Historic June bashing

Some of baseball’s biggest names have populated these monthly looks at historic home run totals. The theme continues for the month of June, as it boasts surnames like Maris, Ruth, and Sosa. It recalls years of epic home run chases, ones where the record for the season would eventually fall, though not always to the June total record holder.

The men holding the record in the American and National Leagues for home runs hit in June did their deed in seasons ranging from 1930 to 1998. It’s that last year, the one with the most home runs not just for June, but for any month, that held equal parts athletic achievement and historic importance.

In 1930, 26,000 businesses failed, and the Great Depression changed the way of life all over the country. But for a little while, at least during the summer, some things stayed the same. Babe Ruth continued to be the best player in baseball, and attendance at Major League Baseball games set record levels.

But, the good fortune wouldn’t last, and starting in 1931, attendance fell annually due to the sharp rise in unemployment, reported modifications to the baseball to limit scoring, and added taxes to ticket prices.

Amidst all those struggles, Ruth did what he did best. In June of 1930, Ruth hit 15 homers, setting the mark for most in that month for the American League. Ruth hit his first of June on the first of June, in front of 30,000 fans in Yankee Stadium. Ruth’s team lost to the Boston Red Sox that day, during a game in which the Sox turned a triple play.

Ruth ended that day with a year-to-date line of .380/.508/.810, numbers that would actually improve slightly as the month went on. Ruth also homered once per game in the next three games.*

Two weeks into the month, the Yankees faced the Cleveland Indians at their park. The visit drew a record 35,000 fans. There were so many fans, and so many at the game early, that they spilled out of the stands and onto the field. A special stipulation was added for the game that limited an outfield hit that went out of the reach of fielders as a ground-rule double. After drawing walks in his first four at-bats, Ruth hit his sixth home run of June, and 21st on the year.

From June 19-21, Ruth homered twice in a series with Detroit, helping the Yankees win the series two games to one. A couple of days later, a patrolman ticketed Ruth’s wife for holding up traffic on her way to pick up her husband after his game against St. Louis. Unfazed, the Babe hit a home run the next day and then two more in the last game of the series on the 25th. Those two started a run of six homers in the last six games of the month to leave him with 15 homers in June.

With 30 home runs on the season at the end of the month, Ruth was actually 15 games ahead of his own record pace from three years before, when he hit 60. But he could not keep up the pace for the remainder of 1930, brought down by the month of July in which he only hit .307/.421/.574.

By 1934, the country had weathered the worst of the Great Depression. However, Americans were still struggling and several years away from a full recovery. Baseball, and especially baseball on the radio, provided people with a distraction from their plight.

In Philadelphia, fans dealt with a middle-of-the-pack finish from the hometown Athletics. But, within a mediocre season, Jimmie Foxx, Pinky Higgins, and Bob Johnson all excelled. And while Foxx’s 1934 season followed consecutive MVP campaigns and ended with 44 home runs and a 1.102 OPS, one of his teammates would be the one to tie Ruth for the most American League homers hit during June.

Johnson was two years older than Foxx in 1934.** But where Johnson, at age 28, was playing just his second year in the majors, Foxx had already played in more than a half-dozen seasons, seasons that included home run totals of 33, 37, 30, 58, and 48.

Like all those previous seasons, 1934 would again belong to the younger Foxx. However, one month belonged to Johnson. “Indian Bob” started June with three homers in his first four games. Two of those were against the Yankees, who would serve as Johnson’s victims again on June 9th.

In that game, Babe Ruth watched from the stands, sitting out with a sore wrist. Ruth started the game watching from the lower stands, but retreated halfway through the game when autograph hounds wouldn’t relent. He missed Johnson’s blast in the eighth, one that was reported to travel about 475 feet while breaking a 2-2 tie.

By the end of a five-game, three-day set against the White Sox, Johnson led the majors in home runs with 19 on the year, 10 coming in June alone. Another homer on the 20th started a stretch in which Johnson had 17 hits in the last 11 games of the month. He hit his 14th and 15th homers of June on the last two days of the month to tie Ruth’s AL record. Johnson ended the year with 34 bombs, the best in any season of his career.

By 1961, thoughts of economic turmoil had been wiped away by America’s industrial response to World War II, a tremendous era of production and economic growth that continued with the spending during the Cold War. Televisions were replacing radios, and nearly 90 percent of American households owned at least one set. Baseball also had healthy growth, with two expansion teams coming into the league in ’61 and two more the following year.

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Throughout all that change, the New York Yankees remained the most popular team in baseball. They had won eight World Series titles since the end of the war and would add another in a memorable ’61 season, a season that holds all kinds of home run history.

The Yankees acquired Roger Maris from the Kansas City Athletics via trade in December of 1959. In Maris’ first year with New York, he hit .283/.371/.581 and won the AL Most Valuable Player award. As good as that debut season with the Yankees was, Maris would top it the following year.

He and teammate Mickey Mantle dueled for most of the season in an epic home run chase that concluded with Maris besting Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs by just one clout, to use that period’s parlance.

Maris’ record year came during the first season MLB added more games to the regular-season schedule. This spurned some debate over the legitimacy of the record and fueled a press-induced rivalry with the more popular Mantle.

The drama has been covered, perhaps best, by the fantastic movie 61*. Regardless of any purported attempts to diminish Maris’ accomplishment, the numbers for the season, and for June, remain impressive. Maris finished the season with a career-high .620 slugging percentage.

Maris started June by homering in three of his first four games. He had six by the time the Yankees hosted the Los Angeles Angels in a doubleheader on June 11. In the first game, Maris made two catches to rob opponent’s home runs.

The first was off the bat of Ken Hunt, and the momentum of Maris’ leap carried him off the field and into the stands in right. In the last inning of the first game, Maris reached over the railing at the bullpen in right and took a home run away from Ted Kluszewski.

In the second game, Maris went from run preventer to run scorer. In that contest, he hit two homers to put his season total at 20 and move him ahead of Mantle, who had tied him with a blast of his own in the opener.

On the June 19-22, Maris went back to Kansas City to face his old team. He had three bombs among his eight hits during the series, and the last pushed his monthly total to 15. But even with seven more games in the month, Maris could not hit another to take the record for himself. By the end of the year, Maris tied Ruth’s season record with only three games remaining, and he got the tie-breaking homer in the last game.

Maris’ 15 June homers remain tied for the best in the AL. But two players broke his season mark in 1998.

It was that year, 1998, that a company called Google was founded. The Dow Jones Industrial average had climbed ever higher throughout the ’90s, and Americans saw their income rise sharply after the recession that started the decade. A website called Baseball Prospectus was in its second year. Baseball owners gave Allan Huber Selig, acting commissioner of MLB, the title officially.

MLB was still suffering the effects of the labor dispute that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Fans, bitter with disappointment from missing so much baseball, were reluctant to come back to the game once the strike ended. But a historic home run chase would eventually boost the game’s popularity.

As 1998 began, Mark McGwire hit home runs, and he hit them at a rate that meant he had a chance to break Roger Maris’ single-season record. By the time June rolled around, no one really anticipated Sammy Sosa joining McGwire in his pursuit of Maris.

But Sosa had put in some work the preceding offseason with Cubs’ hitting coach Jeff Pentland. And by midseason that work paid off, as Sosa went on a tear, one that actually started at the end of May. Over the course of 22 games, starting on Memorial Day, he hit 21 home runs.

Sosa started June with two homers on the first day of the month against the Florida Marlins. This would be the one of the four times he’d have a multi-homer game during the month. He homered in five consecutive games starting on the third of June. On the 15th, Sosa hit three solo shots against the Milwaukee Brewers.

He hit five more bombs in four games in the very next series against Philadelphia, including the one that set a new June record. That blast flew over Waveland Avenue onto a building across the street. “Slammin’ Sammy” hit his 20th of June on the last day of the month. His line for the year after that game stood at .327/.386/.676.

While Sosa went on to break Maris’ single-season mark, McGwire beat him to the punch and ended the year with 70 home runs. Sosa still totaled 66 and posted one of the greatest single seasons in baseball history, which earned him the MVP award for the National League.

Many felt at the time that the McGwire-Sosa home run chase saved MLB by bringing renewed interest into a game that had angered many of its fans. Both men were honored by Sports Illustrated for the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year award.

Unfortunately, many now know, from McGwire’s confession, that the former Cardinal used steroids during the 1998 season. Many also suspect Sosa of steroid use, as a 2009 New York Times report claimed he was one of the 100 or so players who tested positive during baseball’s 2003 Performance Enhancing Drug testing survey. Barring a similar confession from Sosa, we may never know if he used PEDs during his historic ’98 campaign.

Finally, many also believe that Roger Maris’ single-season home run record should still stand, since those who have broken his record all played during what has been labeled “The Steroid Era.” Maybe someday someone will argue that Pedro Guerrero‘s 15 homers during June of 1985 should be back at the top of the National League record books.

*On June 2nd, in an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds, Ruth hit yet another home run, making it five homers in five games to start the month. Ruth also hit two home runs in an exhibition game against the Albany Eastern League Club on June 18. Since those were exhibition games, they did not count toward his 15 on the month. But they may illustrate the effect extra games during the season may have had on many of Ruth’s records.

**Johnson was also two years older than Foxx every other year they were both alive.

References & Resources
ProQuest Historical Newspapers’ The New York Times , Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, Sports Illustrated, Brinkley’s American History, vol. II

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…Sosa had put in some work the preceding offseason with Cubs’ hitting coach Jeff Pentland.

Yeah.  His hitting coach.