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Monday, February 14, 2005

Home Run Records Have Never Meant Anything

Got your attention? Okay.

This is a letter written to USA Today, by my good friend and colleague Gary Gillette, in response to an article Tim Wendel wrote in December. Briefly, Wendel's point was that the recent steroid use allegations against Barry Bonds, etc. deem current home run marks irrelevant. Following is Gary's cogent reply. If you want the original article, LMK.


The simple truth is that ALL major league home run records have been controversial: both when they were set, and for years afterward.

The earliest home-run record of consequence was set by Ned Williamson of the Cubs in 1884 when he hit 27 home runs in Chicago's Lakeside Park. Why was that so controversial? Because Lakeside Park had a left-field foul line less than 200 feet long, turning easy fly balls into round-trippers. When the rules was changed in 1885, making balls hit over that fence doubles, Williamson managed only three homers all season despite playing six more games. Yet Williamson's mark stood in the record books for 35 years--with no asterisk.

Babe Ruth set the baseball world agog by hitting a record 54 homers in 1920, then again by hitting 59 the following year, and finally by smashing 60 in 1927. Those records were extremely controversial, as defenders of the Deadball-era style of play said that Ruth was a mere basher, which somehow made him accomplishments less impressive. As Ruth revolutionized the game, he was simultaneously derided because he supposedly was not the kind of smart player who played "scientific baseball"--like Ty Cobb and the stars who were superseded by the power-based game of the 1920s.

When Roger Maris was challenging Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs in 1961, his feat was derided as being a product of the 1961 AL expansion: both because of the weaker pitching and the new, longer 162-game schedule. The fact that many baseball fans today erroneously believe that Maris's record was accompanied by an asterisk speaks to the enduring fallacies of many of baseball's legends.

When Hank Aaron was about to eclipse Ruth's career record of 714 homers, defenders of Ruth pointed out that Aaron had the benefit of facing expansion pitching for most of his career, as well as getting almost 4000 more at-bats than Ruth. They rarely mentioned, of course, that Ruth clearly benefited from the lack of integration and never faced a black pitcher.

When Mark McGwire launched his 70 moonshots in 1998 and put his name in the record books, smaller ballparks, expansion pitching staffs, and supplements like androstendione were cited to demean his record-shattering season.

Baseball history has now "progressed" to Barry Bonds and his single-season record of 73 home runs (set in 2001) and his likely future record of 755-plus. 'Twas ever thus.

The history of the National Pastime teaches us that, whenever a player breaks an important baseball record, it is ALWAYS controversial. Most often, the detractors are advancing time-worn or irrelevant arguments in an attempt to degrade the new record holder. Sometimes, of course, their points are well taken, but pointing out that the new record holder has enjoyed certain advantages does not destroy the integrity of the new record.

All record-setting performances are the products of their times and must be understood in context. All players that have set important records enjoyed and exploited whatever significant advantages time and fate gave them. None of that has been changed by Bonds, or by anyone's putative steroid usage.

Gary Gillette
The Baseball Encyclopedia
Barnes & Noble Publishing


Anonymous Bashleo said...

The earlier comments were sour grapes. The complaints about McGwire and Bonds hold a lot more water, IMO.

Having an advantage because of who you are facing is a lot different than having an advantage because you hideously increased your muscle mass to become some sort of FrankenBaseballer.

5:08 PM, February 14, 2005

Anonymous Jonathan said...

I'm also not convinced by Gary's article -- the key distinction I see is that the older record holders at least played by the rules that were given to them. Bonds/McGwire allegedly didn't. Of course, McGwire's case is muddier because he admits using a permitted steroid. I'm biased against the new stars because I'm a Frank Thomas fan (may not be the nicest guy, though he's no monster, but the best pure hitter I've ever seen in person) and his achievements have been greatly diminished because of these clowns. Asterix nothing, revoke Giambi's MVP!

10:07 AM, February 15, 2005

Blogger Stuart Shea said...


Thanks for the feedback...would your view change if Thomas had used steroids? (insert snarky smile here)


10:39 AM, February 15, 2005

Anonymous Jonathan said...

Don't harsh my least before Thursdays!

2:06 AM, February 16, 2005


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