Swinging Sixties


Giant Mark McGwire and smiling Sammy Sosa bettered Ruth and Maris within a week of each other, and now that both are aiming at the more serious goal of putting the home run record out of reach for good, let¹s take an analytical look at baseball¹s 60-homer club. We¹ve assessed each slugger‹Ruth, Maris, McGwire, and Sosa‹in a variety of categories, assigning asterisks when their achievements have been mitigated. Whoever has the fewest asterisks wins.

Park Factor

RUTH: They don’t call it the House That Ruth Built for nothing. Never seen a home/road breakdown of Ruth’s 1927 season, but there’s no denying that ol’ Two Head took good advantage of that short right field porch. **

MARIS: Again, no stats, but here’s another lefty dead pull hitter in a park with those same inviting right field bleachers. *1/2

MCGWIRE:Yes, he hits home runs like crazy at Busch Stadium, but he hit them like crazy in Oakland, too. When your average homer lands 425 feet away, it doesn’t matter much where the fences are. Don’t tell Kent Mercker, but Busch is actually a pitcher’s park, and about 5 percent below average for righty power hitters. No asterisks

SOSA: Hoist a cold Old Style in memory of Harry Caray when you say it, but Sammy couldn’ta done it anyplace but Wrigley. Aside from Coors Field, The Friendly Confines is the best home run park in baseball for a righty, 34 percent better than the NL average. **

Level of Competition

RUTH: When men were men and baseball was segregated. Forget that he played in the golden age between the spitter and the splitter, the biggest knock against Ruth is that because of the color line, he didn’t play against all the best players of his day. Given an even playing field, we think that Mr. McGwire might still be chasing Josh Gibson, who led the Negro Leagues in 1936 with 84 homers. **1/2

MARIS:It’s no coincidence that Maris–and Mickey Mantle, too–took after the Babe immediately after the first expansion in half a century, although bandbox parks like Wrigley probably helped as much as the journeyman pitchers. *1/2

MCGWIRE: Again, this is an expansion year, which means that McGwire and Sosa got to hit against about 10 pitchers who would’ve been in Triple A a decade ago. Then again, they also had to hit against at least 10 pitchers who would’ve been in Japan, Cuba, or Korea a decade ago. *

SOSA: See McGwire above. *

Protection Racket

RUTH: You hit 60 home runs. And don’t win the MVP award, because the guy hitting behind you hit .373, with 175 RBIs. This protection not even the Corleone family could provide. ***

MARIS: You hit 61 home runs. And don’t draw one single intentional walk. Mickey Mantle may not be Lou Gehrig, but he did everything except have a disease named after him. ***

MCGWIRE: How would you like to spend the rest of your life as a trivia question? Brian Jordan’s a decent major league hitter, but it’s not only McGwire’s batting eye that puts him within shouting distance of an even older single season record: Babe Ruth’s 170 walks. No asterisks

SOSA: Mark Grace is a career .310 hitter, but coming into the season, he had hit 104 homers in 10 major league seasons. Lou Gehrig he ain’t. McGwire and Sosa provide more fuel to Bill James’s argument that it doesn’t really matter who’s hitting behind whom. *

The Untouchable Factor

RUTH: For all Ruth’s aura, let’s not forget that his record almost fell while it was still fresh. In 1932, Jimmie Foxx fell off a ladder, derailing his record run, and six years later Hank Greenberg walked 119 times in the course of racking up 58 dingers. **

MARIS: Well, his record stood for 37 years, three years longer than Ruth’s. And until last year, nobody came within nine. Remember the George Foster vs. Roger Maris home run countdown? Neither do we. **

MCGWIRE: Just because it looked easy once, don’t think it’ll be easy again. Shortly after each of the last two home run records, baseball moved to rebalance the scales between pitching and hitting. So expect Air Bud to raise the mound (1932) or reconfigure the strike zone (1962) to keep Big Mac in the books for a while. * (provisional)

SOSA: On the other hand, baseball has seen the vast marketing buzz of a feel-good home run chase. Sowhile the all-time mark may inch out of reach, don’t expect the scales to swing so far that number two all-time is unassailable. ** (provisional)

Beyond the Clout

RUTH: The .772 slugging percentage, the .469 on-base percentage, the .356 average. It may not have been Ruth’s best season–we’re partial to 1923, .764, .545, .393–but it’s one of the best in baseball history. No asterisks

MARIS: He hit lots of home runs, there’s no denying that, but despite the well-meaning revisionism, Maris really didn’t do much else. His .269 average, .348 on-base percentage, .620 slugging numbers lie squarely in Jose Canseco territory. **

MCGWIRE: Call it sacrilege, but his 1998 is better than Ruth’s 1927. He’s put up a .471 on-base percentage, and a .743 slugging percentage, and he’s got a shot at the all-time walks mark. No asterisks

SOSA: In any other year–like 1961–these are MVP numbers: .310 average, .378 on-base percentage, .645 slugging. But unless he catches McGwire, expect him to be the strongest second place finisher behind a unanimous MVP. **

Freak Factor

RUTH: He owned the career record for home runs, walks, and RBI, and broke his own single-season home run record twice. No asterisks

MARIS:Well, he never hit 40 homers before or since. **1/2

MCGWIRE: No, he’s not Babe Ruth, but he could play him on TV. Big Mac has hit more than 50 three times in a row and owns the record for not only one season, but two. Stat freaks take note: he may be the first hitter to pass 400 and 500 home run marks in consecutive seasons. *

SOSA: Well, the Cubs thought enough of him to pay him $10 million a year. But like Maris, he never hit more than 40 homers before. And no one would be completely surprised if he never did it again. Or if he ends up with 500 homers and a trip to Cooperstown. **


MARIS: Perhaps now that the record belongs to someone else, we can see the flip side of Roger Maris. He represents an important part of baseball–the idea that on any given day Kenny Rogers could pitch a perfect game, that as any season opens Roger Maris could be on his way to breaking Babe Ruth’s record. 11 asterisks

SOSA: He’s this year’s version of Roger Maris. No one should seriously compare him to Ruth or McGwire for that matter, but with a little luck he could become the ’90s version of Ernie Banks. Let’s play dos? 10 asterisks

RUTH: Yes, he put up the biggest numbers ever, but history also stacked the deck in Ruth’s favor. He’d be great today, but would he be the best? 9 asterisks

MCGWIRE: The question of whether this is the greatest season in baseball history will have to wait for the final returns, but there’s no doubt this is the best anyone’s ever done while hitting 60. Believe the hype this time. 3 asterisks