By Marty Appel
One of the more revealing tales in Leigh Montville’s acclaimed 2004 biography of Ted Williams was a small anecdote that had to do with Williams’ considering retirement following the 1954 season. He was going through a divorce, was concerned about alimony payments coming out of his salary, and some had suggested that he might be better off not playing. He even told the Boston writers that he was going to quit after ’54.
During that period, he encountered a fan named Eddie Mifflin who told him of all the statistical milestones he would fall short of.
“Do you even know how many hits you’ve racked up?” said Mifflin to Williams, during a chance encounter at Union Station in Baltimore.
“No,” Williams admitted.
“You’ve got 1,930 in all…..It won’t take much to reach 2,000. And in home runs, you’re not even among the first ten in lifetime totals. But if you stick around….”
“Who are you?” Williams asked, interested.
“Just a helluva fan,” Mifflin said before jumping on a train for Philadelphia.
“Get in touch with me,” Williams said.
And then, as Montville reports, they met at a New York hotel and Mifflin “laid out a gridwork of ‘approaching milestones,’ and promised to find more.
For the rest of his career, it was Mifflin who would send Williams telegrams about milestones reached.
They were numbers that were news to Williams. Newspapers didn’t regularly report on stats the way they do today, and Ted apparently had little knowledge of the milestones, or in fact, even what his lifetime batting average was.
As we know, he returned to the diamond (but not until May 13 of the ’55 season), and played through 1960. How much of an impetus these statistical revelations were, we don’t know.
But baseball stats remained somewhat secondary in people’s evaluation of players through the game’s first half century, to be sure.
When Mickey Mantle began to approach 500 home runs, the milestone had become a bit more recognized.
After the 1964 season, Yankee PR Director Bob Fishel and his assistant Bill Guilfoile, decided to include in the Yankee press guide, the “All-Time Home Run List Through 1964.”
It took some research; it hadn’t been published before. The baseball record books listed the leader, but nothing like a top ten or top twenty. Fishel and Guilfoile, along with statistician Bill Kane, had to tumble through the only encyclopedia that existed back then, the Turkin-Thompson Encyclopedia of Baseball, (which did not include home run total), trying out names and cross checking with the Baseball Register and The Sporting News’ “Daguerreotypes” until they were satisfied that they had ruled out anyone who might have made the cut.
The list, through 1964:
Babe Ruth 714
Jimmie Foxx 534
Ted Williams 521
Met Ott 511
Lou Gehrig 493
Stan Musial 475
Mickey Mantle 454
Willie Mays 453
Ed Mathews 445
Duke Snider 407
Ernie Banks 376
Gil Hodges 370
Ralph Kiner 369
Hank Aaron 366
Joe DiMaggio 361
Johnny Mize 359
Yogi Berra 358
Hank Greenberg 331
Roy Sievers 318
Al Simmons 307
At the time, 300 was such a lofty total that the Hall of Fame had a special display for the 200 home run club, with certificates being sent to each new member, and on-field ceremonies often arranged to hand them their certificate.
Eventually, Mantle, Mays, Mathews, Banks, and Aaron would scale 500, joining the four “original members,” although at the time, Williams was sort of the “new guy in town” when it came to 500. The sixties was considered an age of prolific long ball activity, with names like Rocky Colavito, Jim Gentile, Norm Cash, Roger Maris, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda adding to the festivities. The legendary Rogers Hornsby (who hit 301 and stood 21st on the list), was the most vocal in decrying the “jackrabbit baseballs” and Frankie Frisch, another Hall of Fame infielder also mocked the modern player with regularity. (Frisch even mocked their practice of wearing helmets!)
The fact was, each era had its unique characteristics, and the players of the ‘60s went about their business without giving it back to the earlier players about their bandbox ballparks and inflated batting averages in the 1930s.
Today, with statistics thrown at fans from every direction – the internet, broadcasts, the print media – it is hard to remember a time when it seemed so less important. It seems that there must have been a basic human thirst for this knowledge, and that is why fans seem to enjoy it so. It has been aided by fantasy leagues, by the growth of the Society for American Baseball Research, by the popularity of “top tens” and by the convenience it has provided announcers for more things to say about each player.
Today, the “500 Home Run Club” is less exclusive, with a population by next season of some 25 players – in other words, 500 doesn’t get you onto the top 20 list. Still, it is a magical number, a number celebrated with greater fanfare, no doubt, than it was when Foxx or Ott or even Williams reached it. (Al Simmons, 20th in 1964, is now tied for 106th on the list with his 307).
A baseball fan is now defined as someone who also loves the mathematics of the game – the milestones, the lists, the exclusive clubs. It has made fans more appreciative, in a sense, of the game’s history by recalling old names as they are passed. There is more to take in as regards knowledge of the players, and as such, fans are more informed, more well rounded, and able to recite more about the players than the predecessors were.
And for the upcoming members of the not-so-exclusive 500 home run?
Cue the pyrotechnics, folks. It’s still a great accomplishment and something to celebrate.