One of the most colorful team nicknames in baseball history is Murderers’ Row. The 1927 Yankees drove fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, managers, and fans. Their lineup accounted for a record-breaking 158 home runs, and one can only visualize the image of slugger after slugger stepping to the plate and sending baseballs vast distances over Yankee Stadium fences.
In reality, however, while the home run totals were staggering, their authors represented more of an island than a row. Most of the power came from three bats, those of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri. Together, they accounted for 125, or nearly 80%, of the team’s home run production.
Since those days, the long ball has become more common. And with its growth, so has the number of teams featuring their own versions of Murderers’ Row. The mark of 158 circuit clouts (or taters or dingers, depending on one’s age) has long since been eclipsed. Among the record breakers were the 1947 New York Giants and later the 1956 Cincinnati Red Legs with 221, the 1961 New York Yankees with 240 and, most recently, the 1997 Seattle Mariners with 264. And with the presence of stronger hitters, smaller ballparks, a lively baseball, and a still-tiny strike zone, a 300-homer season is not out of reach.
The increase in home runs has been accompanied by an even greater increase in home run hitters. When Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle set the new two-man record in 1961, their 115 represented only 47.9% of the team’s 240 total, a far cry from the Ruth-Gehrig dominance of 67.7%. The most recent dynamic duo, Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia of the 2001 San Francisco Giants, combined for 110 homers, or 46.8% of the team’s 235.
Since the 1927 season, many teams have produced lineups with multiple players sharing the wealth – the 1964 Twins, the 1996 and 1998 Braves, and the 1995, 1996, and 1997 Rockies are strong examples. Arguably the most even distribution of power came from the Orioles of 1996, whose total of 257 homers included seven players with more than 20: Brady Anderson (50), Rafael Palmeiro (39), Bobby Bonilla (28), Cal Ripken, Jr. (26), Chris Hoiles (25), Roberto Alomar (22), and B.J. Surhoff (21).
In the minor leagues, we can find comparable statistics. Due to the transient nature of the minors, particularly since 1960, fewer teams have stayed together long enough to achieve great totals. And those that did were frequently assisted by short fences, desert air, or lengthy schedules. But the history of minor league baseball includes many individuals and teams that provided long-distance feats to match those found in the majors. A number of them deserve our attention.
From 1925 until 2001, the individual season record for home runs in organized baseball was held solely or shared by a minor leaguer. Babe Ruth took the lead with 59 in 1921, but that was eclipsed by Tony Lazzeri's 60 with the PCL’s Salt Lake City Bees in 1925. The next year, Moose Claybaugh of Tyler hit 62 and the bar would continue to be raised until Joe Bauman blasted 72 with 1954 Roswell Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League. For nearly 50 years that would be the standard until Barry Bonds and his prodigious mark of 73.
At the team level, minor leaguers also set the pace. In 1947, the hot summer winds of Texas favored multiple launch sites. The Sherman-Denison Twins led the league with 254 homers and featured a number of sluggers. Leading the team that season were Buck Frierson and Larry Drake, who combined for 98 round-trippers. Another 37 by Don Stokes brought the three-man total to 135. Close behind the Twins were the Wichita Falls Spudders, who were led by D.C. Miller (57), Jim Matthews (40), and Al McCarty (37).
Ten years later, four members of the 1957 Western League Topeka Hawks slammed 153 balls out of Community Park. Those four were Len Williams (43), Jim Pokel (41), Jim McDaniel (36), and Mike Krsnich (33). Another 20 by the usually light-hitting Chuck Cottier added to the team total of 235. While the distances to the fences were somewhat short (321 feet down the left field line and 310 to right field), the dimensions were not as friendly as for other homer-happy teams.
Only slightly behind in the five-man race were the 1947 Las Vegas Wranglers of the Class C Sunset League. This collection of Cub farmhands featured five players combining for 150 homers, including rookie Calvin Felix (52), Olin Kelly (33), Ken Myers (33), Roy Godfrey (32), and Dom Castro (28). The team cleared the fences 271 times, with ten players in double digits. Making that accomplishment even more impressive is the fact that the five players who accounted for 150 home runs would hit a total of 101 for the rest of their careers. That adds up to 31 seasons and an average of 3.3 home runs per season per man. Was it the water, the air, or the ballpark in Las Vegas in 1947?
The most impressive home run statistics of all teams, however, belong to the 1974 Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League. Playing in Hughes Stadium, a football field adapted for baseball and featuring a 231-foot left field foul line, Bob Lemon’s crew circled the bases 305 times. Individual honors went to Bill McNulty (55), Gorman Thomas (51), Steve McCartney (32), Tom Reynolds (32), and Tommy Bianco (28). Alas, the Solons’ pitchers yielded an equally astounding 301 clouts, and the team finished the year with a 66-78 record, good for last place in the Western Division.
There are many other instances of individuals and teams setting or approaching standards for power production. Some used the long ball to win pennants, while others used them to mask their pitching deficiencies and overall mediocrity. Only the most prominent are listed here, but cases could be made for the inclusion of many others.
The record-breakers, the near-misses, and the non-contenders can all be found in The Professional Baseball Player Database. Version 6.0 lists the players, their teams, and their leagues for the 1922-2004 seasons. A new feature enables the user to view farm systems, beginning with the early years of Branch Rickey’s novel concept of signing vast numbers of players and spreading them among a network of teams. In addition, many leagues whose statistics were not listed in the baseball guides have been included with most, if not all, of their players.
Additional information can be found about the database by clicking here.