This annotated week in baseball history: April 20-April 26, 1937

On April 20, 1937, Gee Walker of the Tigers hit for the cycle on Opening Day. Walker managed his feat “in reverse,” starting with a homer and working his way down to a single. That’s one of many cycle-related facts that Richard shares this week.

Depending on how long it has been since you’ve had to worry about such things, you might remember the SAT. When it came time for the big test, my favorite section was always the analogies, which I’m told have since been removed.

For whatever reason, I could always handle the analogy and easily decode that a portal was to a ship as a window was to a house. So in the spirit of such things, let’s look at a sample question:

Pitching a no-hitter is to pitching as

(a) Hitting four home runs is to offense
(b) Turning an unassisted triple play is to defense
(c) Hitting for the cycle is to offense
(d) Stealing 100 bases in a season is to baserunning

If you selected C, give yourself a pat on the back. Although there is some debate about the exact numbers, generally accepted numbers say the number of no-hitters and cycles is about the same, somewhere between 250 and 300.

Despite this, hitting for the cycle is somehow not respected in the same manner as pitching a no-hitter. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that pitching a no-hitter is often seen as one achievement, whereas hitting for the cycle is seen as four smaller achievements, all of which combine to create an accomplishment.

While I have not run the numbers on this, I’d also guess that cycle near-misses are far more frequent than near no-hitters. Even if the number of times a player falls a base hit short of the cycle (a triple these days; there was probably a time when the home run was the “hard part”), it is not as SportsCenter-worthy as a near miss of a no-hitter.

Hitting for the cycle is nonetheless a terrific accomplishment, so this week I look back at some notable cycle-related bits of history. The first is today’s namesake event, which is the first cycle ever hit on Opening Day. As it turned out, Walker’s Tigers needed all the offense they could get, eking out a 4-3 victory over Cleveland.

According to the official history of Major League Baseball, the first cycle was hit by Dave Orr of the New York Metropolitans in 1885. The Metropolitans were an American Association franchise which folded following the 1887 season.

Inexplicably, Orr’s feat is listed under the cycles hit by members of the San Francisco Giants. Orr did play briefly for the Giants in 1883, but the Metropolitans franchise was actually purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers and Orr—a strong-hitting first baseman—saw far more time as a member of the Dodgers.

The first cycle by a player with a team in what we would today consider the major leagues was by Fred Dunlap, playing for the Detroit Wolverines in 1886, while the first cycle by a player on a team still extant came from Tip O’Neill (not the congressman) in April of 1887 for the franchise now known as the Cardinals. Depending on what you source you believe, O’Neill may also have been the first player to have two cycles in a single career. (Some cite 1880s player “Long” John Reilly.)

When a player hits a single, double, triple and home run in that order, it is often referred to as a “natural cycle,” which sounds like something out of an adolescent health class. In any case, Bill Collins, an otherwise undistinguished outfielder of the teens, is credited with hitting the first natural cycle in 1910 for the Boston Doves. (That’s what the Braves had unaccountably chosen to call themselves that season.)

Of course, there is more to cycles than merely being the first. No player has ever hit for the cycle more than three times, and only three players have managed that feat: Babe Herman, Bob Meusel and Reilly.

Herman and Meusel both could fill entries of their own. Herman was a great hitter for a few years, but an atrocious fielder. A story made the rounds that Herman was struck on the head by a fly ball; it may or may not be true, but people’s willingness to believe it gives you some idea of his defensive prowess.

Meusel played just 11 seasons but had a career .309 average and won three World
Series with the Yankees. He also had a brother, Irish Meusel, against whom he played in the Series three times.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

The only active player with more than one cycle is Seattle’s Brad Wilkerson, who has two. Wilkerson also has the neat trick of having had his cycles come for the same franchise in different cities: one in 2003 with the Expos and once in 2005 with the Nationals. Wilkerson’s first cycle is doubly impressive as he hit for a natural cycle despite having only four at-bats.

Other notable cycles include Gus Bell’s in 1951 and Gary Ward’s in 1980. They would become relevant in 2004 when Bell’s grandson David and Ward’s son Daryle made them, respectively, the first grandfather/grandson and father/son cycle combinations.

Only two players—Bob Watson and John Olerud—have hit for the cycle in both leagues. Although Watson was not fleet of foot (27 career steals in 55 tries), he played in the cavernous Astrodome, which surely helped his first cycle. Olerud is more baffling. To go along with 11 steals in 25 attempts, Olerud had just 13 career triples, easily the lowest number of any player with two cycles.

Predictably, teams among those with the longest history also rank highest on the all-time cycle chart. The Pirates are No. 1 with 23 franchise cycles, followed in the top five by the Giants, Red Sox, Cardinals and A’s. The Rays, Padres and Marlins have never had a cycle, while the Blue Jays and Mariners (two each) also bring up the rear.

So while for many hitting for the cycle does not merit the glory that its spiritual cousin the no-hitter receives, it deserves better. Fans should remember that a cycle is an equally rare thing and perhaps someday it, too, will be placed on the achievement pedestal.

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