ALL RISE: Aaron Judge and Why It Matters

In the 1927 baseball season, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, which was notable not only for being the most to that date, but the most by far. The three previous records he broke were his own, and the one before that was 16, so hitting 60 in a single season was incredible. That was more than some entire teams hit in a season. Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season endured until 1961, when Roger Maris managed to hit 61. That was the record until October 4th of 2022, when Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run. This is an impressive and inspiring story, for reasons I’ll elaborate.

But, readers who follow baseball will surely note, isn’t the previous paragraph glaringly inaccurate? “You have completely overlooked,” they’re thinking to themselves, “the fact that in 1998, both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit more than 61: they hit 70 and 66 to be precise! Sosa actually had three such seasons, and McGwire had two. Then in 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73. So, surely, this author must have meant that Judge’s feat was to set a new American League record, as McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all National League players.”

I’m sure the record books will list Judge as the AL record holder, not the Major League record holder. But keep in mind, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all hitting in the “Steroid Era,” when power hitters were known to be “juicing” with performance-enhancing drugs. By the time Judge came up, baseball was testing for such drugs. So Judge has the AL record, and arguably the clean-hitting major league record.

Baseball fans like to argue, perhaps even more than philosophers, so there will be plenty of opinions on both sides here. Some will argue that the Steroid-Era records don’t really count or shouldn’t count, as the PEDs distorted the game in the same way that subsidies distort the market.

But others will note that the game changes all the time, so we have to take records contextually.  Ruth, for example, hit his 60 in a time when the season consisted of 154 games. When Maris played, the baseball season was 162 games. Would Ruth have had more home runs if he’d played eight more games? We’ll never know. Also, in Ruth’s day, baseball was segregated, so we’ll never know whether he’d have had more or fewer homers if the Negro League pitchers had been facing him. But, we take these in stride and record Ruth’s 60 and Maris’s 61. Why, the argument goes, shouldn’t we also record Steroid-Era hitters’ home run records?

Interestingly, Judge himself has said that he takes the record to be 73. He is, by all reports, a classy and humble player, who takes team success to be more important than his personal stats. It’s a credit to his character that he feels that way. By contrast, Maris’ son has said that he thinks Steroid-Era records should not count, but was happy to see Judge break his father’s record, specifically because Judge plays clean.

The record books will say what they say, and baseball fans will have the argument for decades to come. Minimally, we know Judge has the American League record. In any event, this is a milestone worth noting, and one reason is that Judge plays clean, is a good sportsman and a good teammate, and by all accounts a man of good character. When someone who is by all reports a good person, and who also has exceptional talent, accomplishes something great, everyone ought to appreciate and celebrate it. While baseball “doesn’t matter” in one sense, it does matter as an allegory for excellence and achievement. Athletes aren’t literally saving lives when they compete, but they can illustrate virtues in a way that communicates to others pretty clearly. 

Celebrating excellence is always warranted, and the sort of accomplishment we see in Aaron Judge is an example that is public and commonly accessible. It shows us what the correct attitude should be towards great character and accomplishment in our own lives. And in a way, this tips the needle away from the Steroid-Era players, whose use of chemical performance enhancements can be seen as cutting corners, or seeking unfair advantage. This is a useful analogy to those whose businesses succeed because they have built a better mousetrap, versus those who prosper because they have leveraged political pull to secure unfair advantage in the market. The latter will get you on the Fortune 500, but does not warrant celebration by the rest of us, because that’s not “playing clean.” 

While we might have to say that Judge “merely” holds the American League record, it’s worth celebrating because of his character and fair play. Judge is an asterisk-free baseball hero whose accomplishments illustrate the connection between virtue and success in a way that can be instructive far outside sport. 

All rise, indeed.

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