December 13, 1999
The Greatest Home Run Hitters of All Time
Who would have hit the most long balls in 1998?Remember the days when 30 home runs was a lot?
It wasn't that long ago, really. In 1992, 30 homers would have placed a hitter fourth in the National League. These days, a player could hit 30 home runs and never show up on the typical fan's radar. We're in the middle of the biggest home run jump in baseball history. (Big news, to you all, I'm sure. Tomorrow's feature: the Pope wears a skullcap!)
If the sportswriters of the future aren't careful, then hitters of the '90s are going to be seriously overrepresented in the Hall of Fame, the same way that hitters of the '20s and '30s are today. People looked at the gaudy batting averages of the era (Freddy Lindstrom hit .379 in 1930! Ooooooh!) and instinctively viewed then through the prism of their own era (a .379 average in 1976, when the Vets' committee inducted Lindstrom, would have been 40 points higher than any major leaguer actually hit that year).
Similarly, the writers of the future will look at Vinny Castilla's string of 40-homer seasons and assume that it carries the same weight as Eddie Mathews' similar string, when we all know that it does not, both because of the park Castilla plays in and because of the times Castilla plays in. Home runs are dirt cheap in Colorado these days, but they're also pretty cheap everywhere else.
The home run numbers rise and fall, and right now, they've risen. A lot. The reasons have been much speculated and debated, and I won't add to that here. I'll just take the increased home run rates as a given, and move on to the more interesting question:
If every major leaguer had had the luxury of playing his entire career under the conditions of 1998, how many home runs would they have hit?
By way of example, let's have a look at Gavvy Cravath, the National League's best home run hitter of the 1910's.
In 1912, Cravath hit 11 homers for the Phillies. This was a very good total for the time. The league's leader, Heinie Zimmerman, hit only 14. Cravath's 11 was good for a tie for third. So don't think "Cravath hit 11 homers;" that doesn't sound like much. Think instead, "Cravath finished third in the league in homers in his first full season in the majors", which meant almost exactly the same thing then as it does now. (I say "almost", because there were free minor leagues then, and Cravath had been one of the finest hitters in the nation from 1910-1911. The fact that he was playing for the Minneapolis Millers at the time only means that his hitting talents don't show up in Total Baseball.)
However, the National League, as a whole, only hit .468 home runs per game (both teams) in 1912. In 1998, the average major league game saw 2.082 balls leave the field in fair territory. So, to proportionately raise Cravath's numbers that way, we multiply his actual homer total by (2.082/.468), and come up with 48.92. That's a pretty fair number of homers.
Also, teams were only scheduled to play 154 games per season then, as opposed to the 162 games of today. So we need to bump up Cravath's total by a factor of (162/154), and he inches up to 51.46, which we round off to 51.
So, if the 1912 Gavvy Cravath had played in 1998, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to have it 51 homers. Or would it?
When comparing players in different contexts (ballparks, eras, whatever), it is important to choose your point of comparison wisely. Looking at home runs per season for an individual player, there are three possible points of comparison:
But it does yield numbers which might, at first glance, be unrealistically high. Let's look at Cravath's entire career here...
Year Tm/Lg HR LgNorm TmGames "1998HR" (rounded) 1908 Bos-A 1 0.187 154 11.71 12 1909 Chi/Was-A 1 0.176 154 12.44 12 1912 Phi-N 11 0.468 154 51.48 51 1913 Phi-N 19 0.500 154 83.23 83 1914 Phi-N 19 0.427 154 97.45 97 1915 Phi-N 24 0.361 154 145.61 146 1916 Phi-N 11 0.384 154 62.74 63 1917 Phi-N 12 0.323 154 81.37 81 1918 Phi-N 8 0.274 126 78.16 78 1919 Phi-N 12 0.371 140 77.92 78 1920 Phi-N 1 0.423 154 5.18 5 CAREER TOTAL 119 706
Boy, that 1915 total sure jumps out at you, doesn't it? 146 homers! Yowza! Could it really happen?
Possibility number 1 says "yes"--if the league as a whole hits homers almost six times as frequently in 1998 than in 1915, why shouldn't we assume that individual players would also hit homers almost six times as frequently?
Possibility number 2 says "no"--the increase in the homer total for an entire league is not proportionately represented in the total for the top sluggers, but rather in the middle-tier hitters who make up most of the league.
I'll go with answer 1--that it is possible. In most cases, the relation between the league-leaders' HR rate and the league's rate as a whole is pretty stable. 146 home runs is a lot, but his other league-leading totals translate (in 1998 terms) to 83, 97, 81, 78 and 78. They're high, but it is no longer inconceivable that that total could lead the league. And Cravath was more of a power threat, relative to the HR abilities of a league as a whole, than McGwire or Sosa is today, so why shouldn't his totals reflect that?
Also, I developed this method to evaluate a player's entire career, and a player isn't going to be among the league leaders through his entire career. I needed a method which would work in the bad years as well as the good. (Cravath's was an unusual career, in that he didn't have any bad years. He finished in the top three in home runs for every season in which he was a regular--but there were only eight such seasons. If he had had a normal career path by today's standards--rather than waiting until age 31 to have his first season as a regular in the bigs--he would be a certain Hall of Famer, in my estimation.)
So, Gavvy Cravath, had he played his entire career under 1998 circumstances, would have hit (by my estimate) 706 home runs. Is that among the best of all time?
Well, it's pretty darn good, but not near the top ten or anything like that.
I figured the career totals, through 1998, for any player who had been listed in Total Baseball as one of the top five home run hitters in any one league/season. Total Baseball doesn't list more than five names in any league/season, so if two players tied for fifth in any one season, they aren't listed. I also figured totals for the four players who had hit 300 or more homers in their careers, but had never been in the top five in any one season. (For you trivia fans out there, those four players were Al Kaline, Harold Baines, Jack Clark, and Chili Davis.)
This gave me a total of 398 players to work with. It's a slightly odd data set--it includes Count Campau, Fred Odwell, and Dave Hollins, among others, but doesn't include Mike Piazza or Mo Vaughn. Still, I feel that it is very likely that, among those 398 players, I have identified all of those who are among the top thirty home run hitters of all time through 1998.
By my count, twenty-two players, had they played their entire careers under 1998 circumstances, would have hit 700 or more home runs in their careers (actual total: two), and seventy-eight would have hit at least 500 (actual total: fifteen as of 1998. McGwire made it sixteen this year).
I'll go ahead and list the career totals for sluggers 11 through 30 now, and then count down the top ten. (I've got last name first on this list, 'cause that's how I set up the spreadsheet.)
Player actual HR "1998HR" 11. Schmidt Mike 548 852 12. Crawford Sam 97 843 13. Mays Willie 660 837 14. Cobb Ty 117 813 15. Baker Frank 96 748 16. Jackson Reggie 563 743 17. Robinson Frank 586 739 18. McCovey Willie 521 727 19. Killebrew Harmon 573 716 20. Wagner Honus 101 708 21t. Brouthers Dan 106 706 21t. Cravath Gavvy 119 706 23. Mantle Mickey 536 698 24. Connor Roger 138 693 25. Simmons Al 307 692 26. Stargell Willie 475 689 27. Mize Johnny 359 682 28. Musial Stan 475 674 29. Davis Harry 75 659 30. Kingman Dave 442 657
The first things to keep in mind when looking at this list is that I rounded off the home run totals each year, so small differences are not significant. Willie Stargell may be ahead of both Roger Connor and Al Simmons, but got shafted on the rounding errors. Or he may not. Any totals which are within 10 of each other, then, should be interpreted as indicating roughly comparable home run-hitting ability over the course of a career.
Looking at this list, then, the players mostly fall into two categories: either they genuinely hit a ton of home runs (400 or more), or they played before 1920. Al Simmons and Johnny Mize are the only ones to resist either group. (It's nice to see a list where Home Run Baker gets to live up to his nickname, rather than being a reminder of a quaint, power-free era.)
The ordering is interesting, and helps bring to light certain trends. Mike Schmidt finishing ahead of Willie Mays surprised me a bit, but the NL of the fifties and early sixties (Mays' prime years) homered at a much higher rate than the NL of the seventies and early eighties (Schmidt's prime years). This chart reflects that.
If you're wondering if anyone in major league history hit 500 home runs but didn't make the list, the answer is yes, and there are three of them. Ernie Banks just misses the list at 645, Eddie Murray is not far behind at 633, and Eddie Mathews is just behind that at 623. Banks and Mathews, of course, got the bulk of their homers in the fifties and early sixties (the same time as Mays), while Murray played enough in the homer-happy late eighties to fail to get too much of a boost. Mark McGwire, of course, hadn't hit 500 as of the 1998 season, but it'll still be a while before he makes the list. His best seasons were in 1987 and 1996-1998, which were the best single seasons for home runs ever. He gets no extra credit for his era.
Of the twenty players above, the only one who wasn't on my instinctive list of (era-adjusted) sluggers was Harry Davis. The longtime Athletics first baseman led the American League in homers for four consecutive years during the first decade of this century (the '00s? the Aughts?), including the AL's all-time low year of 1907. Given all that, he wasn't a particularly great player or anything--Total Baseball only gives him a Total Player rating of 11.9 for his lengthy career. Given his strikeout totals in 1896, he may have been sort of the Rob Deer of his era. Still, his peak years were fine, he had a fairly long career, and, as with any career totals, a lengthy career counts more than a great one.
Okay, on to the top ten...
10. Ted Williams. (Actual HR: 521. "1998 HR": 870)
No real surprise there.
9. Rogers Hornsby (Actual HR: 301. "1998 HR": 881)
A bit a of a surprise, but he did play six-plus seasons before the first home run boom hit the National League in 1921, and he did lead the league in slugging percentage ten times in his career, and those weren't all doubles and triples.
8. Cy Williams (Actual HR: 251. "1998 HR": 884)
This is a surprise. The Williams who winds up with the highest adjusted home run total isn't Ted or Billy or even Ken, but Cy. The longtime Cubs and Phillies outfielder played in the same league as Hornsby for sixteen years, and here's how he did, in raw numbers, compared to one of the finest sluggers of all time:
Year Hornsby Williams 1915 0 13 1916 6 12 1917 8 5 1918 5 6 1919 8 9 1920 9 15 1921 21 18 1922 42 26 1923 17 41 1924 25 24 1925 39 13 1926 11 18 1927 26 20 1928 21 12 1929 39 5 1930 2 0
Once the home run totals went up in 1921, Hornsby pulled ahead, but not consistently far ahead, and Williams' advantage during the homer drought of the teens kept him in the lead.
Williams wasn't one-fifth the player Hornsby was--he couldn't hold a candle to Hornsby's batting average, his doubles and triples power was nowhere near, he didn't have as good a batting eye, and he appears to have been a terrible baserunner. But as a home run hitter, he really was more than Hornsby's equal.
7. Charley Jones (actual HR: 56. "1998 HR": 954)
Charles Wesley "Baby" Jones, that's who. One of the finest hitters of the first eleven years of what we now recognize as major league baseball, that's who.
In 1876 Charley Jones finished second in the National League in home runs, with 4. The league leader was George Hall, who hit 5. The entire league hit 40. In other words, two players, in an eight-team league, combined for 22.5% of the league's homers. For McGwire and Sosa to have done that in 1998, they would have had to have combined for 289 home runs.
And unlike Hall, and most of the other good players of the 1870s, Jones stuck around. He hit nine homers in 1879, setting a league record, and when the first major leaguers hit double digits in home runs in 1883, Jones was right there, hitting ten.
If you look at the "Adjusted Production" leaders in Total Baseball--basically OPS adjusted for park--Jones is there among the top five in the league for each of his first eight seasons in the National League or American Association. He didn't play in either in 1881-82, presumably because a "minor league" team was willing to pay him more money. That's a world-class hitter, friends, and the first great slugger the game ever knew.
6. Harry Stovey (actual HR: 122. "1998 HR": 960)
And here's the second great slugger the game ever knew. Stovey was the first player to hit 100 homers in his career, and one of the first three to break double digits for a season. (In 1883, when Charley Jones hit ten, Stovey hit fourteen.) What's more, he spent his prime in the American Association, where homers were, on average, about one-third scarcer than in the National League at the same time.
5. Hank Aaron (actual HR: 755. "1998 HR": 998)
You've heard of this gentleman, I suppose. Aaron played at a time when home runs were more plentiful than ever before. (This makes sense--most significant records are set, in large part, because the circumstances are optimal for setting them.) Even though he's the most productive home run hitter the game has ever recorded, and even though he played at a time when home runs were easier to get, he still would have hit almost one-third more homers had he played his entire career under 1998 circumstances.
4. Jimmie Foxx (actual HR: 534. "1998 HR": 1036)
3. Lou Gehrig (actual HR: 493. "1998 HR": 1080)
Yes, four players would have broken the 1000 mark for their careers. Foxx and Gehrig, of course, were contemporaries. It's a little startling, at first, to see them rate so high--after all, we think of the twenties and thirties as a golden age for home run hitters, mostly due to the efforts of Foxx and Gehrig (and the shorter-careered Hank Greenberg). However, they weren't really. The leaders' totals were certainly pretty high, but the league as a whole wasn't clobbering them out the way they do today.
From 1925 (Gehrig's first full season) to 1941 (Foxx's last), the American league team average of home runs per game ranged from a low of 0.344 (in 1926) to a high of 0.713 (in 1940). In general, the rate crept upward through the twenties and thirties, which is why Gehrig, with fewer actual dingers in his career, wound up ahead of Foxx--his career, and his productive years, were a few years earlier.
In 1998, American League teams hit 1.102 homers per game. So even in the "golden age of sluggers", balls were flying out of the park, on average, about half as frequently as they did last year.
The only suspense left, really, is who wound up in second. Can anyone out there guess?
2. Mel Ott (actual HR: 511. "1998 HR": 1136)
Oh yes, Mel Ott. And here we encounter an incompleteness in my methodology. Namely: Mel Ott has Larry Walker's problem.
Larry Walker is, legitimately, one of the best players in the National League today. He hits for a high average, he's got great power and excellent strike zone judgement, and is, by reputation, a superior glove in right field. Imagine Larry Walker's prime lasting about sixteen seasons, knock about six inches off his height, and you have Mel Ott.
Oh, in case you forgot: Larry Walker, who would be a legitimate All-Star wherever he plays, happens to play in the ballpark which most inflates his statistics from the superb to the astronomical. That's Mel Ott too.
As you probably know, Ott gained more home runs through park illusions than any other player in history. In his career, he hit 323 HR at home, and 188 on the road. My little calculations don't compensate for this. If we're projecting Ott's career into 1998, we're also, implicitly, projecting it into Coors Field.
He's still very very good, though: if we do the quick-and-dirty calculation to park-adjust his home run total (that 1136 times (188+188) divided by (323+188), kids) he winds up with 836 "1998 park-neutral homers", which still might place him thirteenth on the all-time list. I say "might" because I haven't done park adjustments on anyone else yet! (The actual calculation would be a tad more complicated, though, giving Ott one-seventh credit for the homers he did hit in the Polo Grounds.)
(Okay, coming attractions! As soon as I get the numbers, I'll get out a follow-up list on the best era-neutral, park-neutral home run hitters in history. Watch this space.)
1. Babe Ruth (actual HR: 714. "1998 HR": 2205)
Yes, he damn near laps the field, he does. Babe Ruth singlehandedly made the early twenties look like a good era for home run hitters, where in fact it was just a fantastic era for him and him alone.
Looking back at the overall list of the top 30, 24 are in the Hall of Fame. The missing six: Harry Stovey, Charley Jones, Cy Williams, Gavvy Cravath, Harry Davis, and Dave Kingman. Am I implicitly arguing that they should all get more serious consideration?
Not as such. Kingman, of course, will probably reign for a while as "the eligible player with the most home runs who isn't in the Hall," and, well, someone's got to hold that title, and a one-dimensional slugger like Kingman is the perfect player to do it.
As for the others...we do have to consider how their abilities contributed to their teams' performance. Let's face it--Charley Jones' 9 homers in 1879 is a tremendous achievement, but didn't necessarily help the team all that much. He did hit a rate much higher than the average player, but that's still just 8 home runs better than the average player.
Basically, Jones had an ability which didn't have a lot of outcome on the games he played. The National League of 1879 was a league of pitching, fielding, and the ability to get on base. Jones' ability to hit home runs helped his team only slightly more than his ability to shoot free throws or toss a salad.
If Jones had played in the mid-20th century, his ability to hit home runs at a rate much greater than the league average would have led more directly to more wins for his team, and there's a good chance he would have put together what is more obviously a Hall of Fame career.As it is, he would have been a more justifiable candidate if his career had been about six years longer--he was only a major league regular for 10 seasons. The same can be said for Cravath (8 seasons). The peak of his career was marvelous, but his entire career just wasn't long enough. On the other hand, you could sort of say the same things about Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner if you wanted to...
Harry Stovey has a much stronger claim. It also wasn't an especially long career, but he was a regular for 13 seasons, and if you look at his record you see black ink everywhere. If I had to push for the enshrinement of any of the above six, it would be Stovey, but it's based on his whole record, not just his home runs.
Davis and Williams just plain ol' weren't of Hall of Fame caliber, no matter how you slice it.
This list is more just for fun, but also shows how the ability of the best sluggers to distance themselves from the rest of the league has dimished over time--the Law of Competitive Balance at work! If the numbers seem vertiginously high, then just cut them in half and announce that they're in a 1935 context. (Or, cut them by a third and say that it's 1992.)
Best Single-Season Home Run Totals If They Played in 1998:
1. Charley Jones, 1879 200 2. Babe Ruth, 1920 198 3. Babe Ruth, 1927 185 4. Paul Hines, 1878 180 5. Lip Pike, 1877 169 6. Harry Stovey, 1883 165 7. Babe Ruth, 1919 162 8t. George Hall, 1876 157 8t. Babe Ruth, 1924 157 10t. Babe Ruth, 1918 156 10t. Tilly Walker, 1918 156 12. Babe Ruth, 1928 151 13. Babe Ruth, 1926 150 14. Gavvy Cravath, 1915 146 15. Lou Gehrig, 1927 145 16. Buck Freeman, 1899 144 17. Dan Brouthers, 1881 142 18. Charley Jones, 1878 135 19t. Jim O'Rourke, 1879 133 19t. George Wood, 1882 133
There's one notable omission from this list--the biggest single-season home run total of the nineteenth century. Ned Williamson's park-aided 27 dingers in 1884, however, translates to "only" 115 home runs by 1998 standards. Lakefront Park, with its legendary short fences, distorted the league's stats so much that the home run total of the entire National League more than doubled in that one year. (Note the National League's 1884 home run spike in the chart.)
Basically, what we've got here is nineteenth-century players and Babe Ruth. Let's knock out one of those groups...
Best Single-Season Home Run Totals (1901-1998) If They Played In 1998:
1. Babe Ruth, 1920 198 2. Babe Ruth, 1927 185 3. Babe Ruth, 1919 162 4. Babe Ruth, 1924 157 5t. Babe Ruth, 1918 156 5t. Tilly Walker, 1918 156 7. Babe Ruth, 1928 151 8. Babe Ruth, 1926 150 9. Gavvy Cravath, 1915 146 10. Lou Gehrig, 1927 145 11. Tim Jordan, 1906 128 12. Babe Ruth, 1923 125 13. Harry Davis, 1906 118 14. Wally Pipp, 1916 114 15. Ty Cobb, 1909 112 16. Jimmie Foxx, 1932 111 17t. Tim Jordan, 1908 108 17t. Rogers Hornsby, 1922 108 17t. Lou Gehrig, 1931 108 17t. Babe Ruth, 1931 108
Jimmie Foxx is, chronologically, the last entrant on this list. The following year (1933), he would be the last player (so far, at least) to record the 1998 equivalent of 100 homers.
Getting even more recent...
Best Single-Season Home Run Totals (1946-1998) If They Played In 1998:
1. Hank Greenberg, 1946 92 2. Mike Schmidt, 1981 85 3t. Ted Williams, 1946 79 3t. Ralph Kiner, 1949 79 5t. Ralph Kiner, 1947 78 5t. Johnny Mize, 1947 78 5t. Mike Schmidt, 1980 78 8t. Joe DiMaggio, 1948 74 8t. Mark McGwire, 1998 74 10t. Willie Stargell, 1971 70 10t. Kevin Mitchell, 1989 70 10t. Sammy Sosa, 1998 70 13t. Hank Aaron, 1971 69 13t. Mike Schmidt, 1976 69 15t. Willie McCovey, 1968 68 15t. Dave Kingman, 1979 68 17t. Roger Maris, 1961 67 17t. Willie Mays, 1965 67 17t. Frank Howard, 1968 67 17t. Dave Kingman, 1976 67 17t. Cecil Fielder, 1990 67 17t. Matt Williams, 1994 67
The astute will notice that McGwire's and Sosa's "1998" home run totals have crept upwards from the actual number they posted last year. This is because the National League homered at a less frequent rate than the AL, and when we project players into 1998, we project them into an all-major-league-wide context.
I think we've got McGwire accurately pegged here--he's about as great a home run threat, relative to his league, as Ralph Kiner and Mike Schmidt were. That sounds about right.
In case you're wondering...the lowest league-leading "1998" total was recorded in 1965. If the 1965 American League had somehow been transported into the 1998 major leagues, no one would have hit more homers than Tony Conigliaro's 39.
So. What does this all mean?
Well, there are a few conclusions we can draw from this:
Let's look at it this way: by 1998 standards, 14 players (including, of course, Aaron himself) would have hit more than 755 home runs. That's over 125 years of baseball history, so one of these players shows up, on the average, about every nine years.
So, if the 1998 circumstances are in play for the next twenty years or so, there's a one-ninth chance (about 11%) that someone who played his first game in 1999 will break the record. If you expand it to a two-year sample (players who debut in 1999 and 2000), the chances go up to about 21%. If 1998 HR rates hold for the next 30 years or so (enough for ten years' worth of players to enter the majors and have careers long enough to have a shot), then the odds are about 70% that Aaron's record will be broken, and there's about a 31% chance that it will be surpassed more than once. (And that's just counting the theoretical players who haven't played a game yet, so it doesn't count Griffey, McGwire, A-Rod, and other current players who have established a shot.)
Which is very interesting, but that ain't gonna happen that way. Nothing in baseball stands still for five years, let alone thirty.
James Kushner lives in Los Angeles, and is an irregular contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached at email@example.com.