Home Run History

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The chill of autumn air carries a special charge for baseball fans, who know that pennant races and the World Series are at stake. And nothing makes the national pastime’s hopeful, anxious drama explode into excitement like the game’s signature act: hitting a home run.

Scan anybody’s list of the greatest moments in sports history, and you’ll find at least three October dingers—Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which won the New York Giants the National League pennant in 1951; Bill Mazeroski’s bottom-of-the-ninth shot in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series; and Bucky Dent’s fly ball over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in 1978… . All this is one reason my editors and I thought it was time to give the home run a proper biography ( Dingers!: A Short History of the Long Ball , recently published by ESPN Books).

Baseball statistics have a unique ability to tell stories. Nelson Barrera, a longtime Mexican Leaguer, finished his career with 479 home runs, just 5 shy of the minor-league record. His numbers shout that there must be some reason why Barrera abruptly stopped playing, and there is: In the middle of the 2002 season he died touching a high-voltage cable.

Even when numerical claims turn out to be tall tales, they can still lead to significant discoveries. The trigonometry of measuring home-run distances makes it clear that Mickey Mantle never hit a ball 643 feet, as some of his adherents have claimed. But that means it’s even more impressive that Mantle did smash confirmed blasts of at least 450 feet to both left field and right field in every American League ballpark during his career (excepting a few where he played for only a year or two).

In collecting and verifying home-run lists and statistics and connecting them to stories about what baseball and its players were like in different eras, I learned two big lessons. First, we’re all still playing in Babe Ruth’s shadow. Ruth had a straightforward philosophy that jolted the game out of its nineteenth-century “small ball” focus on baserunning and fielding: “I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I like to live as big as I can.” Ruth understood reflexively that the home run’s injection of danger, of the idea that any at-bat might turn the world upside down, makes baseball a truly exciting game.

Incidentally, Ruth almost certainly did not “call” a home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, though he did make some sort of gesture. But he really did promise to hit a home run for a hospitalized boy named Johnny Sylvester and then proceeded to smack four dingers during the 1926 World Series.

The next spring, according to legend, a man approached the Babe and said, “Mr. Ruth, I’m Johnny Sylvester’s uncle. I just want to thank you again for what you did.”

“Glad to do it,” replied Ruth, who told the man to send Johnny his regards.

After the uncle left, Ruth asked, “Now, who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?”

Lesson No. 2: When it comes to evaluating the men who hit home runs, context really matters. Stadiums, rules, equipment, and baseball’s talent level all affect how players hit for power, and all have changed radically through the years. Hank Aaron’s numbers, for example, have an amazing consistency: He had a record eight 40-homer seasons but never hit 50. However, Aaron played the first part of his career in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, a terrible home-run park. Three times he smashed 25 or more homers on the road, meaning he would probably have netted 50 to 60 home runs a season in a typical stadium. As for Barry Bonds, the man who might catch Aaron, his first 15 seasons made him one of the three best left fielders in history. But the case for his being perhaps the best player ever rests on the home run numbers he put up over his next four seasons, from 2001 through 2004. Too bad that after revelations about his involvement with steroids, we can no longer take them seriously.

I always knew how I wanted Dingers! to end. The book’s final box lists three players. The first is Ray Berres, who hit 3 home runs in an 11-year career that ended in 1945. The second is Billy Werber, third baseman for the pennant-winning Reds of 1939 and 1940, who had 78 career homers. Berres, who is now 99, and Werber, 98, are the oldest living players to have homered. And the third is Prince Fielder, born in 1984, the youngest major leaguer to go yard in 2005. These players remind us that the history of home runs, like all history, connects the glories of the past to the possibilities of the future.

Peter Keating