The Magic Of The Home Run

added 12/7/2009 by Gene Elston

The first major league was founded on March 4, 1871 and was called the National Association. With it, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was established. This was a player-controlled league with the structure set to afford players freedom of bargaining, to move where the pay was highest, to defend their collective interest, to improve playing conditions and to secure pension rights. This turned out to be too close to the first players union and a group of owners plotted against the players. The players organization folded following the 1875 season.

It was during my research years ago for the player who hit the first home run in major league history that I found the distinction was shared by two players. Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings and Charley Jones of the Cincinnati Red Stockings both hit one on the same day in the National League's first year of operation on May 2, 1876. Recently, while researching this home run, it came to me how could this be true if the National Association had been around since 1871?

So my search led me to the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians for Major League Baseball and its founder - and still active - Seymour Siwoff. He informed me that the National Association, even though designated as the first major league, did not live up to major league statistical aspects and had many other problems, or as he put it, in one word it was a "disaster"!

I then found the truth of the National Association in my library. It was in a 1911 book authored by Albert G. Spalding: Base Ball - America's National Game - 1839-1915. The author is the same Spalding that began his baseball career as a pitcher with the Boston Red Stockings in the National Association through its entire five seasons. During the league's final year, 1875, Spalding had secretly signed a contract to join a new league called the National League, opening in 1876.

He would take over the Chicago franchise as player/manager. William A. Hulbert, who at that time was in Boston's front office, had been planning the new league for some time, having grown disgusted with the way in which gamblers had infiltrated the National Association. Hulbert had instituted plans to organize the new league. Hulbert would become the second National League president, succeeding Morgan G. Bulkeley in 1877.

Albert G. Spalding
So when the National Association folded, Spalding became a member of the Chicago White Stockings of the new National League. He would play only two seasons with Chicago, ending his playing career. He had led the National Association in pitching all five of his Boston years while playing other positions when not on the mound. In those five seasons while pitching, Spalding's won-lost record was 204-48 with a final year's record of 56-4. After his playing days were over, he founded the Spalding Sporting Goods Co., and wound up through the game's inner chambers becoming a giant in the sport, leading to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Getting back to Spalding's book, here are some of his quotes concerning the National Association: "We have, however, to deal with things as they were, not as they might have been. And they were rotten. Gambling, in all its features of pool selling, side betting, etc., was still openly engaged in. Not an important game was played on any grounds where pools were not sold. A few ball players too had become so corrupt that nobody could be certain as to whether the issue of any game in which players participated would be determined on its merits. The occasional throwing of games was practiced by some and no punishment meted out to the offenders."

"Liquor selling, either on the grounds or in close proximity thereto, was so general as to make scenes of drunkenness and riot of every day occurrence, not only among spectators, but now and then in the ranks of players themselves. Many games had fights, and almost every team had its 'lushers'. The effect of this condition was exactly what might have been expected. A game characterized by such scenes, whose spectators consisted for the most part of gamblers, rowdies, and their natural associates, could not possibly attract honest men or decent women to its exhibitions. Consequently, the attendance fell away to such a degree that the season of 1875 closed with bankruptcy facing every professional club in the country."

Let's return to the Magic of the Home Run. The two who are in the record books for the first homer didn't have a lot of magic. Ross Barnes saw action in only nine seasons and hit only four homers while Charley Jones outshined him through eleven seasons by hitting a total of 63, a high of 10 in one year and leading the league with nine in 1879.

On September 5, 1914, a 19-year old named George Herman "Babe" Ruth would begin changing baseball forever. As a pitcher for Providence in the International League, he pitched a 9-0 victory over Toronto allowing only one hit while striking out seven and walking three. In the sixth inning with two men on base, he hit his first professional home run in his only season in the minors. By the end of the 1914 season, he was pitching for the Boston Red Sox - working four games with no homers. The next three seasons (1915-17), he hit only seven homers and his first of 1918 came in the seventh game on May 4th as he pitched and lost to the New York Yankees. The next two came on May 6th and 7th with the Babe playing first base for the first time in his career, While most fans think of Ruth as an outfielder, he actually didn't play in the outfield until May 10, 1918 after four years as a pitcher and pinch hitter - and briefly as a first baseman.

Prior to the Babe entering the majors, there seemed to be a void of home run hitters. Except for one named Frank Baker, who led the Philadelphia Athletics in homers from 1911 through 1914 (with 11. 10, 12 and 9 respectively) and ironically was sold to the Yankees in 1916. Baker had hit home runs on successive days in the 1911 World Series for the Athletics which touched the fancy of the fans enough to hang the nickname of "Home Run" Baker on him. When Baker hung up his spikes following the 1922 season, Ruth had already passed Baker in career homers, 148 to 96 (48 with the A's and 48 with the Yanks). John Franklin Baker did not match Ruth in home runs but he finished his 13 seasons in the American League with an average of .307 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1955.

In June of 1921, a baseball beat-writer for the New York Times uncovered that Ruth was only 17 short of a new record. The reporter, Clifford Carlton, had found that Gavvy Cravath, a Philadelphia Phillies outfielder, had retired at the end of the 1920 season with a National League career record of 119 homers - leading the league in six of his 11 seasons with a high of 24 in 1915. On June 10, 1921, Ruth playing at the Polo Grounds in New York, cracked his 120th homer to pass Cravath. Was the game stopped to retrieve the ball to present it to the Babe? No, it was actually a ho-hum affair for the fans, a group that totaled about 20,000.

Shortly thereafter, another record fell to Ruth, belonging to a great power hitter in the days when there weren't any bunnies in the baseballs. He was 6-2, 220-pound Roger Connor, a first baseman who broke into the National League in 1880 and played through 1897 with the New York Giants, Philadelphia and St.Louis. He finished his career with 138 home runs as well as leading in other offensive categories. For the next 23 years following his retirement from baseball, Connor languished in obscurity.

Roger Connor
Connor played 18 seasons in the National League with a career batting average of .323 (one percentage point less than Joe Medwick and two less than Joe DiMaggio). Connor currently is fifth all time in major league triples with 233 (Honus Wagner had 252 and Ty Cobb 295). He is now 76th in hits with 2,542 and 36th in runs scored (two behind Al Kaline and ten ahead of Lou Brock). Connor was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.

The Babe needed only 18 more homers to hit number 139 and pass Connor. He got that one in July of 1921. Thereafter, his towering and deep flies out of the confines of many ballparks established what was thought to be an unapproachable 714 career homers. Hank Aaron, of course, proved once again that even unapproachable records are made to be broken.

Join the group of fans, media and announcers and call home runs what you may - a round tripper, circuit clout, four-bagger, dinger, moon shot, tater, yard or blast - but don't call it a long ball. Some so-called long balls are known to have been caught in tough situations by excellent outfielders. The most recent example is the grab by Dwayne Wise, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement, and snatched a drive off the wall to save Mark Buehrle's perfect game. Outfielders today are so outstanding in their fence grabs it has become an artistic spectacle.

Let's go back in time and check long balls that were caught - all deep in center field in the old Polo Grounds. For those not familiar with the storied home of the New York Giants (and also the Yankees from 1913 through 1922), both clubhouses were housed in a joint 60 foot high and 60 foot wide unit in center field with an open area between two stairways giving access to the clubhouses. Located in the center of the opening was a five-foot high concrete monument in memory of Capt. Edward Leslie Grant, a soldier killed in action in France during World War I in 1918. It was located a few feet between the monument and the wall of the clubhouse and a sign 483 feet indicating the distance to home plate.

It was Game One of the Indians-Giants World Series in 1954 and the score was tied at 2-2 going into the eighth inning. Larry Doby and Al Rosen reached base for Cleveland with one out when New York manager Leo Durocher lifted starter Sal Maglie and brought in southpaw Don Liddle to face Vic Wertz, who already had three hits. Wertz drove the ball on the line into deep center field but a young Willie Mays tore out with his back to the plate and caught the ball as it whizzed past his left shoulder, 400 feet from home - a long ball but not a home run. Praised as one of the best plays in Series history, it led to a 5-3 tenth-inning win for the Giants.

The Giants and Yankees met in the 1922 World Series for the second straight season while still sharing the Polo Grounds as their home base. Babe Ruth had sat out the opening of the 1922 season until May 20 under a suspension meted out by the commissioner for making an unauthorized barnstorming trip following the 1921 Series.

1922 had not been an overly good season for the Babe, hitting only .315 following a .378 season the year before. His home run total of 59 had dropped to 35 in 1922. It must have been embarrassing for the Bambino to trail Ken Williams of the Browns who won the league home run title with 39. The Babe had only two hits, a double and a single, going into Game Four of the 1922 Series with the Yanks behind the Giants two games to none (Game Two had been called a tie after 10 innings because of darkness).

Ruth would not get another hit in the final two games of the Giants sweep, let alone a home run, and would finish the Series with a .118 average. In the bottom of the first inning of Game Four, Yankee lead off man Whitey Witt singled over second base off pitcher Hugh McQuillan and Joe Dugan singled to left with Ruth due up next and runners on first and second. The Babe hit a shot deep to center with the ball going behind the Eddie Grant Memorial in front of the 483 sign as Bill Cunningham made a sensational catch robbing Ruth of a home run that ended up as only a long ball. It didn't take Ruth long to recover from his bad season, rebounding in 1923 with 41 homers and a batting average of .393.

"Home Run" Baker
My final home run story that turned into another long out also takes place in the Polo Grounds. This was the first World Series the Yankees would ever play without Ruth. He had led the Yanks to their first American League title in 1921 and played on a total of seven pennant-winning Yankee squads. He had begun showing his age in 1933 and, at thirty-nine years old in 1934, Yankee team owner Jacob Ruppert released the Babe so he could join the Boston Braves in 1935 as an assistant manager and part-time outfielder. As the 1936 World Series rolled around, it was another meeting between the Yankees and Giants - and interestingly Joe DiMaggio started his own legend in center field.

The Giants won the first game 6-1 but the Yankees blew Game Two open with a seven-run third inning and a six-run ninth to take an 18-4 lead going into the Giants' last time at bat with the Yanks' Lefty Gomez facing the top of the Giants batting order. Jo Jo Moore flied to DiMaggio in center, Dick Bartell doubled to left and manager Bill Terry flew out to center. To wrap up the day, Hank Leiber drove Gomez' pitch to the base of the clubhouse at the left of the 483 sign and DiMaggio made the catch at the base of the stairs. He caught Leiber's fly on the run for the final out - then continued his run up the clubhouse steps to a quick shower.

Baseball is loaded with fantastic catches. I guess most of them are soon forgotten and, since it is impossible to rate one against the other, they all fade into the past. However, I did find a logical answer in my 2003 book - The Wild World of Sports - in a quote from Bob Gibson. "A great catch is like watching girls go by, the last one is always the prettiest."

The Magic of the Home Run, without a doubt, started with "The Sultan of Swat," Babe Ruth. Looking back when he hit 60 home runs in 1927, it was a great achievement, but hardly surprising when you look at the number he had posted in prior seasons. The Bambino was the first player to hit over 40 in a season when he hit 54 in 1920, and leading up to his record, he had hit 59 in 1921, 41 in 1923, 46 in 1924 and 47 in 1926. The first year that four players hit 40 or more homers was 1930 (Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson and Chuck Klein).

In the first expansion season (1961), eight players eclipsed that mark. Besides Roger Maris' 61, Mickey Mantle 54, Jim Gentile, Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda each hit 46, Rocky Colavito 45, Norm Cash 41 and Willie Mays 40. This would not happen again until 1996 when 16 players posted 40 or more. In 1997, eleven did it and in 1998, 13 reached that peak.

With expansion beginning in 1961 and continuing to increase until reaching 30 teams in 1998, the number of home runs in the major leagues mounted, from 1960 with a total of 16 teams of 2,128 to 2,730 in 1961 and to 3,001 with 18 teams in 1962-1968. Home runs dipped to 1,995 in 1968, the year dominated by pitching with only one 40-plus homer man - Frank Howard with 44.

Shutouts comprised 21 percent of all games played - the norm from 1920 to 1962 was about 12 percent. Concern for lack of hitting in 1968 led to the pitchers mound being lowered from 15 to 10 inches. In the third expansion year in 1969, the total of homers shot back up to 3,066 with 24 teams.

It became obvious during this period that thin pitching begets home runs. There were 177 pitchers used in the majors during the 1960 season, the last year with only 16 teams. By 1969, a total of 372 toed the rubbers. In 1998, the first year of the 30-team era, 585 pitchers were used and 5,064 home runs were hit.

Here is a run down on round trippers hit in the majors:
1901 - 454
1921 - 937
1931 - 1,069
1951 - 1,863
1960 - 2,128
1971 - 2,863
1991 - 3,383

The highest total reached to date was 5,693 in 2000 - with the following six season home runs jumping over 5,000 before dropping to 4,957 in 2007 and 4,878 in 2008.

Along with the thin pitching that led to more home runs, steroids played a big part, although major league players were not tested for anabolic steroids until 2003, they were first banned in 1971 by commissioner Bowie Kuhn in a written statement that baseball players must comply with federal and state laws, which meant that an appropriate prescription be obtained for the use of anabolic steroids. It would not be until January 13, 2005 that the current policy of penalties were announced.

I was in my eighth year in the majors (1962), and the word steroids had not crossed my mind. It was in that period of the early '60s that players were using stimulants. The trainer for the Colt .45s always kept a jar of pills in the training room and when asked what they were, he told me they were amphetamines - taken as a stimulant for the central nervous system - or as the players called them "uppers" or "greenies". Perhaps it was during this era that drugs in baseball had their beginning.

It seems to me one of the baseball feats that intrigued fans more during the 50s, 60s and 70s, than today, is the exceptionally long home runs - and this is surprisingly strange since watching games today the length of some well-hit homers are flashed on the scoreboard. In the past, means were not available to pass the information on to spectators and most of the drives were estimated - such as Ralph Kiner's 1950 shot in Pittsburgh estimated at 560 feet, or Frank Howard's, also at Forbes Field in 1960, estimated at 560 to 570 feet. Detroit's Harry Heilmann is on record of hitting one out of Tiger Stadium in July of 1921 - this one was said to be measured at 610 feet - although how it was done was not recorded. That reminds me of what Bob Feller said regarding home runs, "There isn't a man who ever played baseball who could hit a ball 600 feet."

One that was measured close to that mark was hit on April 17, 1953 when Mickey Mantle slammed a pitch off Chuck Stobbs clear out of Griffith Stadium in Washington. It was on that date that the phrase "Tape Measure Drive" was coined by Red Patterson when he was publicity man for the Yankees. Mantle drove the ball on the line toward the bleachers in left center. The ball kept rising, like a cannon shot, and flew out of the ballpark to the right of the scoreboard.

The moment the ball disappeared, Patterson said: "I gotta find that baby." So he hiked out behind the left-center stands in search of the ball. He found it, and began measuring and measuring and returned to the press box and stated "That one, gentlemen, went 565 feet." Thus the beginning of the phrase "Tape Measure Drive" - a phrase that long ago disappeared - but hell, so did The Texas Leaguer!

All photos in this column courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
You can find more columns and speeches from Ford C. Frick Award winner Gene Elston at Gene Elston's Journal.