Sunday, August 26, 2007

A brief history of the career and seasonal home run records

When I was a kid, the career home run leader was Babe Ruth with 714 and the season record holder was Babe Ruth with 60 in 1927. He held those records since my dad was a kid. Ruth died many years before I was born, but any baseball fan knew the legend of Babe Ruth, and any little kid who was willing to listen would learn it, too. Ruth in his lifetime saw some competitors make a run at 60 homers in a season. Both Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg hit 58 homers in a year, in 1932 and 1938 respectively. Hack Wilson set the National League record of 56 in 1930. But it is no exaggeration to say that Babe Ruth changed the way people thought about hitting. The first time he held the season home run record, he hit 29 in 1919, breaking the record held by Gavvy Cravath with 24. The next year, in the first season of the Live Ball Era, he hit 54. The year after that, he hit 59. The ball had changed, but the thinking about hitting needed to catch up. Ruth did that with a vengeance. Though some made a run at his single season record, his career record of 714 looked impossibly high. Second on the list was Jimmie Foxx with 534. Mel Ott had 511 for his career and Ruth's great teammate Lou Gehrig had 493. 180 home runs marked the difference between first and second on the list. The career record looked unassailable.

In 1961, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a season. Some people think there is an asterisk next to this record in the official records, but there isn't. Maris' "sin" was that the season was 162 games long in his era, while Ruth's team played only 154 game in a year. Maris didn't have 60 in the 154th game of the year, and commissioner Ford Frick, who had been Ruth's publicist in days gone by, treated Maris' accomplishment as not the equal of Ruth's. Older Yankee fans still loved Ruth more, and perhaps even worse for Maris, the fans loved his teammate Mickey Mantle more as well. But Mantle got hurt that year as the two were running neck and neck, and it was Roger Maris who would be the new season record holder.

While Maris is one of the many good players from the post war era, he didn't hit home runs consistently and never had a chance at Ruth's career record. The game had been changed radically by giving opportunity to black players, and many of them made their mark in the record books. The 500 home run club, once a nearly unattainable goal, added only one more member from the great players who started playing prior to World War II, the incomparable Ted Williams with 521. Ted's career numbers are hamstrung by his years of service as a Marine fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War. Ted's great contemporaries, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Al Kaline couldn't get in the club, and neither could home run phenom of the early 50s Ralph Kiner.

For the players whose heyday was the 50s and 60s, the 500 home run club was the clear and attainable goal, a stamped ticket to baseball's Hall of Fame. Be a great hitter and stay relatively healthy was the way to go, and many more joined the club. Ernie Banks, Eddie Matthews, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson all made the 500 home run club, but from that era, two broke the 600 home run mark, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Mays started his career in New York, and though he played most of it in the relative obscurity of San Francisco, he still had some big city cache. The numbers say that at his prime he was a better hitter than Aaron, but he didn't stay in top shape, and Aaron used longevity and talent to beat Ruth's all-time record, much in the same way Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's all-time base hit record by having thousands of more at bats. (Let me say in terms of content of character, Aaron is a mensch, Ruth was a jackass, Pete Rose is scum and Ty Cobb was psychotic. I could say that's just my opinion, but you can look it up.)

And so it stood. Aaron was the career king and Maris the season king, throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Baseball went through a labor dispute that saw a World Series canceled, and the game was seeing an attendance slump. People noticed that players were hitting more home runs after the dispute was settled, and the speculation was that The Powers That Be had quietly made a change to the baseball that would make it travel farther. This had happened before, when Ruth's era of dominance started, and they tried an even livelier ball in the 1930 season, but went back to the "regular" live ball in 1931. Then Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa duked it out for the season record in 1998, when McGwire hit 70 and Sosa 66. It's less than ten years ago, but some might remember that it was a complete celebration. McGwire and Sosa were likable guys, and they showed the proper respect to the late Roger Maris and his surviving family and it was a love fest. No one, but no one, even whispered that there was a turd in the punchbowl.

Of course, there was a problem, and it was that baseball turned a blind eye to performance enhancing drugs. It was common knowledge that McGwire had a huge bottle of Andro, short for Androstenedione, in his locker. But, hey, it's not a drug, it's a dietary supplement! Actually, of course, it's a steroid and the World Anti-Doping Agency had banned it, which meant it was banned from the Olympics. That meant nothing to American sports fans, of course. The way WE handle performance enhancing drugs must be the best way.

Attend the tale of Barry Bonds, the best player of his generation, albeit a screaming asshole. Now with more Most Valuable Player trophies than any player in history, and with three before 2000, but when the voting for the All Century team happens in 2000, the fans chose current position players Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mark McGwire and ignored Bonds. I imagine this was not happy news for Barry. In 2001, Barry Bonds hits 73 home runs, the first and only time in his career he hits over 50 home runs. (It should be noted that Hank Aaron never hit over 50 in a season.)
In 2004, George W. Bush denounces the use of steroids in sports in his 2004 State Of The Union address. In 2005, current and past players are brought in front of the Senate to testify. Jose Canseco, self-absorbed jerk, tells the truth about what he knows. Rafael Palmiero, stand up guy, lies under oath. McGwire looks like a beaten old man. Sosa no speak the ingles. Steroids are bad, really bad. And the current player most under suspicion is Barry Lamar Bonds.

So now, Bonds has passed Aaron. A book has been written alleging Bonds used steroids, with lots of names and dates, but to this date, Bonds has never failed a drug test. In this way, he is the same as Lance Armstrong, who has had his accusers but never failed a drug test. Thing is, Lance is likable and Barry isn't. Race may also be a factor, but Bonds' assholishness is up at a par with white assholes like Donald Trump.

One thing Bonds has that Armstrong doesn't have is a trainer currently in jail for refusing to co-operate with a grand jury, a man by the name of Greg Anderson. While this is not evidence in Bonds' favor, I think people of all political stripes in this country can agree that grand juries are more than happy to throw people in the can nowadays. Whether it's Susan McDougal or Judith Miller or Josh Wolf, a candidate for mayor of San Francisco who holds the record for time held by a grand jury for failing to produce his notes, I think everybody can find at least one jail bird worthy of the title of protector of all our freedoms against overzealous government prosecutors.

Boy. That's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a Sunday.


dguzman said...

Great sports post as usual, Matty. I've boycotted baseball since they threatened to strike again a few years ago, but I must comment on Bonds the Jerk. You hit on the one point that sticks in my craw: the fact that Bonds has never tested positive for steroids. How is this possible? It's OBVIOUS the guy is juiced up; are they rigging the tests? Using inferior testing methods? What? When the huge tumors appear on his nuts, I guess THEN they'll figure it out.

One thing you didn't hit on was the Robocop-like hardware that Bonds wears so he can hog the entire plate without fear of brushback/injury. Why is all that shit legal? I know they made him stop wearing some of it, but he still goes out there with a ton of "protection" on. Big wimp.

This whole business has frustrated me to the extreme. Hank Aaron was a true sportsman and a real athlete. Bonds is nothing more than a chemically altered Terminator out there, and an asshole to boot.

Sorry to rant on....

Matty Boy said...

You're right about the armor, but until baseball bans it, it's okay.

As for testing positive, it's a battle of chemists. BALCO, the company that is at the center of the controversy, made a steroid nicknamed "the clear" because it is undetectable by current tests. Someone will figure out how to test for it, and some other drug will be invented. The chase goes on and on.