May 08, 2007

What Ty Cobb's Homerun Record Tells Us About Barry Bonds

Ty Cobb was a great homerun hitter.

We know Cobb in the context of his career batting and base-running records, three of which have been surpassed in our generation. For more than two generations, Cobb held the career-records for stolen-bases, base-hits, and runs. In August 1977, the St Louis Cardinals’ Lou Brock broke the stolen-base record; in September 1985, the Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose eclipsed the career base-hit mark; Ricky Henderson, playing for the San Diego Padres, set the mark for runs scored in September 2001.

Cobb was also one of the top homerun hitters of his generation. has a nice feature on its player pages in which it lists the season finishes of a player in multiple statistics categories. The Cobb link is at

Cobb led the American League in homeruns in 1909, finished second in the League in 1907, 1910, and 1911, and finished in the top-ten in every other season between 1908 and 1918 as well as in 1921. Roy E. Brownell II, writing in his article “Was Ty Cobb a Power Hitter?” in the most recent SABR The Baseball Research Journal, highlights that Cobb’s 11-career top-ten season homerun totals compare with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Frank Thomas who has nine top-ten league finishes, Gil Hodges who had ten, and Hall of Fame slugger Al Kaline who had 8.

Cobb made his American League debut in August 1905 with the Tigers. This was the dead-ball era which is said to have ended with the 1920 season when both the spitball was outlawed and the official ball was wound tighter so that it carried harder and further when hit. Cobb would play through the 1928 season but the majority of his career, and certainly his prime years, and the years in which he led the Tigers to the American League pennant, were during the dead-ball era which was also the pre-Babe Ruth era. Ruth would not make his major league debut until 1914 by which time Cobb was a well established star.

Hank Aaron, playing for the Atlanta Braves in 1974, broke Babe Ruth’s career record for homeruns which had stood at 714. Aaron went onto hit 755 for his career. As I write this article, the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds has 745 career homeruns and could realistically hit career number 756 prior to the mid-July All-Star Game.

Who held the career record for homeruns prior to Ruth? As long-time Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn would say responding to a question posed by booth-partner Harry Kalas, “How about that Roger Connor?!” Yes, Roger Connor was the Major League Baseball career homeruns record holder from 1895 until 1920. The Baseball Hall of Fame lists Connor’s primary team as the New York Gothams, the National League team that we know as the “Giants”. Connor finished his career with 138 career homeruns which Ruth exceeded during the 1921 season.

138 career homeruns does not seem to us like very many. Even in 2007, an era that may or may-not be post-steroids, we would not be surprised to see a player hit 138 over the course of three straight seasons. But this was a lot in the years prior to 1920 and 1921 when the ball was squishier (yes, that is a technical term), spitballs and doctored balls were legal, and outfield fences were, on average, further from home-plate than they are today.

Homeruns are about gravitas and finitude. One has hit the ball over the fence such that one is able to jog around the bases at one’s leisure. The damage is done and there is no play for the fielders to make. It is a very definite hit.

And yet homeruns are relative. There are thirty seasons from 1966 when Frank Robinson led both leagues with 49 homeruns, and 1995 when Albert Belle hit 50, which was two years prior to Mark McGwire hitting 58 and subsequent explosion by McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Bonds. Of the 30 season leaders, 22 hit between 40 and 49 homeruns, five hit between 30 and 39, and three hit more than 50. Basically, for thirty years, the best homerun hitters each season hit around 45 homeruns.

Of course, this changed. McGwire hit 70 in 1998, 65 in 1999, and Bonds hit 73 in 2001. This gave us a new metric for season homerun success.

What do Ty Cobb and Roger Connor have to do with Barry Bonds? Everything. ABC News and ESPN conducted a telephone poll of 799 adult baseball fans between March 29 and April 22, 2007. This poll found that 52 percent of fans hope that Bonds will not break the career homerun record, while 37 percent of fans do want him to surpass Aaron's mark.

That Bonds has hit more homeruns than Ruth, and will soon have hit more than Aaron, does not therefore define Bonds to be the greatest homerun hitter of all time. It does not mean that he is the career homerun king. (It does not mean that he is not, either). What Bonds is doing, and has done, is prove himself to be one of the greatest homerun hitters of this generation of baseball players. He is one of the best hitters of the 1990s and 2000s. The same is true of Rafael Palmeiro and McGwire and Sosa. These players are the best homerun hitters of the past fifteen years.

Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson has zero major league homeruns; he played his entire career in the Negro Leagues and passed-away prior to 1947 when the National League and American League desegregated. We count Gibson among the greatest homerun hitters of all-time.

I write this because I am not sure that if Hank Aaron or Josh Gibson or Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Roger Connor were playing in 2007, or especially 1998, that they would not have been contenders for the single-season homerun mark or career homerun record. Ted Williams might have challenged Ruth for the record had Williams not flown fighter planes in World War II and in the Korean War. Mickey Mantle might have challenged Ruth had he not had chronic knee injuries.

As finite as the integers of baseball records are, they are relative numbers. We measure the success of ballplayers against contemporaries and whether we do so knowingly or not, using the adage of economists everywhere, “all things being equal”.

Ty Cobb was a great homerun hitter in his age. Barry Bonds is a great homerun hitter in our age. Bonds will, in all likelihood, pass Aaron’s 755. Let us not narrow our gaze to the number alone.

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