By James T. Reese Jr., Ed.D.
Associate Professor and Department Chair, Sports Management
and Nate Reese
Current APU Accounting Student and Baseball Player
Yankees slugger Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the season on October 4, moving him ahead of Roger Maris for the most home runs in a single season in the American League. Judge connected on a 1-1 slider in the first inning against the Texas Rangers and sent the ball into the left field stands, about 391 feet from home plate.
Although Judge will likely fall short of winning baseball’s Triple Crown, a feat that has only been accomplished in Major League Baseball (MLB) twice in the last 55 years, he has still had a season for the ages. Judge has led MLB in almost every offensive category.
Judge may be the new single-season American League record holder, but in the National League, three players – Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – have all hit more home runs than Judge. Bonds is the current record holder with 73 home runs in 2001.
Regardless of this fact, there is still a lot of buzz online, on talk radio and on television about whether Judge should be considered the “true” single-season record holder. To put this topic into context, it’s necessary to review the history of the single-season home run record.
Performance-Enhancing Drugs and Single-Season Home Run Record Holders
Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, the other contenders on the single-season home run list, have either admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) or failed a drug test for their presence around the time of their historic seasons. Judge, however, has remained clean.
Roger Maris, Jr. summed up the controversy last night after Judge hit his 62nd home run. On Twitter, he stated: “Congratulations to Aaron Judge and his family on Aaron’s historic home run number 62! It has definitely been a baseball season to remember. You are all class and someone who should be revered. For the MAJORITY of the fans, we can now celebrate a new CLEAN HOME RUN KING!!”
The discussion about athletes using PEDs began in 2007 immediately after the conclusion of the investigation into BALCO, a California lab implicated for providing PEDs to several high-profile athletes.
Bonds was issued an indictment because he claimed he never knowingly used PEDs. The indictment said: “During the criminal investigation, evidence was obtained including positive tests for the presence of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances for Bonds and other professional athletes.”
In 2005, Sammy Sosa testified under oath before Congress that he never used PEDs. It was later revealed in 2009 that Sosa failed a MLB drug test in 2003, the results of which were supposed to remain confidential. Similarly, McGwire admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in 2010.
The Duration and Impact of the Steroid Era
Although Bonds, Sosa and McGwire weren’t the first players to use PEDs in baseball, the beginning of the steroid era is linked to Jose Canseco in 1986. In his tell-all book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big,” Canseco admitted that 1986 was the year he began using performance-enhancing drugs. Not coincidentally, 1986 was also the year Canseco won the American League Rookie of the Year award.
However, the duration of the steroid era varies widely from source to source. Some say it has not ended and never will. Although PED testing began in the minor leagues in 2001 and in MLB in 2003, most people put the end of the steroid era around the conclusion of the 2005 season when MLB implemented punishments harsh enough to impact PED use.
An internet search on the benefits of PED typically yields information talking about increased strength. While improved strength is one of the benefits of these drugs, PEDs impact athletic performance significantly in other ways, including increased speed, a higher level of energy, greater endurance and reduced fatigue.
The strength benefit typically takes center stage. However, it’s the ability to recover physically during a long season that also provides a significant benefit to baseball players.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt admitted to using “greenies” (amphetamines) during his career and indicated that amphetamines were as much a part of baseball to him as hot dogs and beer. According to Schmidt, “In my day…. they were widely available in major-league clubhouses.”
That admission by Schmidt leads to another interesting question: how many current Hall of Fame players used PEDs of some sort during their careers?
The Single-Season Home Run Record Over Time
Most historians agree that Babe Ruth had the greatest impact on the game of baseball since the league’s inception in 1876. Ruth’s impact was twofold. His significance was not only based on his performance, but he also impacted the Yankees’ finances and the popularity of baseball across America.
Ruth set the single-season home run record in 1919 when he hit 29 home runs, passing Ned Williamson of the Chicago White Stockings who held the record of 27 home runs for the previous 35 years. Ruth then broke his own record three times in 1920 (54 home runs), 1921 (59 home runs) and 1927 (60 home runs). Ruth’s popularity and impact on baseball were some of the reasons that Roger Maris received such a negative response from fans when he and Mickey Mantle battled for the single-game record in 1961.
Looking at the home run record history provides a unique look at how rare it is to hit even 50 or more home runs in a single season. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927 in only 154 games, and American League schedules moved from 154 to 162 games in 1961. It took 34 years for Roger Maris to hit 61 home runs in 1961 and break Ruth’s record.
Then, another 37 years passed until McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998. Only three seasons later, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001. After Bonds hit 73 in 2001 and MLB’s drug-testing policy was implemented, another 21 years passed until Aaron Judge tied the record this season.
Most Single-Season Home Runs in Major League History
|Player||Home Runs||Season||Games (Season)|
If you review the overall timeline, it took 34 years for Maris to pass Ruth and 37 years for McGwire to pass Maris. However, during 1999-2001, the home run mark set by Maris was broken six times by three different men linked to PEDs. It goes without saying that this evidence looks suspicious.
Impact of McGwire and Sosa
The home run race that took place in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured the attention of the entire nation. It renewed the interest in baseball after a labor dispute alienated fans in 1994.
Washington Post sportswriter Richard Justice wrote: “McGwire’s and Sosa’s home runs have helped to revive a sport that seemed in decline four years ago when a labor dispute forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Until this season, attendance remained below 1994 levels. Fans seemed to be coming back a bit at a time, but because of Sosa and McGwire, they came back in a rush.”
It can be argued that MLB owes McGwire and Sosa a huge debt of gratitude for helping to revive public interest in professional baseball. Would baseball fans have eventually come back anyway? Probably, but the race between McGwire and Sosa generated a huge amount of revenue for MLB and individual teams in the form of increased attendance and television viewership.
So what are the chances MLB will ever take action on the home run records of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa? We’ll let you decide.
Until he is dethroned on baseball’s playing field, we believe Barry Bonds will always be the single- season and career home run record holder, according to MLB. However, that will not stop the current debate about who is the “real” single-season record holder in the hearts of fans.
This debate will certainly continue. Aaron Judge is a humble and classy player who plays the game the right way and serves as a wonderful ambassador for baseball.
So who do you think is the single-season home run record holder?
About the Authors
Dr. Jim Reese is an Associate Professor and Department Chair for the undergraduate and graduate sports management programs at the University and a former college baseball player. He holds an M.S. in Sport Management from Georgia Southern University and an Ed.D. in Physical Education: Sport Administration from the University of Northern Colorado.
Nate Reese is a junior accounting major at American Public University. He is also a former high school baseball player.