literally is to rewrite history and reauthor events that too many people witnessed and watched happen, and modern baseball has steadfastly declined to do that.
“To me, a lot of what took place with what they were taking wasn’t against the rules at that time,” Mets reliever Adam Ottavino said. “You can argue it was against the law, but it wasn’t against the baseball rules. I don’t want to take that away from them, but at the same time I want to make sure that people understand Judge’s record is a different circumstance.”
That is an important point, Costas said.
“Too many people view this as a question of morality or even criminality,” he said. “No. It’s a case of authenticity and legitimacy.”
James Wagner, David Waldstein and Benjamin Hoffman contributed reporting.