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December 13, 1999

The Greatest Home Run Hitters of All Time

Who would have hit the most long balls in 1998?

by James Kushner

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:

  1. Comparison against the replacement level. While that's the most useful in terms of assessing overall value, it doesn't work well for individual stats--there's no such thing as a "replacement-level home run hitter." Even today, a player can be a useful and productive regular while hitting fewer than 10 homers, while another player might have the ability to hit 30 homers, but do nothing else well enough to justify getting any playing time. (Heck, you could probably pull Dave Kingman out of retirement right now, install him at first base for the Rockies, and he'd hit 30 homers next year. He'd also hit about .150, strike out 270 times, and be unable to field his position with anything like the grace and artistry of...oh, say, Frank Thomas.)

  2. Comparison against the league's best. If we try this approach, we encounter logical difficulties--Gavvy Cravath led the league in home runs six times in seven seasons, and thus he would be setting the standards we're comparing him against. We could widen the field a bit (average number of homers for the top five, say), but the sample size of the comparison set would be fairly small, and prone to weird skews. (George Sisler's 19 homers in 1920 was good for second in the league, and is and always will be an impressive achievement. The fact that Babe Ruth hit 54 that year says more about Babe Ruth than it does, or should, about George Sisler.) If anyone has any good ideas on how to properly define a cross-era comparison using a high-end sample set, I'd be most eager to see the results. For now, though, I'm going to settle for...

  3. Comparison against the league average. While taking "average" ability as the norm is a poor idea when assessing overall talent, it works pretty well for setting mathematical standards. The average National league team hit .246 homers per game in 1912, while the average major league team hit 1.041 homers per game in 1998. These are facts, the set of players used to produce that data is thankfully complete, and it gives us nice, solid numbers to chew on.

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.

CAREER TOTALS

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)

Who?

WHO??

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.

SINGLE-SEASON LEADERS

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.

CONCLUSION

So. What does this all mean?

Well, there are a few conclusions we can draw from this:

  1. Babe Ruth, was, comparing across eras, far and away the most dominant home run hitter in major league history.

  2. Before 1940, the best home run hitters stood out from the league average far more than they do today.

  3. If the 1998 circumstances hold for long enough, Aaron's career record will very likely be broken, and possibly be broken repeatedly.

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 myhill@ucla.edu.

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