Giancarlo Stanton isn’t the only one hitting home runs.
It may sometimes seem that way, and the idea that he may become the sixth player to crash the 60-home run barrier is becoming a hot topic in the baseball world, but the fact is baseballs are flying over fences and into the stands at an unprecedented rate. The reality that the Boston Red Sox are not really a part of this is fascinating, for sure. But that’s a topic for another day.
Stanton has stirred the pot a bit by letting it be known that the single-season mark he most reveres is 61, not 73. Meanwhile, he also says a lot of the credit for his superb season is the help and advice he still gets from his 2016 batting coach, one Barry Lamar Bonds. Life sure can be funny.
All these bombs, or, as the late George Scott would say, “taters,” means the subject of just whom the public regards as the real career home run champ is once again in play. Officially, the record is 762, the total amassed by Bonds. But not everyone accepts that figure as the standard. You may have heard something about some performance-enhancing drug accusations.
I don’t think there is a simple answer. The way I look at it, there are three home run champs. Allow me to explain.
I believe there have been three distinct home run eras.
1. The Booze, Broads, and Train Era. Champ: Babe Ruth (714)
It is indisputable that no baseball player separated himself from the pack as dramatically at any time in the game’s history anywhere near as much as Ruth did in a career that began in 1914 and end in 1935. Before Babe Ruth came along the home run was a minor aspect of baseball. The career leader at the time was Roger Connor, who hit 138 between 1880 and 1897, with a high of 17 in 1887. The single-season record was 24 by Clifford Carlton “Gavvy” Cravath in 1915. Home runs were events.
Then came Ruth. Though still pitching often enough to go 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA in 1918, he knocked out 11 homers (also 26 doubles and an impressive 11 triples) in 317 official at-bats. He was converted into a full-time outfielder the following year (while still starting 15 games, with a 9-5 record) and that was the end of Cravath’s reign as the single-season home champ with 29. He was sold to the Yankees after that season — it took nine decades for Bostonians to get over it — and he increased his record to 54. It is commonly referred to as the birth of the “lively ball” era, but let the record show that only 13 other players, American or National League, even reached double figures. No one was remotely comparable to Babe Ruth.
Things never did change. His 1927 then-record total of 60 was exceeded by just one team, the Washington Senators. When Ruth retired early in the 1935 season, he had 714 homers. By the end of that year Jimmie Foxx was distant career No. 2 with 302. He would remain in second place for many years with 534.
But the circumstances were far different than today. The great Negro League players were barred from playing. There were no night games. There were no official “closers,” and Ruth could get four looks at a possible tiring starter. In addition, his career with the Yankees began in the Polo Grounds, where it was 257 feet to the right-field foul pole. And Yankee Stadium, with its 296 foot right-field distance, was constructed expressly for him in 1923.
2. The Greenie Era. Champ: Hank Aaron (755)
Amphetamines were handed out like candy in every major league locker room. They all took them. It was regarded as the only way to get through 162 games. Start with that. And from 1947 on the game ceased being all-white. All the best players in the world were now playing major league baseball, not just some. Two African-Americans in particular topped the charts. There was Willie Mays. And there was Hank Aaron.
In Ruth’s time there were 16 teams in just 11 markets, with no franchise farther west than St. Louis. Mays and Aaron started out in that world, but by the time they were done baseball was now a coast-to-coast endeavor and trains had given way to jets. The game had a different feel.
Aaron began in Milwaukee, but in 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, and there is no doubt he benefitted from the move. The new ballpark quickly acquired the nickname, “The Launching Pad,” and as he settled into his 30s he seemed not to age at all, going over 40 homers three more times, with a career high of 47 at age 37 in 1971. Consistency was his middle name. He never hit 50 homers in a season. But he hit 20 or more in 20 consecutive seasons, and though he was never regarded as a Ruthian-style slugger, the numbers mounted and in 1974 he finally hit No. 715 to become the all-time leader.
3. The Steroids Era. Champ: Barry Bonds (762)
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was no static emanating from Bonds? I mean, the things he did put him right there with Ruth. But, well, you know.
Take slugging. I had always thought that what Ruth did in 1920 and 1921 was utterly unimaginable and would never be duplicated. Ruth slugged .847 in 1920 and .846 in 1921. We weren’t hip to OPS back then, but his respective OPS numbers were 1.379 and 1.359, and that’s sick.
Then along came Bonds. Not right away, of course, because the Barry Bonds who began his career in Pittsburgh in 1986 was a very different player. He was a very good player, perhaps on a path to be a borderline Hall of Famer, but nothing like the player he became in San Francisco, when he became, shall we say, more physically formidable. Well, Mr. Bonds slugged .863 in 2001 and .799 in 2002. Throw in amazing walk totals and his OPS figures in those two years were 1.379 and 1.381. He out-Ruthed Ruth.
Of course, he hit those 73 homers in 2001, swatting a homer once every 6.5 official at-bats. If we hadn’t lived through it, we’d dismiss all of it as completely fictitious.
No, it was real, all right. It happened. The question is whether or not it was fraudulent. Perhaps you can embrace it. I just can’t. That increased hat size accusation cannot be dismissed, if you know what I mean.
Barry Bonds has the number. But does he have the cachet? We’re all free to decide.
P.S. Please, Giancarlo Stanton, be clean. Please, please.
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