Baseball, more than any sport, is a game of numbers. Its long history is replete with legendary records—Cy Young’s 511 wins; Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Ted Williams’s .406 batting average in 1941, the last time anyone hit .400.
One number stood above all—60. It was the Everest of American sports records. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927. His record held for over three decades. In 1961, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris attempted to climb Everest. Mantle succumbed to injury in September, but Maris persevered. The press and the fans turned on him. If someone were to break the Babe’s record, they wanted the fair-haired boy to do it, not the upstart. The pressure got to Maris. He got testy with the press; his hair began falling out in clumps. Finally, on the last day of the season, he hit number 61. His record stood for nearly four decades. The effort may have killed him. Maris died in 1985. He was 51.
In 1998 another pair of sluggers went after the record. This time no one got testy. No one’s hair fell out. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa traded homer after homer, and the press celebrated their assault on Maris’s record. The fans cheered them on. Everyone had fun, including the two sluggers. Both blew by Maris, McGuire blasting 70 homers, Sosa 66. Would the new record stand for three or four decades and become legendary?
Three years later Barry Bonds shot by McGwire by hitting 73. But Bonds wanted more. He set his sights on Henry Aaron’s lifetime record of 755. Aaron had broken Ruth’s record of 714 in 1974. He got hate mail, including death threats from bigots who couldn’t abide a black man beating Ruth. Bonds easily passed Aaron.
Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and all the other record setters of recent times did more than cheat. They defiled our game. They debased its hallowed record book. They dishonored and cheapened the records of those who came before them. What’s more, they shoved aside the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., who was every bit the player Bonds was, but set his records without cheating.