I remember back when the 1960 baseball season began one of the great storylines was Ted Williams’ pursuit of 500 home runs. He had 492, one short of Lou Gehrig, needed eight for 500, and had only 20 to go to pass Mel Ott for third place on the all-time home run list (Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx were the others above him). As you know, he made it, finishing with 29 home runs and 521 total. The public and the papers were going crazy that there were now four, count ‘em, four, men with 500 home runs. It was unheard of, unthinkable, amazing. Today, just over 50 years later there are 25 men with 500 or more home runs. In April 1960 there were three men with 500 home runs, now there are three with 700.
An obvious question is, “What happened to lead to the proliferation of home run talent?” How did we go from four in 1960 to 25 in 2012? In 52 years MLB added 21 new members to the 500 home run club, about one every 2.5 years. There are a lot of reasons. Here are some that I think should be heavily considered as answers to the “what happened” question.
1. Population. There are simply a lot more people available today. Surely some of them can hit a baseball with authority. Additionally segregation of black ball players has finished and a larger pool of players is available. In 1960 black Americans had been playing Major League baseball exactly 14 years, hardly time for anyone to reach 500 homers. Add to that the recognition of foreign players as never before, especially Latin players and East Asian players, and the talent pool continues to grow. All this gives us more people with the talent to rise to the top in power hitting.
2. Expansion. There are now more teams available for players. Now I presume that someone able to hit 500 home runs is going to make the roster when there are only 16 teams (the number available in 1960) as easily as he can with 30 teams available. What I mean here is the increased number of pitchers available, some of whom are at best marginal major leaguers. Of course an increased population also means there are more excellent pitchers available, so I don’t think this is one of the more important factors in the proliferation of home runs. It, however, cannot be discounted. And none of that even mentions the idea of the closer which changes the dynamic of late inning pitching.
3. Better training methods. Players today train fulltime. There is film to study to determine what’s wrong with a swing or how to pick up a pitcher’s tendencies. You can break down a swing frame by frame if necessary, something difficult to do in 1960. There are weight training regimens and better nutritional plans available for players. All these lead to players who are better able to take advantage of their own skills and the weaknesses of pitchers. Whether they take advantage of these methods is another story.
4. Higher salaries. A lot of old-time players had to hold down offseason jobs just to make ends meet. With higher salaries, it’s possible to do the fulltime training mentioned above. It’s kind of tough to be training when you’re trying to sell someone insurance or a used car.
5. Better medical skills. A bad knee or a torn muscle could keep pre-1960 players out of the lineup of days or weeks. If you can’t play, you can’t hit home runs. Today’s medical advances make it possible for players to spend less time on the disabled list and more time on the field. This is particularly true in the American League where the designated hitter can also allow an injured player a chance to recover and play at the same time. Of course some of this is obviated by the tendency of some teams to put players on 15 day disabled lists for hang nails.
6. Steroids. Let’s admit it, steroids have been part of the reason there are more 500 home run hitters. It’s a shame, but it’s true and well have to live with that knowledge. This is not a comment on whether a steroid user should make the Hall of Fame, but merely an acknowledgement that steroids have aided players in the drive for 500.
Are these the only reasons? Of course not. I do think, however, they are among the most important.
Tags: Ted Williams