The individual Major League record for home runs in a season is 73. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001. In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 70 and 66, respectively. A year later, McGwire blasted 65 and Sosa 63. The Chicago Cubs slugger added a 64-homer season in 2001.
Roger Maris, who held the record for 37 years, hit 61 in 1961. It is the seventh-highest total posted by a player in a season. So why has there been a sudden flood of stories about red-hot Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton chasing down this number?
Because all of these figures are fuzzy, their sharp edges rounded off by the crushing weight of performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa were all users in the golden age of using. Maris was fueled by cigarettes and full-calorie milk. Ergo, he is considered the real home run champ by a large swath of baseball fans.
Others note that there’s no asterisk next to the numbers posted by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. Stanton, for his part, sounds conflicted about the issue but has repeatedly said “the record is the record.”
And that’s where I stand. But if you must play ethicist with the baseball records, be prepared to consider the idea that Maris is certainly not the gold standard of home run hitters — at least for a single-season.
Babe Ruth, who hit 60 dingers in 154 games in 1927, holds that crown. Maris could only tie this mark in the same span. Ruth hit 13 more homers than teammate Lou Gehrig and doubled the total of Cy Williams and Hack Wilson, who tied for third that year.
Consider how big of an outlier Ruth was in his time, how far ahead of his time his slugging exploits were. His first year leading the majors in homers was 1919, when he hit 29 — 17 more than the second-highest total. In 1920, he hit 54 — 35 more than any other player. He lapped the second-place finisher multiple times in the late-teens and early 1920s. He was, in short, a tall tale in human form, performing superhuman feats.
Ruth’s PEDs were large breakfasts and booze. He dwarfed other players of the era (6-foot-2, 215 pounds). He swung a crude and log-like bat. Of course, his numbers are also open to critique because he didn’t have to face relief pitchers and, more importantly, he played in the era of segregation.
The point is, going down the line to identify a perfect and pure home run champion is difficult business. It quickly becomes art instead of science. For instance, let’s say Stanton remains on fire and hits 63. Can we really ignore the speculation that this year’s baseball is juiced? Can we really say Stanton, at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, is majorly disadvantaged compared to Bonds, McGwire and Sosa?
Stanton is many things, but a plucky underdog is not one of them.
The easiest way to decide who the true record-holder? Look at the actual record, which is Bonds’ 73. But if we are going to play these games, don’t stop at Maris. Ruth and his undeniable greatness is lurking just around the corner.