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Aaron Judge’s record home run pursuit introduces new generation to Roger Maris

I’ve been torn lately as my long-lost youth has clashed with modern-day inevitabilities. There’s a part of me that didn’t want to see Roger Maris’s single-season home run record broken; a part of me that hoped it would somehow last forever. But there was another voice inside my soul that said, “If someone’s going to do it, I’m happy it is Aaron Judge.”

While dealing with these mixed emotions, I’ve been reminded that records are meant to be broken and nothing lasts forever. Time marches on – inexorably. Waits for no one. Swiftly flow the years, like homers off the bats of Maris and Judge, and we are left to relive our youth and bemoan its passing. A six-year-old boy wakes up one morning and gazes into the mirror and sees a 67-year-old man staring back at him.

A lifetime ago, I was that six-year-old, with interests in a million things, but not baseball. Then, one day during that magical summer of 1961, while watching the evening news, I heard Walter Cronkite talk about the “M&M Boys.” My curiosity was piqued because I thought it had something to do with those delicious,  hard-shelled, chocolate-filled candies that, according to the advertising slogan of the day, melted in your mouth, not in your hands. Ah, the naivete of youth. I quickly discovered the “M&M Boys,” aka Maris and Mickey Mantle, were providing a sugar-high of a different kind; that they were sluggers for the New York Yankees and were launching baseballs over walls at a pace never seen before.

On our grainy black-and-white television – the one with the rabbit ears antenna wrapped in aluminum foil to improve reception – I watched Saturday’s Game of the Week with rapt attention as Roger and Mickey did their things. There was such a sense of anticipation each time they came up to bat. I was hooked.

Before long, I was listening to games on my transistor radio and scanning newspapers for box scores and stories about my newly discovered heroes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the summer the seeds for my sports writing career were planted. It also was the summer when neighborhood kids and I started playing Wiffle ball, using bikes and backyard hedgerows as imaginary ballpark fences.

I was a Mantle guy from the start, but unlike many fans and reporters of that era I never rooted against Maris. In fact, when Mickey fell out of the race late that season because of a severe hip infection, I pulled for Roger to eclipse Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 homers established in 1927. Our wishes came true during the final game of the ’61 season when Roger blasted No. 61.

His mark stood for 27 years before being surpassed by suspected steroid-users Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and topped again in 2001 when Barry Bonds clubbed his 73 chemically enhanced homers. There clearly is no un-ringing of the bell from that sorry era of baseball history when syringes became as talked about as bats. So be it. To me, those records will always be tainted, more the product of chemistry and the lack of performance-enhancing-drug regulations of the times than they were of God-given ability and hard work.

One of the neat offshoots of Judge’s historic run is that it’s called attention to Maris’s unforgettable season. It has introduced a new generation to the greatness and humbleness that was Maris. He shares many attributes with Judge. Like the current Yankee masher, Maris was the ultimate team player who excelled in numerous facets of the game. And, like Judge, he didn’t like being in the limelight. Of course, it’s impossible not to be in the limelight when you are smacking home runs at a record pace and you’re playing in the media capital of the world.

In some respects, Maris had it much harder than Judge because fans and media were openly rooting against him. The press corps covering Maris swelled to 100 reporters by the start of September. Competition for exclusive stories became fierce. This led to erroneous reporting, including fabricated stories that Maris and Mantle couldn’t stand one another, when, in fact, they were the best of friends, rooming together with teammate Bob Cerv at a non-descript apartment in Queens.

“The deeper we got into the summer, the tougher it got for Roger,’’ late Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer once told me. “More and more writers were jumping on the story, and Roger grew irritated answering the same questions over and over and over. And some of these writers acted like they didn’t have a brain. I remember one guy asking Roger if he fooled around on the road. Roger looked at him in disbelief and said, ‘No.’ The guy said, ‘Well, I do.’ And Roger said, ‘That’s your business. I’m happily married.’”

The heat grew more intense that July when Commissioner Ford Frick, a close friend of Ruth’s, decreed Maris and/or Mantle would have to break the Babe’s mark in 154 games or there would be an asterisk placed in the record books. Most columnists wrote the ruling was fair because the schedule had been expanded that season to 162 games.

Near the end of the chase, the pressure became so suffocating that Maris was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and clumps of his hair the size of silver dollars were falling out. Somehow, the shy, taciturn outfielder from North Dakota persevered. As he rounded the bases at Yankee Stadium after hitting homer No. 61 off Boston’s Tracy Stallard, he felt as if the weight of a dugout had been lifted from his shoulders.

Judge can relate. The massive 6-foot-7, 280-pound right fielder has handled this quest with dignity and class. If someone had to break it, I’m glad it was Judge. And I think the late Roger Maris would have felt the same way.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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