It’s okay that baseball players took steroids. I’ve come to this conclusion. It’s the new edge. The problem is they broke a bunch of records of guys who never took steroids. Of course, most of these men had their own edge. Baseball fans want to throw out everything Barry Bonds did because he took steroids. Why are we so quick to toss out everything this man did against the greatest competition the game has ever seen and we’re okay with Babe Ruth hitting 714 home runs off of the best white boys the beginning of the century had to offer? Until Mark McGwire came around, everyone knew Roger Maris held the single-season home run record of 61. Of course, for decades following the 1961 season, there were many who didn’t want him to have that throne since the season was expanded to 162 games that year and it was an expansion season, thinning the pitching talent.
Baseball people like to compare one season’s stats to another, but steroids or not, nothing is really comparable. Fans might as well be comparing Jose Canseco’s 1988 AL MVP season where he hit 42 home runs and stole 40 bases to Michael Jordan’s 1988 season.
There are a number of reasons for the increase of home runs in the late 90s and early 00s and one of them are steroids. It’s becoming more and more obvious that a large number of players used performance enhancing drugs (PED) and it wasn’t just the hitters. I recall the story of Eric Gagne of the Dodgers facing Barry Bonds in San Francisco – both were later linked to PED. Gagne’s first pitch was 99 mph and Bonds pulled it foul for what would have been a home run if hit 30 feet to the left. Gagne’s next pitch registered 101 mph and Bonds drove it deep into the San Francisco night for a home run. For those who want to take away the records, you can count that one – the playing field was evenly skewed.
Bonds set the single-season home run record in 2001 with 73 home runs. Mark McGwire had set it just three years earlier with the entire nation watching with 70. Real baseball fans will look at the numbers and realize they’re higher than other seasons, but will look back and appreciate the real home run sluggers. The guys who did it without PED, tiny ballparks, tightly-wound balls, expansion teams to thin the pitching, another 50 homer hitter hitting behind him and real competition on the mound, on the field and in vying for his job.
Based on competition and the blind eye of Major League Baseball, every record holder deserves to be where they are. It’s up to the fan to pick the best. This essay is not about who should be in the hall of fame. It’s not about who’s a good person. It’s not about who’s a cheater. It’s about who hit a lot of home runs over one season despite tough competition. That competition consists of the players on the field, the physical properties of the baseball itself, the home ballpark he’s playing in for 77+ games a season and anything else this baseball fan thinks of. Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs will stand for many years as the most home runs hit during a single season. He deserves that title, but backing that is another story. Bonds may have hit the most home runs over a season, but his 2001 performance is not the most impressive season put together for a slugger. Here are my thoughts on the top single-season home run seasons of all time.
1 – Barry Bonds 73 (2001).
2 – Mark McGwire 70 (1998).
3 – Sammy Sosa 66 (1998).
4 – Mark McGwire 65 (1999).
5 – Sammy Sosa 64 (2001).
6 – Sammy Sosa 63 (1999).
All six of these records need to be discounted for the performance enhancing drugs they were using, but that’s not all. These men played in a time when new and smaller ballparks were being built every year. The cookie cutters of the sixties and seventies were falling fast and those concrete donuts normally had high outfield walls that were at least 330 feet from home plate at the corners. San Francisco’s AT&T Park has a relatively high right-field wall for Bonds to hit over, but it’s very close to the plate. When I took a tour of the park a few years ago and walked on the field, all I could think is wow, give me a bat and ball and I could hit one over the wall. Yes, the power alley is 421 feet away, but the right-field foul pole is only 309 feet from home plate. A short right-field porch, PED and a tightly-wound ball discount Bonds’ 73 2001 home runs.
I’m going to use the excuse of the tightly-wound ball for every record from 1995 on. Major League Baseball officials will deny it, but I’ve read numerous testimonies that the seams became harder for the pitcher to grip after the 1994 strike. Not only did the owners and commissioner initially ignore steroids since the increase in home runs was bringing more fans to the parks, but I believe they also released a stronger baseball that would produce more dingers.
In John Feinstein’s book Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, he quotes Mike Mussina on the difference between baseballs before the strike and after.
After the strike, they changed the baseballs. You could feel it when you put them in your hands. They’re slicker now, tougher to grip, and they’re wound tighter. Much tighter. A year or so after the strike, we were sitting around during a rain delay, talking about how different the baseball felt in your hands. For some reason, I had kept a few baseballs in my locker from before the strike. We went and got one and cut it open. The inside of the ball just lay there; I mean just literally just laid down on the table. Then we opened up a poststrike ball – it was as if the thing was alive. It literally stood up on the table next to the one that was just lying there.
I’m going to take away McGwire and Sosa’s records as well for the same reasons – pretty much. McGwire hit his homers in the old Busch Stadium, which wasn’t exactly a hitters’ paradise, but he did use PED. Also, 1998 saw the expansion of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, thinning the pitching competition while Big Mac stayed the same. Sosa not only used PED, a corked bat (possibly, and it’s been proven it doesn’t help), and hit during the same expansion year as McGwire, but he also did this in Wrigley Field, one of the greatest hitters’ parks in the baseball history. With a wind blowing out, a tight ball and the power alley in left field a mere 368 feet from home plate, Adam Everett could poke an opposite field home run.
7 – Roger Maris 61 (1961).
I’d love to say that this was the most impressive home run season. Maris went through hell in a city that treated Babe Ruth like Jesus Christ. Few wanted Maris to break the record and even the commissioner put an asterisk next to it since major league baseball expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1961.
I will say Maris hit 61 home runs that summer during a time when the game was mostly integrated (even though his own team put a cap on blacks, allowing only Elston Howard to play). He also hit more homers in a season than anyone at the time under intense media scrutiny. The man lost hair because of the stress he was going through. If you haven’t seen Billy Crystal’s film*61, do so now.
The arguments against Maris’s 61 home runs are numerous. Yankee Stadium’s right-field wall was a mere 296 feet from home plate and was the standard height. That season also saw the expansion of the Washington Senators and California Angels. Most of the season saw Mickey Mantle batting after Maris. There’s not a pitcher in 1961 who wanted to pitch around Maris to face Mantle. Maris saw plenty of juicy fastballs on 3-1 counts.
Sorry Roger, I’ll never put an asterisk next to 61, but it doesn’t impress me as much as others.
8 – Babe Ruth 60 (1927).
9 – Babe Ruth 59 (1921).
Babe may be the greatest player in the history of the game, but his 1927 season doesn’t impress me like it does to others. Ruth played in the same Yankee Stadium that Maris did (it was built for the Babe).
The big discount to the Babe is that he never faced a black man, let alone a Hispanic, Venezuelan, Dominican, Japanese, Korean, Chinese or many other nationalities in his time. It wasn’t his fault, but Ruth didn’t face the competition later generations would. Take one pitcher that Ruth hit multiple home runs against the put Satchel Paige in his place. Would he still have hit 60 home runs? No. He did well against fellow white boys, but we’ll never know what he would have done against the best competition.
10 – Jimmy Foxx (1932), Hank Greenburg (1938), McGwire (1997) and Ryan Howard (2006) 58.
Foxx and Greenburg’s season’s are impressive – more impressive than Ruth’s. However, they still played in the all-white-boys league, so there are better records to be found. McGwire did play half of 1997 in Oakland, another pitcher’s park, but he was still using PED. Howard is another story.
The Philadelphia slugger is a throwback to earlier generations. He has never been linked to steroids and his power seems to be genuine. However, he does play in the tiny confines of Citizens Bank Ballpark and hits a tightly-wound ball. Was his 2006 season a great achievement? Yes. Was it the greatest home run season ever? No.
11 – Luis Gonzalez (2001), Alex Rodriguez (2002) 57.
A-Rod’s reasons are obvious – he told us. Gonzalez: tight ball, small ballparks and those pipes look suspicious.
12 – Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 & 1998), Hack Wilson (1930) 56.
Griffey, who has one of the sweetest swings in baseball history and has never been linked to PED or shown any symptoms, had the misfortune to play in the tight-ball-steroid era: eliminated. Wilson played in Wrigley Field against fellow white guys: no go.
13 – Ralph Kiner (1949), David Ortiz (2006), Alex Rodriguez (2007), Babe Ruth (1920 & 1928) 55, Mickey Mantle (1961) 54.
Kiner’s season is the most impressive of these six, but integration had only begun two years earlier and wasn’t in full force yet.
Mantle had Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch and expansion.
David Ortiz may or may not have been using PED, but also had a tight ball and tiny parks. Ditto A-Rod.
Ruth needs to take a time machine forward and face Bob Gibson. Then we’ll talk.
14 – George Foster (1977), Mickey Mantle (1956), Willie Mays (1965), Mark McGwire (1996), Alex Rodriguez (2001), Jim Thome (2002) 52.
McGwire and A-Rod are the first voted off for previous reasons. Thome, like Griffey, seems to be a rare natural hitter in a time of prescribed sluggers, but he’s still linked with the era. The other three guys left are, by far, the most impressive in the group.
Of the three remaining, Mantle will have to take third place. He had the benefit of Yankee Stadium (for his left-handed at bats), the game wasn’t as integrated as it would become and 1956 showed an average of 0.9 home runs per game per team, up slightly from other seasons.
It is here where the two greatest home run hitting seasons happened. Mays hit 52 home runs with half of his games at Candlestick Park, known for its harsh conditions by the bay and swirling winds. His closest competition was his teammate Willie McCovey who finished with 39 round trippers. Nineteen sixty five wasn’t 1968, but it wasn’t far off in terms of a pitcher’s game. National League teams average 0.8 home runs a game, a far cry from 1968’s 0.5 a game, but still impressive. (To show the dramatic drop 1968 took, the average in 1967 was 0.7.) The game didn’t have the wide nationality it has today, but it was as fully integrated as the times would allow. It was three years since expansion in the National League and it would be another three before the next expansion season.
Foster’s 52 home runs in 1977 were done for a second-place team in a big park (Riverfront) with high symmetric walls and in a league with teams also averaging 0.8 home runs a game. Foster’s closest competition had 11 home runs less than him. The game was even more integrated than in Mays’s day.
It’s very difficult to pick between Foster’s 1977 season and Willie Mays’s 1965 season. Both players were MVP’s of their league. Both played in a pitcher’s park. Both had a slugger to help them in the lineup (McCovey for Mays and Johnny Bench for Foster).
Although the National League averaged the same number of home runs in both seasons, runs scored and hits were significantly lower in 1965. Add to that the cruddy weather of Candlestick Park and the greatest single-season home run performance is Willie Mays in 1965.
Greatest home runs seasons
2 – George Foster 52 (1977)
3 – Frank Robinson 49 (1966)
In his first season in the American League, Robinson destroyed the competition on his way to his second MVP award and first World Series title. His 49 home runs were in Memorial Stadium, hardly Camden Yards in terms of a hitters’ park. It was also 1966, two years short of “The Year of the Pitcher”, but not far off.
4 – Mike Schmidt 48 (1980)
Perhaps the greatest third baseman of all time, Schmidt’s 1980 season could also be argued as the greatest season for a home run hitter. The National League team average for home runs per game dipped to a very low 0.6 a game at the end of the Jimmy Carter era. Schmidt also had little help in his own lineup. The team averaged lower than the league average with 0.5 home runs a game and that includes Schmidt’s numbers. The next highest tater total on the Phillies was Greg Luzinski with 19. The World champs also played in Veterans Stadium, the all-too-common cookie cutter with symmetrical and high outfield walls.
You want to call this No. 1? I wouldn’t argue.
5 – Willie Stargell 48 (1971)
Before there was Big Papi, there was Pops. Playing only 141 games, Stargell launched nearly 50 homers in Veterans, I mean, Riverfront, oops, I mean, Three Rivers Stadium. The National League team home run average was down a bit at 0.7 and the next highest in the lineup was Bob Robertson with 26. Despite the gaudy numbers (125 RBI, 104 R) Stargell placed second in MVP voting to Joe Torre (.363 AVG, 137 RBI).
With only 139 games, Hammerin’ Hank was right behind Pops with 47 (see Honorable Mention).
Honorable mention: Hank Aaron 47 (1971), Barry Bonds 73 (2001), Cecil Fielder 51 (1990), Mark McGwire 70 (1998), Harmon Killebrew 49 (1964), Andre Dawson 49 (1987), Ted Kluszewski 49 (1954), Ralph Kiner 54 (1949), Babe Ruth 59 (1921), Johnny Mize 51 (1947), Dave Kingman 48 (1979).