Way back in 1974, Hank Aaron did the impossible, he overtook Babe Ruth for the all-time Major League home run title. There were mixed feelings about it, but it led to one interesting question. “If Hammerin’ Hank just passed the Babe, who the heck did Ruth pass?” The answer, after some research, turned out to be Roger Connor.
Connor was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1857. His parents were Irish immigrants and did not understand the American fascination with baseball. Connor, on the other hand, loved the game. It led to his leaving home at age 14 to pursue his baseball interests in New York. His dad died in 1874, bringing Connor back to Waterbury. He took a job in a local factory to help support his family and played semipro baseball to supplement his income. He was good enough to get a tryout with the International League. He did poorly. Although left-handed, he hit from the right side and didn’t do it very well. A switch to hitting from the left side got him back to the International League (I wonder how common it is for a player to switch sides of the plate and go from mediocrity to stardom?) in the late 1870s. To be clear, Connor was never a switch hitter. He merely gave up hitting right handed in favor of hitting left handed.
He was also big. He stood 6′ 3″ and weighed 220 pounds. That made him a huge man for the era. It also made him relatively immobile. He started his career as a left-handed third baseman, but his lack of speed, combined with a good pair of hands, put him at first base. Once he moved to first (and started hitting lefty) he became a star.
In 1880 he was picked up by Troy of the National League. In 83 games he hit .332, drove in 47 runs and had an OPS+ of 169. He remained at Troy through 1882 hitting .317 with 120 RBIs. In 1883 the team in Troy was in trouble. It had a small fan base, wasn’t doing well in the standings, and there was no current team in New York. So the league moved the franchise (and most of its players, including Connor) to New York as the Gothams (eventually becoming the Giants and ultimately relocating to San Francisco). With a quality team combining the Troy refugees and newly acquired talent they started winning. New York won pennants (and the 19th Century version of the World Series) in both 1888 and 1889. Connor was a major reason why. He led the National League in hits, triples, RBIs, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, OPS+, and total bases at various times during the period. He did not lead the NL in home runs during the 1880s but did establish his career high at 17.
He 1890 he joined teammate Monty Ward’s Player’s League. There he won his only home run title (he hit 14) and picked up another slugging and OPS title. With the failure of the Player’s League he moved back to the Giants. He spent 1892 in Philadelphia (where he won the doubles crown), then came back to New York in 1893. Traded to St. Louis during the 1894 season he remained there until his retirement at age 39 in 1897. His stay in St. Louis included a short managing stint in 1896. The team was terrible and he was uncomfortable as manager. He resigned the managerial position after an 8-37 record.
Connor returned to Waterbury after his retirement. He played minor league ball, managed, and ultimately owned the Waterbury team. He sold the team in 1901, bought another, and maintained his ties to baseball until 1903 when he retired from playing and sold the team. In retirement he invested his money in land, made a fortune, lost most of it, and died in 1931. To Major League baseball he slipped into total obscurity. But Hank Aaron’s run to glory brought Connor back into the spotlight and in 1976 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.
For his career, Connor’s triple slash line is .316/.397/486/.883 for an OPS+ of 153. He had 2467 hits in 7797 at bats. That yielded 1620 runs, 1323 RBIs, and 3788 total bases. He had 441 doubles, 233 triples (still fifth ever), and the record 138 home runs (although it wasn’t until the push to find who Ruth replaced that his home run total was firmly established at 138). He was also considered an excellent, for the era, fielding first baseman.
In some ways the modern player Connor most reminds me of is Hank Aaron. Like Aaron, he seldom won many league titles, but was consistently among the best in the NL for most of his career. Remember, Aaron only won two batting titles and three home run titles (and like Connor did not win a home run title with his most prolific home run year). For much of their career, the two men were overlooked in favor of flashier, but not better, players. Both men were quiet and spoke more with their bat than their mouths. Aaron did a lot of good things when he made his run at Babe Ruth. One of the better, if more obscure, was the resurrection of Roger Connor’s memory.
And before anyone asks, the man Connor replaced as the all-time home run king was Harry Stovey.