We talk about career records in terms of roads, paths, and journeys. But the nature of homeruns doesn’t match the metaphor. Homer hitters don’t plink along, knocking line drives through the hole to notch 3000 hits. They don’t grind away for 7 innings twice a week for twenty years to reach 300 wins. To reach 500, most of them launch home runs with vicious uppercuts. They blast them with violent snaps of the wrists. They hammer hanging curves, slug sloppy sliders, and put a charge in ill-fated changeups. They are baseball’s answer to the 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, played again and again and again.
As with our 3,000 hits group, we can look at these fellows from three vantage points from broadest to narrowest: their times, the parks they played in, and their individual styles.
In a way, no one had it easier than Babe Ruth. Before Ruth, very few hitters could be thought of as grip-it-and-rip-it hitters. Most guys choked up on the bat and attempted to place the ball in the gaps between fielders—what was then called “scientific” hitting. Before 1920, the dirty, softened-up balls weren’t removed from play, and all kinds of foreign substances found their way onto them, and legally at that. Between these two conditions, hitters found it smarter to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” and run the bases hyper-aggressively. Though maybe not the first player to dig the long ball, Ruth nonetheless had surprise on his side. Virtually no one swung for the fences. In other words, pitchers in Ruth’s time didn’t know how to pitch around homer hitters until later in his career. It’s hard to know if they even had advanced scouts to tell them where the opposing players’ weakness were. Even as the Babe became the 1920s’ most written about player, it took a while for other hitters and teams to truly adopt the homer as a primary weapon. From 1920–1924 (the first five years after Ruth set the single-season record for roundtrippers), the majors saw only six seasons of forty or more homers, and four of them were Ruth. No player other than Ruth homered forty times more than once, nor for that matter did anyone other than Ruth homer thirty times more than once. If we extend out to 1929 (ten full years after Ruth took hold of the single-season homer mark), the top eight players on the homer list are Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, and Babe Ruth. In those ten years, only Babe Ruth hit forty more than once. The league started to catch on a little more, however, with Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Cy Williams finally joining Ruth with multiple thirty-homer seasons. By the end of his career (1935), Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Chuck Klein finally joined the multi-40 club, while Wally Berger, Mel Ott, and Al Simmons joined the multi-30 group. In a sense, Ruth’s league-wide context for homering was very, very soft. Entire teams stayed stuck in the old ways, and a generation of pitchers needed time to figure out how to pitch to power hitters, let alone Ruth himself. While these non-Ruth sluggers conferred some advantage from these early times in homer hitting, only Ruth could take full advantage.
Then there’s the Sillyball era of the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead of one guy dragging everyone else into the future, nearly every batter in the league thought about the long ball. This graph of home run rates since 1901 will say it much better than I can.
Prior to 1994, only twice in MLB history had either league reached 1.0 homers per game: the NL in 1955 and the AL in the 1987 Rabbit Ball season. Only that infamous 1987 season reached an MLB-wide average of 1.0 or higher. Beginning in 1994, the MLB home run rate was higher than one a game every year through 2009. The likes of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Junior Griffey, Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, and Gary Sheffield all benefited substantially from the rising tide (so too Adam Dunn and David Ortiz who are at 450 homers each).
Who had the toughest league context? By the numbers it’s Ruth and his contemporaries, but as we’ve noted that’s not exactly the case. Our graph suggests that the toughest modern context for homer hitting was in the NL from 1968 to 1992. Between a pitcher’s era, a time in which numerous spacious multipurpose stadiums were built, and the lack of the DH in the NL, that period got the worst of it. To varying degrees numerous 500-homer hitters toiled along in that time, but only Mike Schmidt spent his entire career in the NL of that era. He’s got it the worst in this sense.
In another sense, Eddie Murray had it pretty bad. He played through three strike-shortened seasons, losing 124 games in the process. Given his annual home run rate, he likely missed out on about twenty bombs.
But really, who had it worse than Ted Williams? “Thumper” missed more than 700 games due to military service. Given Williams’s career averages, he might have lost as many as 140 circuit clouts.
Lastly, we should note a few other things:
- Everyone before 1973 had it tougher than everyone since because the DH has kept many milestone chases alive
- Players before the 1970s or 1980s probably had it a little or a lot easier than those since because they generally didn’t face specialized bullpens full of tactical weapons and also tended to see the same pitcher more often in the same game
- Players before the 1940s and 1950s played in way more day games, when it’s easier to see the ball and hotter so the ball travels better and pitchers tire more quickly.
A hitter’s home park probably affects homer hitting more than any other single offensive event. It’s not just how far away the fences loom, nor even how high they stand. Nor even altitude. There’s wind patterns, heat and humidity, the batter’s backdrop, even the height of the mound in some notorious cases (looking at you, 1960s Dodgers!). Some parks are considered “The Friendly Confines” and some, well, aren’t.
Who among the 500-homer club had the toughest home parks for the long ball? Thanks to someday Hall of Famer (I hope!) Sean Forman and the amazing Retrosheet volunteers, we now have splits going back all the way to 1914. So we can know that Babe Ruth hit 367 of his career homers on the road and 347 at home. Let’s see how this information charts for all of our 500-homer hitters:
NAME HRS HOME ROAD %HOME ========================================= Mel Ott 511 323 188 63.2% Frank Thomas 521 312 209 59.9% Ernie Banks 512 290 222 56.6% Jimmie Foxx 534 299 235 56.0% Jim Thome 612 339 273 55.4% Frank Robinson 586 321 265 54.8% Rafael Palmeiro 569 311 258 54.6% Sammy Sosa 609 321 288 52.7% Ken Griffey 630 332 298 52.7% Gary Sheffield 509 262 247 51.5% Alex Rodriguez 654 334 320 51.1% Manny Ramirez 555 282 283 50.8% Harmon Killebrew 573 291 282 50.8% Willie Mays 660 335 325 50.8% Willie McCovey 521 264 257 50.7% Hank Aaron 755 385 370 50.1% Barry Bonds 762 379 383 49.7% Reggie Jackson 563 280 283 49.7% Mickey Mantle 536 266 270 49.6% Mark McGwire 583 285 298 48.9% Babe Ruth 714 347 367 48.5% Mike Schmidt 548 265 283 48.4% Eddie Murray 504 242 262 48.0% Ted Williams 521 248 273 47.6% Eddie Mathews 512 238 274 46.5% Albert Pujols 512 236 276 46.1% --------------------------------------- AVERAGE 51.7%
We don’t have to belabor this one too much. Mel Ott had, by far, the most help from his home park. I was very surprised to see Frank Thomas’ name pop up, but U.S. Cellular Field became a launching pad during his career. Banks and Foxx, beneficiaries of The Friendly Confines and the Green Monster, respectively, should surprise no one. More surprising at the other end is Babe Ruth’s not taking greater advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch.
Here’s a fun little note. Mike Schmidt seems surprisingly imbalanced toward road homers. Fangraphs’ homerun park factors show the Vet as boosting homerun rates by 3 percent (Fangraphs’ data goes back to 1974 only), but Schmidt is losing about 3 percent versus the average of these players. Was there something specific about the Vet that didn’t mesh with his swing. No, instead the answer can be summed up this way: Wrigley Field. Schmidty hit 50 homers in Chicago, 21 more than in any other opposition grounds. Take away 25 Wrigley homers (leaving an about-average total for his away parks), and Schmidt’s at 50.7 percent at home, basically the average of this group.
Finally at the bottom of things are Williams, Mathews, and Pujols. Of course the Red Sox built Fenway’s bullpens to reduce the distance to their right field fence, leading to their “Williamsburg” sobriquet. But even today, Fenway remains a difficult place for lefties to go yard, typically playing as much as 10 percent tougher for lefty power hitters than righties. Mathews’ home parks mirror Hank Aaron’s, and Bad Henry’s parks played a little tough on the homers. They must have been a just a little tougher on lefties than righties. Then there’s Pujols. Fangraphs has event-level park factors going back to 1974, and Pujols’ home parks played toughest on homeruns among all the 500 homer hitters. In addition, Saint Louis played tougher on righties than lefties. Here’s the homer factors for our 500-club sluggers who played in the 1974–2013 era that Fangraphs’ data covers.
NAME HR factor ============================ Albert Pujols 94.2 (through 2013 only) Barry Bonds 95.5 Mark McGwire 96.8 Manny Ramirez 97.0 Eddie Murray 98.7 Gary Sheffield 99.6 Frank Thomas 100.4 Jim Thome 102.8 Sammy Sosa 103.0 Mike Schmidt 103.2 (does not include 1972–1973) Ken Griffey, Jr. 103.8 Alex Rodriguez 103.9 Rafael Palmeiro 104.3
To date, Albert Pujols’ home parks may have knocked his home run production down by five percent. On the other hand, Rafael Palmeiro’s home parks may have boosted his homers by 4.3 percent. That’s a pretty big spread, the difference between 500 homers and 550. Or if you prefer between 500 and 450.
Pujols appears to have had it the worst.
It would be tempting here to talk about walks and strikeouts and how they cut down on opportunities for homers like they do for hits. But the relationship with strikeouts, for example, is often convergent rather than divergent because harder swings produce both more power and more Ks. Walks isn’t quite so clear, but in many cases, take-and-rake homer hitters also trade walks for homers, controlling the plate by not swinging when they don’t get a pitch they can drive.
There are, however, other facets of an individual’s game we can look at, namely, their raw power and their durability.
Some of our 500-homer hitters just ooze power. Jim Thome’s violent rips and Frank Thomas’ massive, hulking frame for example. But there’s guys like Palmeiro and Murray who were more well rounded. For those latter guys, reaching the milestone was about a long string of 20 and 30 homer seasons instead of annual 40 or 50-homer fireworks barrages. Here’s the career isolated slugging for our twenty-six ultra sluggers:
NAME ISO ====================== Babe Ruth .348 Mark McGwire .325 Barry Bonds .309 Ted Williams .290 Jimmie Foxx .284 Jim Thome .278 Albert Pujols .275 Manny Ramirez .273 Sammy Sosa .261 Mike Schmidt .260 Alex Rodriguez .259 Mickey Mantle .259 Willie Mays .255 Ken Griffey, Jr. .254 Frank Thomas .254 Harmon Killebrew .253 Hank Aaron .250 Willie McCovey .245 Frank Robinson .243 Eddie Mathews .238 Mel Ott .229 Reggie Jackson .228 Rafael Palmeiro .227 Ernie Banks .226 Gary Sheffield .222 Eddie Murray .189
Murray is clearly our least impressive power hitter, and not by a smidgen either. On the flip isde, it’s again hard to say for sure about Ruth because of his trailblazer status, but a .348 career ISO is amazing. That’s the same thing as a .300 hitter slugging .650 every single year. Wow. McGwire’s power really stands out here as well. Essentially McGwire had only two skills, homering and walking. Good ones to have. He hit .263 during his career, and he was so painfully slow and awkward on the bases so that his slugging percentage (and ISO) include very few doubles and triples at all, let alone singles. If we instead asked what percentage of a player’s hits were homers, check out what happens:
- McGwire: 35.9%
- Killebrew: 27.5%
- Thome: 26.3%
24. Palmeiro: 18.8%
25. Ott: 17.8%
26. Murray: 15.5%
McGwire is amazingly far off the charts. In a real sense, he and Murray, easily the least powerful hitter in the group, represent the extremes of how a man can reach 500 homers. McGwire played 11.6 seasons’ worth of games in his 16 years, a mere 117 a year (though with two strike years in there). He nonetheless averaged 50 homers per 162 games and 36 per season. Steady Eddie Murray played 18.7 seasons’ worth of games in his 21 years (including three strike years). He averaged 27 shots a year. He played full-time beginning in his rookie year and appeared in 92.5% of his team’s games (150 a year). Murray snuck by 500 in September of 1996. Just four baseball months later, he was done with only four more homers to his credit.
No one did more to focus on the long ball than McGwire, no one persevered so much to reach the 500 homer club as did Eddie Murray.
AND THE WINNER IS?
So who had the worst of it getting to 500? Ted Williams, with Eddie Murray running second. For Williams 650–700 games lost to the military is just too big a hurdle by itself not to rank his quest as the toughest. That his home park didn’t help him much was icing scraped off the cake. For Murray to reach the big five-oh-oh, he had get around three player strikes, below-average ballparks for homering, and his own relative lack of power. That’s not 700 missed games, and Murray had the DH working for him, but it’s not chopped liver either.
The easiest path to 500? Either Mel Ott or Babe Ruth. Ott thanks to the massive advantage his home park gave him as a dead-red lefty pull hitter and Ruth because as the trailblazer he probably faced the least tactical and strategic resistance from the league.