A baseball tale for Tiger Miguel Cabrera:
It wasn’t exactly the information age but then no one complained. Business ran on the Bell System and US postage, while newspapers, Western Union®, radio & TV kept consumers connected.
And though barely a blip on most people’s radar, a certain sports item was making headlines in the Big Apple that spring of 1961: Maris & Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run record of 60 (‘27).
Everyone loves a good race. As this one heated-up it began to play in Peoria.
The fact it involved a mark held by the beloved Bambino made it all the more captivating. The emotions ran the gamut from petty resentment, to hopeful, to simply ‘Can he do it!?’
Mickey would succumb to injuries (54), Roger achieved the unthinkable (61) and the debate ensued. As quaint as Commissioner Ford Frick’s asterisk may seem today, it does, nonetheless, show just how seriously many took the game, back in the day.
But as newsworthy as was Roger’s smashing new mark, it wasn’t necessarily the greatest feat in the annals of major league baseball. The game’s long, storied history is chock full of toppers that can keep baseball aficionados debating for days.
A short list of other notables:
· Boston Beaneater Hugh Duffy bats .440 and wins the NL Triple Crown in 1894;
· In the same season Billy Hamilton crosses home plate 196 times;
· Christy Mathewson wins 31, posts 1.27 ERA and throws 3 CG-SOs in 1905 WS;
· Ed Walsh wins 40 in ‘08 (1.42 / 464 IN / 42 CG) on White Sox team batting .224;
· Ruth’s 1921: .378 BA, 177R, 16T, .846 SLG, 17SB, 145BB, 59HR, 171RBI, 457TB;
· In 1925, Cleveland’s Joe Sewell strikes out a mere four times in 608 at-bats;
· Rogers Hornsby wins his 2nd Triple Crown in 1925 batting .403 (.401 in 1922);
· AL Leader in HR, BB, R, SLG and OB%, Ted Williams hits .406 in style in 1941;
· Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson breaks baseball’s color barrier, winning ROY in 1947;
· Athletics’ Bill Fischer pitches 84.1 straight innings without walking a batter in ‘62;
· Bob Gibson (22-9 / 1.12 / 13 SHO) & Den McLain (31-6 / 28 CG) go pitch crazy in ‘68.
· O. Hershiser throws 59 consecutive scoreless in ‘88 en route to easy WS win over As.
Still, in supplanting Ruth (in 162G), Roger’s 61 became the newest, biggest jewel in the crown of baseball exploits and the holy grail for every big bopper in the game.
Some will forever sell ‘the streak’ as baseball’s grandest achievement. Poppycock.
Anything subject to official scoring (Joe D’s 56) or personal discretion (Ripken’s 2632) will, upon closer inspection, reveal weak-links in their chains of greatness.
Ever since Yankee GM Ed Barrow snatched the Babe from Boston in 1919, fans have thrilled at power-ball. Goodbye spitters, dead-ball hitters and “Hit ‘em where they ain‘t” (Keeler),..hello lively ball, home run call and “Holy cow, he did it!” (Rizzuto).
If the stars aligned, both records did invite some serious challenges: Foxx (58 / ‘32); Wilson (56 / ‘30); Greenberg (58 / ’38); Kiner (54 / ‘49); Griffey (56 / ‘97).
But it was that possibility which made the 61 enticing and easy prey for PED slugs.
Juicers suddenly blew by the iconic mark like it didn’t even exist, as fans & media went ga-ga over Mark & Sammy (’98). The hypocrites could fill every stadium in the land.
Some of the great MLB batting marks felled in recent years:
Maris’ 61, s/s HR (‘61), bested by McGwire & Sosa (‘98), now Barry Bonds’ 73 (‘01);
Hank Aaron’s 755, career HR (‘76), overtaken by Bonds’ 762 (‘07);
George Sisler’s s/s 257 hits (’20), surpassed by Ichiro Suzuki’s 262 (’04).
Baseball’s governors have themselves a sticky-wicket: what to do about Mr. Bonds’ tainted tallies (73 / 762) and Elias Sports Bureau recording? And does Mr. Suzuki get a pass? How? Not being bold-decision makers, Selig & Company will likely continue on the ‘do-nothing’ path and leave it for the next generation of Cufflinks. Guardians of the game.
As such, Roger’s fabled 61 will never regain its former luster.
That leaves one, last, great, single-season power mark still standing.
One bat record so gargantuan in its achievement it has withstood the test of time and serves as a testament to what man can attain without body armor, PEDs or $20M-a-year.
It’s Hack Wilson’s 1930 mind-boggling, single-season RBI total of 191.
It’s the new standard for power prowess and benchmark for baseball immortality.
But you won’t hear that on CT-based ESPN, MLB Network or brand, spankin' new Fox1.
Had Hack painted his masterpiece in New York City instead of Chicago, epicenter of train & Great Lakes’ traffic, rural commodities and Midwestern flair, Gotham City scribes would’ve immortalized Wilson’s fantastic feat in poetry & prose. As it stands, the media mecca of America will never pay homage to a record set by a Second City sultan.
Another reason Hack’s 191 is media marginalized: so few have ever come close.
There were Gehrig (184 / ‘31), Greenberg (183 / ‘37) and Foxx (175 / ‘38), but even with today’s advantages, like bat-helmets, night sky, zippy travel, more games (8), AL-DH, cortisone and a lower mound, 153 (Davis / ’62) and 165 (Ramirez / ’99) are closest anyone’s managed to get to 191 in over 60 years.
RBIs need two things: base-runners and a team-mentality.
Ruth ushered in homer-ball but Depression Era players didn’t waste anything. They never forgot the real purpose behind batting: score runs, win games! Today’s Home Run Derby mindset sneers at OBP and then, when table is set, most batters (too many managers) fixate on going yard.
But Miguel Cabrera, like contemporaries Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds ('07), seems a breed apart, setting his own agenda in batting average, home runs, OBP and runs-batted-in, lots a’ runs-batted-in.
Detroit’s third baseman has overcome late season hurts and remains in the hunt, not only for a second consecutive AL triple crown, but maybe, just maybe, the last great record from baseball's golden era still remaining inconspicuously atop the record ranking.
It’s a tough row-to-hoe. At this writing, Chris Davis of Baltimore shows no sign of relinquishing his own AL lead in round-trippers, while Miguel stands at 130 RBIs with just over five weeks remaining in the regular season. Possible, but tough.
Will Miguel pass Hack‘s 191? Maybe no. Am I pulling for him? Absolutely not.
Firstly, it's been trendy ever since Barry & Mark made it habit (90s), but any batter who shows-up pitchers by styling on every long ball launched, as does Miguel, doesn’t qualify for lofty stature that surpassing Wilson's RBI mark would bestow. I’ve read of Hack’s off-field excess (food & drink) that may’ve shortened his string, but nothing about arrogance. Is that old school? It's an old mark.
Second, the 191 is fitting reminder of a long gone era, before walk-off bunny-hop hysteria, night-time World Series that put fans to sleep and when the only records players cared about were the ones spinning on the RCA Victrola®.
And third, until ball-players, through MLBPA, stop misleading America in half-measured PED testing, no current batsman or pitcher can be given the 'Good Dugout' Seal-of-Approval. That’s the bed of distrust they (and counsel) all made, that’s the bed on which they all must rest their heads at night until it's made right.
Trust, once automatic but squandered past two decades, must be earned back. ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me (a 100 times), shame on me (and you).’ Never again.
Can o’ Corn
Photo: Hack Wilson & Rogers Hornsby, Chicago Cubs, circa 1929-31