added 8/12/2007 by Gene Elston
In my research I have failed to find the baseball player who hit the first home run in Major League history. The National Association was the first major league established: play began in 1871. In that season a total of 47 home runs were hit. Three players were tied for the home run lead at season’s end – they were Levi Meyerle of the Philadelphia Athletics, Lip Pike with the Troy Haymakers, and Fred Treacey of the Chicago White Stockings – each hit four homers. Was one of the three the first to hit a home run, or was it some unknown?
The second major league to be established was the National League, and two players hit home runs on the same day - May 2, 1876 - to be the first to enter that phase of the record books. They were Ross Barnes with the Chicago White Stockings, who earlier had hit four homers in his five seasons in the National Association, and Charley (Baby) Jones of the Cincinnati Reds - it was his first in the majors.
Now let’s go way back to a ball player who started his career in 1880, only four years after the formation of the National League. He was a first baseman for the Troy Trojans, a franchise that would later move to New York and become known as the Gothams in 1883 then, eventually, the New York Giants, in 1885. His name was Roger Connor and he would play 18 seasons, 13 of them with New York, one season in the Players' League in 1890 (the only year of that league’s existence), one season with the Philadelphia Quakers (later known as the Phillies). Connors played his final three seasons with the St. Louis Browns, at that time also in the NL. He was born on July 1, 1857 in Waterbury, Connecticut. As a player he batted and threw left-handed. He was 6'3" and weighed 220.
Why Roger Connor? During that era he was the only great power hitter in the game. After all he hit 138 home runs, and that figures out to a ratio of a homer in every 57.4 at-bats. Startling in those days! But that isn’t all he did at the plate. During his career he hit .325 with 441 doubles, 138 triples, batted in 1,323 runs, scored 1,620 with 2,542 hits and walked 1,002 times. Connor’s on-base percentage was .397, and, getting back to power his slugging percentage was .486 - leading the league twice in that category with .528 and .548. In nine of his 18 years his slugging average was over .500. He hit double-figure home runs in nine seasons with a single-season high of 17. In 1895, his next-to-last season in the majors, he hit eight home runs, running his total to 126 for his career. He would add 12 more before retiring.
That same year, on February 6, 1895, Babe Ruth was born on Pratt Street in Baltimore to Katherine and George Herman Ruth – he was named after his father. His mother was of German decent and his dad was a grocer as well as a saloon-keeper.
Ruth became the new King of Swat with his 139th home run in 1921, eclipsing Conner’s output by one, and ending Roger’s long and amazing reign. During that season with the Yankees, Ruth hit 59 home runs. Ten years later, in 1931, Roger Connor died at age 74, leaving Ruth with another 46 home run year and through the 1931 season a total of 542.
Today few people have heard, or read, of Roger Conner’s batting achievements – over the years the sands of time have obscured the role he left behind during this “power” era. Not completely - 79 years after his retirement, Roger Connor’s plaque was hung in the Hall of Fame in 1976.
On February 14, 1914 19-year old George Herman Ruth was signed as a pitcher to his first professional contract while attending St. Mary’s Industrial School. Signed by Jack Dunn - manager and owner of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles - Ruth made his organized baseball debut on April 22, 1914 pitching the Orioles to a 6-0 win over Buffalo. It was during this season that George Herman picked up his now famous nickname from his teammates. Jack Dunn spent many days getting Ruth to sign, and his new find would turn out to be his greatest claim to fame. Dunn spent most of his attention on his new rookie, proudly nursing Ruth along while at the same time Dunn’s adoration for Ruth was not missed by the other players – to them Ruth became known as “Dunnie’s new Babe.”
Ruth was not the first “Babe” in the majors going back to 1906 - but he was the first following Babe Adams to become well known. Other “Babes” were Pinelli, Herman, Phelps, Dahlgren and Young. After acquiring the nickname “Babe” and leaving behind, for the most part, his given name George Herman, on September 5, 1914, now pitching with Providence, hit his only homer in the minor leagues while throwing a one-hit shutout 4-0 over Toronto. Shortly after that season he was on his way to the majors – purchased for $2,500 by the Boston Red Sox.
From the beginning Ruth was a pitcher for the Sox, but in his final two seasons with Boston he also played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. He hit his first big league home run on May 6, 1915 off Jack Warhop against the Yankees in his 18th major league at-bat when he was 20-years old. While playing for the Red Sox in his six-plus seasons he hit 49 homers.
With Ruth’s purchase by the Yankees in 1920, a new home run era was ushered into baseball and the Babe was responsible for all of it. The Bambino was the only player to hit 50 or more home runs in the 1920s (1920-54, 1921-59, 1927-60, 1928-54).
As if it were scripted, he slammed the first homer in the first game he played as a Yankee on opening day as New York celebrated their new Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923. Appropriately, reporter Fred Lieb of the New York World Telegram referred to the new facility as “The House That Ruth Built.”
It was only the beginning of “The Legend’s” home run career. He had already hit number 100 when he was 25 years old on September 24, 1920, off Jim Shaw of the Washington Senators. Number 200 was hit against Detroit’s Herman Pillette on May 12, 1923. Pitcher Buster Ross of the Red Sox served up number 300 on September 8, 1925 when The Sultan of Swat was 30 years old. As a member of the notorious New York Yankees' "Murderers’ Row" he hit his 400th on September 2, 1927 against Philadelphia’s Rube Walberg. Included in the group that season was his magic number 60. That year he passed his 32nd birthday and it took only two more years to chalk up his 500th off Willis Hudlin of the Indians on August 11, 1929.
On March 8, 1930 Babe became the highest-paid player of all time as he ends his holdout against Yankees management and signs a two-year contract for $80,000 a season. Yankees general manager Ed Barrow is quoted, “No one will ever be paid more than Ruth”. As Ruth moved into the 1930s his home run production began to drop, although in 1931, on August 31, he hit his 600th off the Browns' George Blaeholder.
At the same time in 1930 new names, other than the Babe’s, began to appear in the 50 home run category. Well known hitters Hack Wilson slugged 56 homers, and before the decade was over Jimmie Foxx hit 58 in 1932 and 50 in 1938, and in that same season Hank Greenberg hit 58.
Another new name also appeared in the category of “to be heard from later” in the 1930s – on February 5, 1934 when a baby boy was born to the Aaron family in Mobile, Alabama. He was christened Henry Louis. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was still swinging his big bat. On July 13th, the same year as the above newborn pretender was five months old, the Babe, now 39, touched up Tommy Bridges of the Tigers for his 700th round tripper.
On September 24, 1934 Ruth played his final game as a Yankee, although it was not billed as such. He did know it would be his last. The Yankees obeyed baseball law by sending him a registered letter containing their 1935 offer prior to January 1 of that year. The contract called for one dollar. On February 5, 1935, after spending 15 years in pinstripes and leading the Yankees to seven pennants and four World Series championships, Ruth was released at age 39.
During his years with the Yankees he hit 659 home runs, and 49 in six seasons with the Red Sox. Only six weeks later, on February 26, 1935 he signed a three-year contract with the Boston Braves as a player, assistant manager, and club vice president.
He would play in only 28 games, but his next to last game would be one of his most remembered. In his first 26 games with the Braves, the Bambino had hit three home runs and would duplicate that number in one game on May 25, 1935 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In his first at-bat that day he homered off Pirates pitcher Red Lucas and by the third inning Guy Bush had relieved Lucas, and Ruth greeted Bush with his second home run. Then Ruth made a statement with number 714, the final one of his career - hitting this one over the roof of the double-decked stadium at the 402 sign - again off Bush. Ruth had just the day before told a reporter he was just about through playing, stating that his legs did not have it any more and that he was fearful of being beaned because his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be.
Now, buoyed by the outstanding day, he went on to play May 30th in Philadelphia. He struck out in the first inning, and in the bottom half of the first hurt his knee going after a fly ball and would never play again.
Ruth’s career ended on the downside in Philadelphia after he and Judge Emil Fuchs, owner of the Braves, had spent the next few days in contention over the Babe’s next appearance. In the Braves clubhouse June 2nd, Ruth told reporters he was quitting and would go on the voluntary retired list. But, while talking to the writers, Fuchs sent a message to the clubhouse stating that Ruth had been released as a player and assistant manager and had been fired as vice-president.
Ruth, out of baseball since 1935, still had lingering hopes of managing in the majors. On July 19, 1938 the Babe was offered a job as a coach with Brooklyn - and jumped at the chance - hoping to replace Dodgers manager Burleigh Grimes, who was on shaky grounds as the Bums' skipper. There was one negative for Ruth: Leo Durocher was the Brooklyn shortstop. When both were with the Yankees, the two disliked each other, and their mutual contempt had not changed. When the season ended, Grimes was fired and Ruth had to read about it in the newspapers. He was devastated to learn the job had gone to... Durocher.
The name of Babe Ruth is without a doubt the most recognized name in the history of baseball. One year after retiring, Ruth and four other immortals became charter members of the Hall of Fame in 1936. His statistics are staggering, not only as a position player but also as a pitcher. In ten years as a left-handed pitcher his record was 94-36, a winning percentage of .671, with an earned run average of 2.28. He allowed only 974 hits in 1,221 innings, and in World Series action Ruth was 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA. While with the Yankees he was their starting pitcher in five games spread over his 15 seasons (1920-21, 1930 and 1933) winning all five with two complete games. But his pitching prowess paled by what he accomplished as a hitter and fielder. The Bambino chalked up a .342 batting average with 2,873 hits, scored 2,174 runs, drove in 2,211 runs with an on-base-percentage of .474, drawing 2,056 bases on balls with a slugging average of .690. Ruth’s 714 home runs were hit with a ratio AB/HR of 11.76 leading the American League in home runs 12 times, in walks 11 years, runs eight years and RBI six times.
On June 13, 1948 Yankees legend Babe Ruth was honored by 46,641 fans on the 25th anniversary of "The House that Ruth Built". Finally, after many long years, Ruth’s number 3 uniform was finally retired. He would lose his fight with cancer two months later and died on August 16, 1948 in New York at age 53. One writer put it this way – “The big and little people of a great nation paused today to mourn the passing of Babe Ruth, one of the most beloved Americans of all time. His big heart, the fighting heart that put the hearts of a million kids into the great American game of baseball, stopped beating.”
Four years after the Bambino’s death – June 14, 1952 – Boston Braves scout Dewey Griggs, while watching a young shortstop playing in the Negro American League, thought enough of the prospect to purchase the 18-year old's contract from the Indianapolis Clowns for $10,000. The kid’s name was Henry Aaron and he was immediately assigned to Eau Claire in the Class-C Northern League. That year he was so impressive in his play that he was moved up to Jacksonville in 1953 in the Class-A South Atlantic league, then a farm club of the newly-relocated Milwaukee Braves. He continued his outstanding play at Jacksonville where he played second base, leading the league in batting (.362), runs (113), hits (208) and RBIs (123).
Aaron’s rise to the Big Club came the next spring when Bobby Thomson, recently acquired by Milwaukee in a trade with the Giants, fractured an ankle during a spring training game on March 13th, and Aaron replaced him in the outfield to begin his brilliant career at that position. On April 23, 1954 at age 20 Aaron hit the first home run of his career off the Cardinals' Vic Raschi and by August 15, 1957 hit number 100 off Don Gross of Cincinnati. That season, he led the National League with 44 homers. His 200th home run came off Ron Kline of the Cardinals on July 3, 1960, and three years later, in 1963, he hit his 300th off the Mets Roger Craig on April 19th.
Between Aaron’s number 300 and number 400 another future long ball hitter appears on the scene on July 24, 1964 in Riverside, California. He is christened Barry Lamar Bonds, the son of Bobby Bonds, and later became the godson of Willie Mays.
During that same period Aaron moved with the Braves franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1965.
In 1966 Aaron would lead the National League again with 44 home runs, matching his well-known uniform number for the third time. That year he hit his 400th on April 20, 1966 off the Phillies Bo Belinsky, and number 500 came off his bat two years later on July 14, 1968 on a pitch from Mike McComick of the Giants. The baseball world began thinking of Ruth’s 714 record when Aaron hit his 600th home run on April 27, 1971 off San Francisco’s Gaylord Perry. Aaron closed the gap with number 700 on July 21, 1973 against the Phillies' Ken Brett and at the end of the 1973 season. There was no doubt that baseball would have a new home run king early in 1974.
That early date was April 8, 1974 when Aaron racked up number 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record that had been on the books since 1935. The record-breaker came in the fourth inning at Atlanta Stadium off Dodger pitcher Al Downing. This would be Aaron’s last of his 21 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. He had hit 40 home runs in 1973 and would finish his last with the Braves picking up only 20. Looking back over those 21 seasons with the Braves (1954-1974), Aaron hit a career high of 47 in 1971, 45 in 1962 and eight other seasons he logged 40 or more.
At age 40, Hank Aaron was traded on November 2, 1974 to the American League Milwaukee Brewers for Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander. Aaron would hit 22 more homers with the Brewers in his final two seasons to run his total to 755 on July 20, 1976 in the Brewers' 6-2 win over California - the homer comes with no one on base in the seventh inning off Angels pitcher Dick Drago.
Today, Aaron still leads the majors in lifetime total bases (6,856), runs-batted-in (2,297) and extra-base-hits (1,477). He finished with a batting average of .305, 3,771 hits and a slugging percentage of .555. In his 23 years he was an All-Star 21 times. Aaron became a member of the Hall of Fame in 1982 in his first year of eligibility.
Barry Bonds, a high school senior in 1982, is drafted by the San Francisco Giants but decides to attend Arizona State University. Following his graduation from college in 1985 he is selected again, this time by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 6th round. The first four selections picked ahead of Bonds also went on to long careers in the majors – B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin. Picked behind Bonds in the first round were Pete Incaviglia, Brian McRae and Rafael Palmeiro. The Pirates assigned Bonds to Class-A Prince William in the Carolina League and he joined that club on June 20, 1985 and moved up to Hawaii in the AAA Pacific Coast League in 1986. After playing in only 44 games, he was called up by the Pirates on May 30, 1986 to begin his major league career. In 115 games in the minors he hit .300 with 20 home runs. Five days later, on June 4th, he hit his first major league home run off Atlanta’s Craig McMurtry and finished his rookie season with 16 homers.
Through the end of the ‘80s he had trouble living up to his potential, and through his first four seasons averaged 21 home runs. 1990 was his break-through year when he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, winning the first of his eight Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards and made his first All-Star appearance. Bonds had his best home run year to date with 33, hitting his 100th on July 12th off Andy Benes of San Diego.
In 1993 Bonds left the Pirates to sign a free-agent contract with San Francisco. During his seven-year stay with Pittsburgh he logged 176 home runs. In his first season with the Giants he led the NL with 46 homers and hit his 200th on the July 8, 1993 off Jose DeLeon of the Phillies. In the strike-shortened 1994 season he hit 37, and in 1995 he hit 33. On April 30, 1996 Bonds upped his home run total to 300 with a homer off the Marlins' John Burkett and finished the year with 42. When the 1998 season began Bonds was only 33 years old but got off to a rocky start, and some wondered whether Barry’s age might be catching up with him. By season’s end those thoughts were put to rest. He hit 37 homers with 122 RBI, and on August 23rd Bonds racked up number 400 off Florida’s Kirt Ojala.
As the new millennium arrived, major league baseball was shrouded in controversy over steroids. During an investigation of BALCO Laboratories, Bonds’ grand jury testimony was illegally leaked and obtained by the media. In the testimony he allegedly admitted he may have unknowingly been given “the clear” and “the cream”, having been told the substances were flaxseed oil. This ignited much media speculation on his relation to the investigation.
In 2001, Bonds hit 28 homers in his first 50 games, including his 500th on April 17th off Terry Adams of the Dodgers, ending the season with 73 home runs, a major league record. The next year, 2002, he would rack up number 600 on August 9 off Pittsburgh’s Kip Wells, that one coming less than a year and a half after hitting his 500th. That same year, in October of 2002, the first drug prevention program was agreed to by the players union.
For years, the union had been stonewalling such a program, claiming drug testing would be an invasion of the player’s privacy, or they (the union) would file grievances to overcome major league baseball’s moves. For instance, on June 24, 1992 commissioner Faye Vincent handed down a lifetime suspension of Yankees pitcher Steve Howe following his guilty plea in district federal court to cocaine charges. This was the seventh time Howe had been involved in drug- and alcohol-related incidents. The Major League Players Association filed a grievance on Howe’s behalf, and on November 12, arbitrator George Nicolau ordered the lifetime ban revoked. Also, in 2000 the following press clipping read: “Don’t you just hate video tape?" Three years ago on HBOs Real Sports, Major League Baseball’s Players Association executive Gene Orza told Armen Keteyian: “I believe it is an open question whether or not even if there were the taking of steroids in baseball that it would contribute to performance enhancement.” Keteyian replied: “I can’t believe you’re saying that.”
In November 2005, a strike was averted when the union finally agreed to labor peace through the next four years. This first agreement however was weak in that it called only for suspensions and no lifetime bans.
On December 5, 2004 the Associated Press stated, “For all the fuss over reported admissions of steroid use by Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, Major League Baseball probably won’t discipline them. Instead of addressing the past, commissioner Bud Selig is more concerned with pressuring the players to agree to more frequent testing before the current labor contract expires in December 2006.
Also, in 2004, Bonds probably had his best season. He hit .362, walked 232 times, slugged .812 and had an on-base percentage of .609 with 45 home runs and hit his 700th on September 17th off Jake Peavy of San Diego, passing Willie Mays (660) and leaving him 14 behind Babe Ruth (714).
In 2005 Bonds played in only 14 games due to three knee operations that kept him out of action until September, finishing the year with five more home runs.
Bonds passed Ruth with his 715th on May 28, 2006 off Colorado’s Byung-Hyun Kim. The Giants were playing in Milwaukee when he tied Aaron’s National League mark of 733 on September 22nd, connecting off Chris Spurling. The following day, while still in Aaron’s back yard, Bonds surpassed Hank’s NL record, connecting off the Brewers' Chris Capuano for number 734, leaving Bonds 21 short of 755 entering 2007.
On July 6, 2007 Detroit infielder Neifi Perez became the first major league player to be penalized for a stimulant under Major League Baseball’s drug program. It was his second violation, and he received a 25 game-suspension, costing the seldom-used player about $400,000 of his $2.5 million salary. On August 3rd, Perez was suspended again for 80 games after testing positive for a third time. Under pressure from Congress, the players agreed in November 2005 to a toughened drug plan, which for the first time included testing for stimulants.
Baseball doesn’t release the names of players who test positive for amphetamines the first time, which results in counseling. Perez, 34, is the only player suspended by baseball since stimulants were banned before the 2006 season. Following a player’s first violation, he is subjected to at least six additional tests over the next year. Under the policy, a third positive test - which Perez received for this violation - was an 80 game suspension. A fourth would result in a lifetime ban.
Interestingly, I ran across an article in the September 2006 Baseball Digest, generally speaking of home runs, and under one section heading “Have steroids tainted records?” Hank Aaron is quoted, “[The records] are tainted to an extent, but it shouldn’t be. You see guys bigger than three or four year ago, but they still have to swing the bat and make contact. And there’s no way doing drugs is going to help you do that.” Aaron says Bonds is a better hitter than Babe Ruth, and it’s “too bad people are trying to label the drug thing on him. I don’t know if it is true, but I don’t (care). He’s still a great hitter.”
Bonds resumed his march to the all-time record early in the 2007 season at San Francisco on April 4th. In his second game he hit a pitch off San Diego’s Chris Young (735) that made it over the wall just to the left of straightaway center field. That was the homer that placed him just past the midway point between Ruth and Aaron. He did not homer again until April 13th hitting two (736-737) against the Pirates, and by the end of April he reached 740. He got stuck at the 745 mark in May and it wasn’t until May 27th when he picked up number 746, his 12th of the year. It took him 12 games to break that drought, but he did it on June 11th when he hit his 747th. By the end of June, Bonds had reached the 750 mark when he hit his 16th of the season, but on July 3rd after racking up number 751, he fell into a 0-21 slump that lasted eight games, but for Bonds it must have seemed much longer.
Bonds recovered the afternoon of July 19th at Wrigley Field when he walloped his 18th and 19th homers of the year off Cubs' pitchers Ted Lilly and Will Ohman. Now he was at 753 – two from a tie with Aaron and three from the record. Bonds closed the gap on July 27th at San Francisco with number 754, a 405-foot homer into right-center off Florida’s Rick Fanden Hurk. His next four plate appearances in the game resulted in bases on balls and his tying home run was left for another day.
That day arrived seven days later in San Diego on August 4th in his first trip to the plate. Over his last six games, Bonds averaged just three at-bats picking up only two hits and six bases on balls. It mirrored the five game stretch following his two homer game at Wrigley Field on July 19th after hitting numbers 752 and 753.
The tying 755th home run was hit off Padres right-hander Clay Hensley and came 34 years after Hank Aaron hit his final home run. Bonds finished the game with three straight walks.
Back in San Francisco on August 7th, Bonds set the new major league home run record on a night when he goes 3-for-3, with the record-setter coming in the fifth inning on a 3-2 pitch blasted deep over the right-centerfield fence off Washington’s Mike Bacsik.
As Bonds finished his run around the bases, the video screen flashed his image and 756 along with a taped message from Henry Aaron:
I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family for this historic achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.
The following is a summation of our principals:
G AB H BB HR AB/HR Roger Connor 1998 7872 2542 1002 138 57.04 Babe Ruth 2503 8399 2873 2062 714 11.76 Hank Aaron 3298 12364 3771 1402 755 16.37 Barry Bonds 2958 9774 2915 2540 756 12.92
Now that Bonds has become major league’s home run champion it will be some time before we know his homer total . He has indicated he would like to return for another season - he will be 44 next July.
Gazing into the future, Alex Rodriguez is thought to be the closest Bonds challenger. He hit his 500th homer on August 4th at age 32 years, 8 days to become the youngest to reach that mark, passing Jimmie Foxx, who hit number 500 at age 32 years, 337 days. Ruth and Aaron logged their 500th homers at age 34 and Bonds at 36.
Looking at Rodriguez' home-run rate, at his current pace and age, he seems to be the most likely, at this time, to reach the mid-700 mark in 2013 at age 38 or 39. How many he - or anyone else - will need to set a new record is still up to the retirement of Bonds.
Copyright (c) 2007, Gene Elston