While you’ve been waiting for the football season to start, something extraordinary is happening in Major League Baseball. Aaron Judge, a 6-foot-7, 282-pound outfielder who bench presses 450 pounds, is swatting home runs at a record rate. He’s challenging the American League single-season home run records set by Roger Maris and, for that matter, Babe Ruth. And unlike the last time there was a serious home-run chase, he’s doing it the right way, as near as anyone can tell; he’s clean — as in drug free.

Judge has 46 home runs with 51 games remaining. He hit No. 46 in Game 106 of the season; Maris hit his 46th home run in Game 118. It seems likely Judge will surpass Maris’ famous single-season record of 61 home runs, set in 1961 over the course of a 162-game season (on the other hand, Judge has hit only one home run in the last 13 games). Maris’ total broke the single-season record of 60 that Ruth set in 1927, albeit when the season was eight games shorter, which touched off a big controversy at the time. 

Judge, who plays for the New York Yankees (as did Maris and Ruth), has virtually wrapped up the season home-run title with 51 games to go; his nearest rival has 34 homers.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the current home-run watch is that Judge is chasing records set in 1927 and 1961. Each generation of athletes is bigger, stronger, faster, richer and better-trained than their predecessors, which is why records fall. Jesse Owens’ track and field feats were surpassed. So were the records set by the incomparable Jim Brown on the football field. It happens in every sport. Athletes evolve.

And yet the feats of Maris and Ruth have never truly been surpassed by anyone in either the National or American leagues, and their eras were long ago and far away. It has been 95 years since Ruth hit 60 homers in a 154-game season. It has been 61 years since Maris hit 61 homers in a 162-game season. (There is a certain symmetry to Maris’ record — 61 homers in 1961 and the record has endured 61 years.)

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For decades nobody could approach the records set by Ruth and Maris and then suddenly their records were surpassed six times. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 70 and 66, respectively, in 1998; McGwire and Sosa hit 65 and 63 in 1999. Barry Bonds and Sosa hit 73 and 64 in 2001. It was highly suspicious and with good reason we eventually learned — their feats were fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. Their records still stand. Track and field erases marks set by athletes who are busted for PEDs. MLB never erased the bogus records from the books.

So, decades later, nobody has truly outshined Maris and Ruth despite all the advantages modern athletes enjoy, including weight programs, much-improved travel and what many consider to be a livelier ball. If anything, Ruth and Maris created their own disadvantages. Ruth was a hard drinker and carouser who grew fat in his playing days. Maris was a heavy smoker.

New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris poses at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season, Oct. 1, 1961, with a jersey indicating he hit his 61st home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record. | Associated Press

Maris’ 1961 season was a lightning strike. It marked the only time in his 14-year career that he topped 39 home runs. He never came close to matching that magical season of 1961. A year later, he hit 33 homers, then 23 a year later, then 26, 8, 13, 9, 5.

He was probably worn out mentally and physically after that ’61 season. At the height of his record pursuit, he became the target of an angry backlash from fans who didn’t want him to break Ruth’s record or to beat his more popular teammate, Mickey Mantle, to it. (Mantle was on record pace that year himself until an injury.)

The pressure on Maris was made only worse when commissioner Ford Frick announced that because the schedule was eight games longer than it was in Ruth’s time, the record would be tagged with an asterisk unless he broke it in 154 games — there would be essentially two records. (Despite this statement, baseball didn’t apply the asterisk.)

Maris was so stressed out that his hair fell out in clumps, his smoking increased to three packs a day and hives broke out all over his body. The pressure — exacerbated by the intense media crush — only increased. Maris had only 59 home runs after 154 games. He hit two more home runs in the next eight games, No. 61 coming in the final game of the season.

Maris, who quit baseball at 33, finished with 275 homers. He has not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of fame.

For his part, Ruth hit 40 or more homers in 11 seasons and finished with 714 in all. He was hitting home runs at an unheard of rate. He hit more homers in 1927 (60) than 12 entire teams.

According to Bleacher Report’s research, American League teams averaged only 50 home runs that season. When Maris broke the record with 61 homers, American League teams averaged 153 homers that season. When Barry Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001, National League teams averaged 185 home runs. When Ruth retired in 1935 he had 714 career homers; the runner-up had 348 and only one other player had more than 300.

Maris, who died at 51, and Ruth have had no real rivals except each other when it comes to slugging homers in a single season. Judge could change all that.

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge walks to the plate at T-Mobile Park during game against the Seattle Mariners, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Seattle. | Ted S. Warren, Associated Press