As records go, 61 home runs in a season is still solid gold.
Rickey Henderson set a nice little record for career stolen bases last week. Nolan Ryan seems to set pitching records every other week. But when it comes to the big time, home run hitters are still king."There's a glamour to it," said Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who hit 48 homers for Pittsburgh in 1971. "But you can hit 65 home runs and finish in last place."
Thirty years ago, Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth by hitting 61 homers for New York and the Yankees won a World Series. That was the glamorous side.
Even in an era of stronger sluggers such as Kevin Mitchell, Cecil Fielder and Jose Canseco and livelier baseballs, the magic home run number of 60 remains a mystifying mark.
Canseco thinks he might be able to reach 50 homers and 50 steals in a season. He's much less optimistic, however, about 60 homers.
"It's impossible," said Canseco, who hit 42 homers for Oakland in 1988. "Mark my words, it will never be done. Everybody has at least one good reliever."
Last year, Fielder hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the season to finish with 51. The 50-homer milestone has been accomplished 18 times by 11 different players. Ruth did it four times in a 154-game schedule, the first coming in 1920 when he hit 54 homers.
"Sixty home runs can't be done now," said Mike Schmidt, who won eight home run titles with the Philadelphia Phillies. "The pitching is too good. The traveling is tougher."
Maris broke Ruth's 1927 record of 60 on the final day of 1961, the first season of the 162-game schedule, and Hack Wilson's 56 in 1930 are the most ever in the NL.Among those who chased Ruth's ghost was Ralph Kiner, who won or shared seven NL home run titles. He hit 54 in 1949 and 51 in 1947 for Pittsburgh.
Kiner said he got a lot of mail, most of it negative, during the seasons he came closest to Ruth. Many of those letters told Kiner he would ruin baseball if he hit 60.
When Maris surpassed Ruth by one, leaving an asterisk denoting the 162-game schedule, it surprised Kiner. "I always felt that if someone was going to beat Ruth, it would be by more than one home run because of the pressure involved," he said.
Talk about pressure. As a rookie in 1987, Oakland's Mark McGwire was on a pace to hit 60 homers for a while until slumping the last two months of the season. He finished with 49 home runs, a rookie record.
"I think the strain of all the media attention really caught up with me in August," McGwire said. "When I think about it, the time, the demands, the people who wanted to talk to me, doing a radio show, a TV interview, a newspaper interview, odds and ends that people want your time for, it took a toll and caught up with me."
McGwire hit only three homers in August after enduring a 14-game, 9-for-50 slump that started July 27. It was a pressure that Maris knew, too.
Maris' hair literally fell out in the final days of the Ruth chase, although he kept getting good pitches to hit. On a Yankees team that hit a record 240 homers, including Mickey Mantle's 54, pitchers didn't have much room to maneuver.
"When I was getting hot, a lot of guys wouldn't pitch to me or would pitch around me," said Kiner, whose Pirates finished above .500 only once during his big home run years.
George Foster was the last National League player to reach 50 homers, hitting 52 for Cincinnati in 1977. That season, he was hit in the head by pitches more than a half-dozen times.
"I don't know if it was worth it," Foster once said. "I don't know if I'd want to go through that again."
Willie Mays and Johnny Mize also reached the 50-homer level in the NL. Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg are the others in the AL.
Schmidt, whose career high was 48 homers in 1980, thinks the next challenge to 60 will come from someone in the AL.
"If it ever could be done, it would have to happen in the American League, but it could never happen in the National League," Schmidt said. "With the designated hitter, the AL creates more offense. That means more at-bats and more emphasis on big hitters."
50-plus home run club
Player Team Number Year
Roger Maris Yankees 61 1961
Babe Ruth Yankees 60 1927
Babe Ruth Yankees 59 1921
Jimmy Fox Athletics 58 1932
Hank Greenberg Tigers 58 1938
Hack Wilson Cubs 56 1930
Mickey Mantle Yankees 54 1961
Babe Ruth Yankees 54 1928
Babe Ruth Yankees 54 1920
Ralph Kiner Pirates 54 1949
Mickey Mantle Yankees 52 1956
Willie Mays Giants 52 1965
George Foster Reds 52 1977
Ralph Kiner Pirates 51 1947
Johnny Mize Yankees 51 1947
Willie Mays Giants 51 1955
Cecil Fielder Tigers 51 1990
Jimmy Foxx Red Sox 50 1938