BOOK: Yankees Aaron Judge’s quest to break Roger Maris’ home run record was pursuit of history

15 July 2023

You didn’t have to be a Yankees fan to appreciate history being made last summer.

Even those misguided souls who hate the Bronx Bombers were invested. As it became apparent that Aaron Judge could break Roger Maris’ American League home run record, the baseball world focused on the outfielder’s quest.

On Oct. 4, Judge hit a slider and made the record books. Bryan Hoch details this journey in “62: Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees, and the Pursuit of Greatness.”

There’s deep reporting here and an appreciation for the sport’s history. Sometimes this is so detailed that it defines insider baseball. Few true fans, though, would pass on learning more. What comes through is a portrait of a focused, honorable man.

It’s not as if Yankees fans just noticed Judge last season. The powerful outfielder carries himself with grace and always puts the team first. In 2017, he slammed 52 home runs, earning the title of Rookie of the Year.

Last season, though, was different. It was marked by anticipation, tension, and elation.

It isn’t too soon to recount, and this book is more than a recitation of games. It explains how the boy who grew up in Linden, Calif., as a San Francisco Giants fan became a Yankees titan set against the season that led to his becoming the team’s 16th captain.

“I can’t imagine the Yankees without Aaron Judge,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone writes in the preface. “At his core, he just wants to be a great teammate and win. I think that really does simplify things for him.”

Before diving deep into Judge’s spectacular season, Hoch clears up some confusion about the last time the Bronx went nuts over a record-busting run. “Despite the widespread notion of an asterisk dotting the record books, perpetuated by the title of Billy Crystal’s 2001 meticulously researched film ‘61*,’ there is not, and never was, an asterisk placed next to Maris’s achievement.”

Hoch captures the drama of Judge being a free agent while turning in a season that will be talked about for as long as there is baseball. He references Judge’s days at Fresno State when the Yankees’ Chad Bohling, director of mental conditioning, met with the young slugger. He noted then what everyone has since learned — Judge is a superstar, but fundamentally, he’s a team player.

In his first at-bat for the team in 2016, Judge smashed a ball 446 feet. “Those were depths rarely tested since the opening of the new Yankee Stadium seven years earlier,” Hoch writes. “Judge became the third player to hit a ball off or over the glass panels above Monument Park.”

Once fans saw what he could do and how he did it so humbly, Judge was instantly a favorite. How many other players have had a section reserved for them and a goofy, fun ritual of rising in The Judge’s Chambers?

As glorious as his record is, though, Judge is hardly done. There are World Series to win.

Hoch quotes Judge: “When you look around Yankee Stadium, you don’t see division championships or ‘we made it to the playoffs this year.’ You see World Championship banners everywhere. To be here from ‘16 on and still not have a banner up that you’ve contributed to, it’s tough and frustrating, but it’s also motivation to go out there and make this year special.”

Even those of us who stood silently as No. 99 faced pitchers and thought we had a decent handle on Judge’s remarkable season are bound to learn behind-the-scenes info.

It’s almost inconceivable that while in his race against history, no one knew if Judge would remain in pinstripes. The money at stake could spark arguments about the imbalance of wealth.

Naturally, the $360 million was crucial, but it was never about just the cash. Judge wanted to play his career in pinstripes, and if he stays healthy, he’ll retire still wearing 99.

That Judge is a big guy is hardly news to anyone who’s seen him. Hoch puts his size into perspective. “Only six position players who weighed at least 250 pounds were still playing at age thirty-seven,” he writes of the 6-foot, 7-inch, 282-pound athlete.

Rumors swirled that he was returning to California. Judge’s team was still negotiating on April 8, when he took the field for the season opener. The year started slow. Five games in, Judge had nary a homer.

The journalist quotes him: “It was tough in the beginning, definitely in April. There is a little doubt that creeps in your mind about it. You’re sitting there in the outfield, thinking, ‘Man, I should have taken that deal (the original seven-year, $213.5 million offer). I’m hitting .240, and I’ve got no homers. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I think they’re right.’”

Readers go through the season, game by game. After, Hal Steinbrenner texted Judge directly, asking: “What’s it going to take to get this to the finish line?”

Hoch recounts stories about the human side of Judge — as opposed to the superhuman side he unleashes during games. Judge remembers what it was like to be a starstruck kid.

The story of his ninth home run of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays encapsulated that. A ball landed on a Jays’ fan’s food tray. He gave it to a boy, asking him to pay forward the kindness someday. When Judge heard, he invited both to a game. Judge asked who his favorite player was.

Derek Rodriguez, then 9, showed off his only Yankees’ gear — a Judge shirt. Judge signed the ball and gave him a pair of his batting gloves, knowing that’s more meaningful than an autograph.

“That still gives me goosebumps to this day, to see little kids wearing my number, wearing my jersey,” Judge said. “I used to be in his position, that little kid, rooting on my favorite players and teams.”

These anecdotes flesh out the chase, which otherwise could be a numbers rehash. Still, each home run is logged, and history is harkened.

“It was not even Independence Day, and Roger Maris was halfway to Ruthville,” Hoch writes.

Judge got to the Ruth halfway point on July 14 against the Cincinnati Reds.

As he racked up homers, the impossible dawned possible. Still, there’s a reason the AL record stood for 61 years. This being baseball, where everything must be a statistic, Hoch offers, “Should you ever wind up in a bar, quizzed about the identities of the three Yankees to hit 40 or more homers by the end of July, don’t overcomplicate the matter. It’s Judge, Maris (1961), and Babe Ruth (1927).”

The Yankees brought in Roger Maris, Jr. for the games when his dad’s record could be broken. Hoch perfectly captures how the faithful all but collectively prayed when 62 loomed.

“The strangest part was the silence,” Hoch writes. “As Aaron Judge closed in on Roger Maris’s storied record, each at-bat down the stretch carrying the weight of long-gone legends, Yankee Stadium borrowed from the tranquil ambiance of a putting green at the Masters. The grandstands were packed, tens of thousands on their feet, hoping to capture a slice of history with their smartphones. Yet there was nary a sound.”

Until Oct. 4.


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