Televised Yankee games are blacked out in this part of Connecticut. Aaron Judge may hit a 61st home run at any moment. The stakes are very high. Desperation takes me back to radio – WFAN-AMFM, radio with John Sterling’s play-by-play and color commentary by Suzyn Waldman.
Have no fear. I’ll wax rabid about Judge and about the significance of this season’s milestones, but my first tip of the cap goes to Sterling and Waldman, an elegantly balanced broadcasting duo who remind me of the power of the spoken word. I grew up in an oddly televised baseball mixed marriage as I was stuck in the Northwest corner of Connecticut. Until the Giants left for San Francisco, New York’s WPIX, channel 11, broadcast Yankee and Giant home games. A slightly less predictable signal carried Brooklyn Dodger games, and an occasional shift in the weather allowed the Boston Red Sox to flicker in and out. I became a Yankee fan early on as Joe DiMaggio gave way in center field to Mickey Mantle. Simply remembering the pantheon of Yankee demi-gods brings back the excitement I felt in watching the Yankees at work: Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, Gil McDougald, Bobby Richardson, Gerry Coleman, Andy Carey, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Sal “The Barber” Maglie, Ralph Terry, Bob Turley, Bob Grim.
As William Wordsworth put it, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” For Wordsworth it was The French Revolution, for me Yankee baseball in the 1950’s, and I couldn’t stand to miss a game. Home games were locked in, but when the Yankees went on the road, I had to depend on Mel Allen or Red Barber to take me to the ball game. I built a ham radio and listened with headphones until I received a Sony transistor radio and the world grew larger. I suppose every baseball market has a string of beloved voices, but Allen and Barber were, to me, how baseball was meant to sound. Both announcers had been raised in the south; their voices were as smooth as Tupelo honey. Allen was the more excitable; if he didn’t coin the phrase,”Going – Going – Goooonnnnn!!”, he made it part of the baseball lexicon. Later, as an announcer, retired shortstop Phil Rizzuto would rely on “Holy Cow” to describe all manner of events. Allen’s “Well, how a-bout that?” was only attached to moments of Yankee heroics. I have to restrain myself in writing about Red Barber (“Red Bahbah, Heyah”) because his use of metaphor in the heat of a game was broadcasting at its best. I will pass on a cautionary note that Barber included in his memoir, Rhubarb, his word for a scuffle on the diamond: Barber NEVER swore in any circumstance or setting. It was his conviction that were he to allow a single curse to leave his lips, it might leap out in a moment of excitement in the booth. Excellent advice. Never taken.
OK, so back to AAron Judge.
He is the first contender for baseball’s Triple Crown since Miguel Cabrera played for the Tigers in 2012. Before Cabrera, the most recent crown belonged to Carl Yastrzemski who earned it in 1967. Since 1940, the only other winners were Ted Williams (1942 and 1947), Mickey Mantle (1956), and Frank Robinson (1966). As I write, he has a commanding lead in home runs (60), RBIs (128) and is tied for the leading batting average (.317). Winning a Triple Crown is good stuff but not epochal.
Those 60 home runs, on the other hand, have already put Judge in a conversation about how baseball, a game imbued with precise statistical measurements since Henry Chadwick’s reporting in the 1850s, can compare milestones, such as the home run record, as conditions of play change over the decades.
The most widely shared concern has to do with the explosion of home run power in the decade following the baseball strike and the cancellation of the World Series. In 1998, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa battled to the wire, Sosa pounding out 66 home runs, Mark McGuire rocketing 70 into the bleachers. In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, retiring in 2007 as the all-time home run leader with 762 home runs.
None of these three have been chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame; all three have been linked with the use of performance enhancing drugs during the height of their careers.
For all of recorded history (my first baseball game), the gold standard had belonged to Babe Ruth. He hit 60 home runs in 1927 after hitting 59 in 1926. He ended his career with a total of 714 home runs, what seemed an unassailable lifetime record. Henry Aaron hit 24 or more home runs from 1955 to 1973, amassing 755 home runs when he retired. Home run 715 was celebrated widely as Aaron had been an All-Star and model of consistency throughout his career. Aaron’s stats are unvarnished.
No whiff of impropriety accompanied Roger Maris’ benchmark season of 1961, in which he passed Ruth’s seasonal record by hitting 61 home runs. But … the great scorekeeper in the sky affixed an asterisk to the total in the record book because Ruth had hit his home runs in a 154 game season and Maris hit number 61 in game 162.
The gods give and the gods take away.
The asterisk virtually nullified Maris’ record, but baseball purists have since taken another look at the Ruth years. The ball might have not been as lively, but neither was the pitching Ruth faced. Today’s batters regularly see fastballs exceeding a hundred miles an hour. Estimates vary, but the only pitchers of Ruth’s era who came close to contemporary flamethrowers were Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller. Of course another daunting pitcher was Leroy “Satchel” Paige who pitched in the Negro Leagues from 1926 until 1947. He was still formidable when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948, but we can only guess at what his skill and the skills of the many who never got a chance to play Major League baseball. Ruth was occasionally called The White Josh Gibson for example, as Gibson may have hit as many as 800 home runs.
When Aaron Judge comes to bat tonight, he will already have hit 60 home runs in 148 games. At the same point in the 1927 season, Ruth had hit 58, Maris 56. Bonds and McGuire have higher totals, but … there is no asterisk big enough to put next to their haul. Judge is not only facing pitchers Ruth and Maris never saw, but facing three or four different pitchers in the course of a game. Fresh arms.
So, I’m blacked out. My laptop acting as my transistor radio, I’ll have John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman in my ear. I’ll be waiting for the crack of the bat each time Judge steps up, that distinctive sound of solid contact, and in my mind I’ll be saying, “Going – Going – GONNNNNNNNN”!