Historic May bashing

Last month we looked at the American and National League all-time leaders for home runs hit during April. Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols hold their respective league’s record with 14 each. Pujols set his record in 2006 and Rodriguez followed with his the next year. Now, April gives way to May as we recount the two players with the highest home run totals for this month.

Sports Illustrated dubbed 1956 as the “Year of the Slugger” before the season was half over, since several players had started the season that year hitting home runs at a record pace. Typically, when a rise in baseball’s power numbers becomes apparent, people start to look for a cause; the tools of the trade are the usual suspects. Interestingly, the search often excludes the likeliest culprit, which is random statistical fluctuation.

1956 fits the mold, as some consider the actual baseball being used that season for the home run explosion. The theory was that a tighter wound ball, would, in turn, produce a livelier ball. Manufacturers denied the charge and examinations failed to produce evidence. So, others blamed the bats for the apparent rise in homers. This was more plausible as more and more players were using lighter bats with thinner handles.

At the time, Sports Illustrated’s Robert Creamer wrote that- “Whatever the reason, 19 players had hit 10 or more home runs by June 11, an unprecedented number”.

While a hot start in 1956 by some of the game’s best hitters had writers searching for an underlying cause, it turns out they could have started looking the year before. With players missing time during the Second World War, home run totals dropped significantly for a half-dozen years. After the War, totals had returned to normal and by the start of the ’50s rose to about 2,000 home runs across MLB per year, topping out at 2,076 in 1953. Then, in 1955, the year before the S.I. article linked above came out, home runs rose 10 percent and held steady the rest of the decade.

1950	2073
1951	1863
1952	1701
1953	2076
1954	1937
1955	2224
1956	2294
1957	2202
1958	2240
1959	2250

Of course, we shouldn’t be too hard on S.I. for coming a little late to the party, as we have the advantage of hindsight. They did correctly note that several players jumped out to fast starts with power totals in 1956, and that it looked like something historic was brewing. It was especially noticeable when one of the game’s most popular players blasted 16 homers in May to set himself up for a run at Babe Ruth‘s record of 60 home runs in a season.

Mickey Mantle‘s 1956 season was spectacular. He won baseball’s Triple Crown, batting .353 while hitting 52 homers and driving in 130 runs. He also led the league in runs scored, Slugging Percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. He won his first American League Most Valuable Player award and led the New York Yankees to the World Series title.

While setting the record for most home runs in May of that year, Mantle had games that month that filled the stat sheet. He also hit home runs that have grown to legendary status.

Yogi Berra, Mantle’s teammate, was one of the other players that came out swinging in ’56. Both players were ahead of Babe Ruth’s single-season record pace in May. However, it was Mantle that kept the charge going through Memorial Day.

When Berra hit homer number 10 on May 11th against the Cleveland Indians, Mantle also homered during the same game, on a change-up from Bob Lemon to stay ahead of his teammate. One week later, Mantle one-upped Berra again, this time against the White Sox. Berra had four hits in the game, including his 12th home run. But, Mantle stole the show by getting four hits of his own and adding a walk. Two of his four hits were homers, one lefty and one righty. The second one came with two outs in the ninth to tie a game the Yankees would later win in extras. Sportswriter Louis Effrat reported to The New York Times that, in addition to Mantle’s offensive heroics, the Yankee center fielder also made “…several outstanding catches afield.”

Berra couldn’t keep up and on May 24, Mantle homered in the first inning at Detroit, his 13th of the month. He followed that with three singles, an intentional walk and yet another single to end the game 5-5. The New York Times reported that Detroit’s fans booed their own team for intentionally walking Mantle in the seventh, and that Kansas City fans had done the same in a prior series.

Mantle hit his 15th and 16th homers against Washington in a double header on the second to last day of May. While the 16th still stands historically, since it’s still the most ever hit during the month of May in the American League, the 15th is actually a more famous home run.

Mantle hit that particular blast off of Pedro Ramos. The ball reportedly hit the facade at the top of the third deck and barely missed clearing the right field grandstands. Seven years later, also in May, Mantle once again reportedly hit the top of the third deck. Both homers have become legendary, as estimates place the facade 117 feet high, and 370 feet from home plate. Some people believed the ball was still rising when it hit the top of the upper deck in 1956 and estimated the unimpeded distance of the home run at 600 feet.

Legend has it that the homer against Ramos in May of ’56 was the closest anyone ever came to hitting a fair ball out of the stadium. However, Paul Susman, who had researched Mantle’s home runs for a book written by Mark Gallagher called Explosion, found some witnesses that claimed Mantle hit the facade earlier in May, possibly during a game on the 5th.

Hall Of Famer Lou Boudreau, Kansas City A’s manager in the mid-’50s, said the homer Mantle hit against his team on Cinco de Mayo would have gone out of the stadium had it not hit the top of the upper deck. Others remembered Mantle hitting the facade the following year against Dick Donovan, in 1957. It’s hard to say how many times, really, that Mantle nearly hit a ball out of the stadium. But enough people count the one against Ramos to make it likely that in May of 1956 he came as close as he, or anyone else, ever did.

In the National League, a player that may have been disliked during his career as much as Mantle was adored during his, holds the record for homers in May. In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 17 home runs in May while on his way to setting the single season home run record with 73 total.

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The beginning of the season did not indicate anything special, as Bonds only had four home runs for the month—following a May 16th matchup against the Florida Marlins. Then Barry got hot. He hit nine dingers over the course of the next six games. Included in that burst was a May 19th game against the Atlanta Braves in which Bonds went 4 for 5, with three homers and a double.

While Mantle dealt with the pressure of constant comparisons to Yankee legend Babe Ruth throughout 1956, Bonds dealt with even more while chasing baseball’s biggest record throughout the rest of 2001.

First, he dealt with pitchers pitching around him in a way no one had ever seen before. Houston manager Larry Dierker had Bonds’ intentionally walked three times, and pitched around for five additional walks during a three game series during October. Dierker almost kept his team from giving up a historic homer, but with the Astros behind 9-2, the manager had his pitcher throw to Bonds for one of the few times in the series. In Bonds’ last at-bat of the three game set, he hit his 70th to tie Mark McGwire‘s record.

Dierker wasn’t the only person that seemed reluctant to serve as a historical footnote. Other pitchers, perhaps instructed by their managers, offered very little for Barry to hit as he closed in on McGwire’s mark. After Bonds had hit his 65th and 66th home runs on September 23 against the San Diego Padres, opponents walked him at least two times per contest in nine of the next 10 games.

In addition to getting pitched around for the bulk of the second half of the season, Bonds had an on-going feud with teammate Jeff Kent. He also served as the subject of a Rick Reilly article where the S.I. writer called Bonds “an MTV diva, only with bigger earrings” while pointing out the aloof slugger’s borderline misanthropic life in the Giants’ locker room.

When the country reeling from the September 11 attacks, baseball came back to help people put the horror behind them. At that point, the flawed Bonds finally gained somewhat of a following late in the season, as America looked for anything to celebrate in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Fans, sometimes even those on the other teams, started to boo pitchers for walking Barry. Unfortunately for the slugger, neither he—nor his record-breaking home run chase—ever seemed to gain the attention seen in the McGwire- Sammy Sosa race in 1998.

What would end up being even more unfortunate for the slugger was the Federal investigation of a supplement company called BALCO that began in 2002. In 2003, authorities raided BALCO and Bonds was among the many professional and Olympic athletes forced to testify about their dealings with the company. With the stain of Performance Enhancing Drugs tarnishing his every achievement, Bonds kept hitting homers and went on to break Hank Aaron‘s career record. But even if people reluctantly got behind Bonds’ single season record pursuit due to his personality in 2001, everyone except his loyal San Francisco fans watched his chase for Aaron’s record with a sort of emotional detachment.

Lost in all that is the tremendous season Bonds had in 2001. There have only been 17 seasons since Mantle’s 1956 in which players had a higher on-base percentage since the .470 Mantle posted that year. Nearly one-fourth of those seasons belong to Bonds, including his record-breaking year in 2001. Lost in all the controversy is the .369/.547/.1.036 line Bonds posted in May. That is impressive in its brilliance, yet somehow just another month in a season in which he hit a preposterous .328/.515/.863.

The narrative of Barry Bonds is that one of the greatest outfielders of his time changed his body and approach to become one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history. He was a player that might bristle at the suggestion that he desperately sought respect of fans and his peers. He might say he demanded respect. With his implication in a PED scandal, it seems likely that he took drugs to make himself a better hitter when he was already one of the best hitters in the game.

The narrative of Mickey Mantle is that of one of the greatest outfielders of his time ravaging his body and still becoming one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history. He was a player that had the respect of fans and peers without appearing to want it at all. Maybe deep inside he did, and maybe his injuries—combined with the constant comparisons to Yankee greats—drove him to excesses off the field, as a coping mechanism. With his acknowledged alcoholism, we wonder if his drinking kept him from being a better hitter even though he was already one of the best hitters in the game.

References & Resources
Baseball-Almanac, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Baseball Digest, Baseball-Reference, Salon, SFGate, Fangraphs

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SoFla Baseball
SoFla Baseball

We need a home run derby for Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.