Aaron Judge is about two months away from having his first year of major league service time in the books, and he hasn’t made a single All-Star team or won a major award. Mark Reynolds and Steven Souza Jr. and many others have accomplished far more in their respective careers than Judge, who is so new to the sport that he is still learning how to navigate ballpark hallways to find some visiting clubhouses.
But in assessing the potential of Judge’s marketability in the way you might form a weather forecast, you could draw some lessons from one of baseball’s all-time greats: Babe Ruth, a transformative star who lifted the sport to the status of national pastime in his era.
Ruth became a legend because of some of these factors that captured the imagination of fans:
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Ruth dwarfed most other players of that time. Ty Cobb was 6-1 and 175 pounds, Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins was 5-9 and 175 pounds, and Walter Johnson -- known as "Big Train" -- was 6-1, 200 pounds. With his thick upper body, Ruth didn’t look like other ballplayers.
He hit the ball farther than his peers and hit more home runs than anybody else. In 1920, Ruth led the American League in homers with 54 -- more than any other team.
Ruth played in baseball’s biggest market in a ballpark suited to his particular skills as a power hitter -- with a short right-field porch -- to the degree that Yankee Stadium became known as The House That Ruth Built.
He was the best player in the league, putting up numbers not seen before, hitting the ball where nobody had ever hit it.
And when Ruth came to the plate, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. As one of his peers said, even his strikeouts were epic, with Ruth swinging so hard that he fell down. In the midst of his career -- and even after it -- fans gathered to watch him take batting practice, to see the strength and the power.
Does any of this sound familiar?
As of today, Judge leads the majors in homers and would nearly be the Triple Crown winner in the AL … for the Yankees … who play in a relatively new park that rewards right-handed sluggers who can hit the ball to the opposite field … like Judge.
Since the beginning of spring training, fans and teammates and opponents have stopped whatever they are doing to watch Judge take batting practice, because they are wondering what he’s going to do next, and how far he might hit the next pitch -- doing stuff they’ve never seen before. “That guy is from another planet,” Pablo Sandoval said in the Red Sox clubhouse after Judge’s 496-foot homer Sunday.
Ruth loved the big stage. Judge does not seem to have Ruth’s larger-than-life personality, on or off the field; he is very understated and reflexively deflects attention.
But for a sport and a team searching for a breakthrough star, Judge has made quick inroads. He has at least some elements of the formula that elevated Ruth into an icon.