By Marty Appel
Can you set a single season home record before a season is over? If the answer is yes, the first to hold baseball’s most glamorous record was Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings, who hit the first home in National League history (his only one that season), on May 2, 1876. If you want to be picky and wait for the season to end, you would have to look to the long-forgotten George Hall of Philadelphia, who clubbed five that season and actually held the record for four years!
That was when the equally forgotten Charley Jones of Boston belted nine homers for the ’79 Beaneaters, earning a place in the record book – had there been a record book in those days. But the annual baseball guides actually paid little heed to records with so few seasons having passed, and thus both Hall and Jones achieved no fame from their accomplishment playing longball. Nor did the fans who retrieved the balls realize much – they may, in fact, have returned the record breaking balls to play.
Harry Stovey, a more accomplished player, hit 14 in 1883 for Philadelphia of the American Association, but in 1884, Chicago’s Ned Williamson, playing home games in Lake Front Park, had a 180 foot left field fence and a 196 foot right field fence to shoot for. He hit 27 homers that year – 25 at home – and easily broke any record anyone might imagine. The White Stockings had 142 homers that year; second best was Buffalo with 39.
And so it was the Williamson mark that would stand for ages – 35 years, to be exact – when Babe Ruth bambinoed 29 circuit clouts (these old expressions were wonderful) in 1919 for the Red Sox. That brought about his trade to the Yankees – perhaps you have heard of it – and in 1920 he lifted that mark to 54, and then swatted an unimaginable 59 for the Yanks in ’21. From that point on, no one seemed to pay much attention to a single season record, under the assumption that Ruth would surely keep bettering the standard.
But it wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until 1927 that he finally did, hitting his 60th on the final day of the season, off Washington’s Tom Zachery. Enough time had lapsed that the newspapers found it worthwhile identifying the fan that caught the ball – Joe Forner of 1937 First Avenue in Manhattan. A gentleman of about 40, he went to the Yankee clubhouse after the game, “to let the Babe know who had the ball.”
In 1964, a gentleman named Douglas Warner of New York City, donated Ruth’s 60th homer to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it still resides, 40 seasons later.
The Ruthian mark would last for 34 years, until another Yankee right fielder, playing in the very “House that Ruth Built,” belted 61 in the first expansion season, meaning eight games were added to the schedule. This caused Commissioner Ford Frick to rule that if the record didn’t fall in 154 games, there would be a separate listing. And there was, until Commission Fay Vincent, recognizing that time had proven the extra games had not opened the floodgates on the record books, finally acknowledged that Maris’s mark should stand alone.
The Maris home run came on October 1, 1961 off Boston’s Tracy Stallard. The right field patron who caught it was 19-year-old Sal Durante of Brooklyn, a truck driver who lived at 1418 Neptune Avenue in the Coney Island section. He was at the game with his girlfriend (to whom he is still married today). Durante offered Maris the ball, but Roger told him to get what he could for it. Sacramento restaurateur Sam Gordon had offered $5,000 for the ball to display in his restaurant and then to present to Maris. Gordon flew to New York and bought the ball from Durante on a morning show on WCBS TV called “Calendar.”
Maris left the dugout in the fifth inning to meet Durante outside the Yankee clubhouse. He was so impressed by Durante’s offer to forgo the $5,000 and give the ball to him, that Roger told Boston catcher Russ Nixon about it when he batted in the 8th inning. “What do you think of that kid,” he said. “The boy is planning to get married and he can use the money, but he still wanted to give the ball back to me.”
With expansion next going to the National League in 1962, no one would have predicted that the Maris record would last longer than the Ruth record – 37 years. By 1998, Ruth had died at 53, Maris at 51, both of cancer. The record was by then legend, and the ball had come to reside at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mark McGwire captured the nation’s attention in ’98 with his furious assault on Maris, and it became increasingly apparent that 61 was going to fall. He hit his 62nd on September 8 and just kept going. He hit four in the final two games of the season to give him 70, the final one coming in the 7th inning off Carl Pavano on September 27. A fan named Phil Ozersky caught it, and wound up auctioning it for nearly $3 million. It was purchased by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane who used it to help publicize his magazine company.
Would Big Mac’s record hold as Ruth’s had? As Maris’s had? Not quite. Three years after he hit his 70, the magnificent Giant Barry Bonds belted 73. The final home run came in the first inning of the final game of the 2001 season, October 7, on a full count, bases empty knuckleball from the Dodgers’ Dennis Springer. The 73rd was battled for in the right field seats, with both Patrick Hayashi and Alex Popov claiming ownership. A judge ruled that the ball must be sold and the proceeds divided.
Which brings us to why we are here today.