Sunday, January 17, 2016

The year of the 180-foot homer.

Today's record books all show that Babe Ruth set the single-season home run record in 1919 by hitting 29, thereby breaking the record of 27 held by Ned Williamson. That's not they way they saw things when Ruth was chasing that record. The writers of that era originally thought that Ruth was chasing the record of 25, or possibly 26 (the 1919 sources vary), as set by Buck Freeman in 1899. (Click on the Oct 6, 1919 article to the left to enlarge it and read a typical viewpoint from the era.) In fact, that made perfect sense because there were still fresh memories of Freeman, who was the Ruth of his own generation, a man who lashed baseballs for unprecedented distances with unprecedented frequency, and led several leagues at various levels in four-baggers. Ruth was not only chasing an aggregate number, but a legend, by hitting balls into and beyond locations which only Freeman had previously reached.


Freeman had still been playing in the majors as late as 1907, while Ruth had begun his career only seven years later, and with the same team, so many contemporaries of a young Ruth had personally seen an older Freeman, and many Boston fans had viewed long balls hit by both players. Catcher Bill Carrigan, a long-time fixture on the Boston squad, had even been the teammate of both men. The players, fans and writers of 1919 were well acquainted with Freeman and his tape measure shots, and the baseball rules and strategies were essentially the same in 1919 as they had been in 1899, so Freeman was considered the rightful home run king to be deposed.

It was only after Ruth had leapt the known Freeman hurdle that sportswriters and sports historians started to dig into the old-time White Stockings, who had amassed an incalculable number of circuit clouts in 1884 because of a freakish combination of circumstances. Oh, sure, the game of 1884 had used a different set of rules, different equipment, and a different pitching distance, but it was still the National League, after all, so writers started to comb through the old box scores. The researchers found that superstars King Kelly and Cap Anson had hit a lot of homers that year, as did three other members of the team. The derby champion was neither of the future Hall of Famers, but Chicago's relatively obscure third baseman, Ned Williamson, who hit 27, after never having hit more than three in any of his previous six seasons. After that year, Williamson played six more seasons in the majors, but would never reach double digits again.



Despite the above evidence of his apparently having an entire set of Old Judge baseball cards dedicated exclusively to him, Williamson's slugging record had gone unrecognized for more than 30 years after his having "set" it, but that wasn't really surprising, given that fact that it wasn't even recognized when he did it. Except for the second game of a May 30 doubleheader when Williamson played catcher and clubbed three homers and a double, there was really no significant acclaim for Williamson's prodigious slugging feats in the Chicago papers that year, even though the box scores were dutifully reported and the individual homers noted within them. Below are the Chicago Inter Ocean's summaries and box scores of the season's final two games, which were both played at home. Yes, they were home games, even though Chicago batted first. It was the home team's choice in those days, and Chicago's player/manager Cap Anson liked to mix it up. In fact, the "home team bats last" rule was not enacted until 1950, although home teams seldom chose to bat first in the modern era. In the old days, however, when a single ball might be used throughout the game, many teams liked the advantage of getting the top of the line-up to bat in the top of the first, when the ball was fresher and livelier. At any rate, Williamson homered in each of those games, thus (we now know) breaking a 25-homer tie with teammate Fred Pfeffer for the annual and all-time lead, but he attracted absolutely no notice either for his performances on those days or his cumulative seasonal achievements.



The custom of the baseball guides in 1884 was to list a player's total hits and total bases, but not to break the hits down into doubles, triples and homers, so Williamson's official stats for that year in the Spalding Guide look very solid, but neither that page, shown below, nor any other in the annual guide indicate that he had led the league in homers, let alone that he had established himself as the all-time single season homer king. In fact, his total of 82 runs scored looks paltry, given that five of his teammates exceeded 100!



The out-of-town newspapers didn't notice Ned's power displays either, from what I could see. The Detroit Free Press would occasionally write a headline like "Chicago wins with homers because of the fence," but did not elaborate within the article.

Ah, yes. The fence.

You see, the reason nobody noted or respected Williamson's achievement at the time is that everyone who followed baseball in his era was well aware of the tainted nature of any performances achieved in Chicago's home park that year. The Chicago White Stockings had played the 1884 season in a park with foul lines so short that the homers hit there would have been considered a soft touch in little league. The left field line was only 180 feet from home plate, made to play even shorter by facing mainly westward, allowing even easy pop flies to be carried into Michigan Avenue by the stiff breezes blowing off the lake. The right field was not much longer at 196 feet, but in that direction at least a batter needed to drive the ball northeasterly into the lake winds and over a 37 1/2 foot fence which had been erected to keep fans from watching ball games for free from a nearby viaduct. The name of the stadium was Lake Front Park, and it caused statistical distortions that have never been matched by any subsequent field in major league history, not by Coors or Mile High with their altitude-enhanced flights, nor the Polo Grounds and Baker Bowl with their invitingly nearby right field fences, nor Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out so often and so fiercely.

There were 321 homers in the National League that year, up from a mere 124 the year before. 194 of those homers were hit in Lake Front Park, which therefore accounted for just about all of the year-to-year increase. There were 3.5 homers per game at that park. In all other games that year, there were .31 homers per game. In other words, homers were hit in Lake Front Park about 11 times more frequently than under the league's average remaining conditions.

As it turns out, that is a good indication of Williamson's personal home/road split, which we know to have been 25/2, thanks to some research done by a sportswriter in late 1919, when Ruth's homers started to bring vintage, long-forgotten home run records under the microscope. (Click on the October 13, 1919 article to the right to enlarge it.)



The 11:1 ratio also held almost perfectly for the White Stockings as a team. They hit 129 at Lake Front Park and 12 on the road, according to a 1917 article by famed sportswriter Ernest Lanigan in the Pittsburg Press. (Yes, that's how they spelled Pittsburgh. See the entire page below, which you can click to enlarge.) As far as we know today, he and his researchers had gotten the 1884 details more or less correct. (He attributed 141 homers to the White Stockings, while the modern sources say 142; he attributed 316 to the league, while the modern sources say 321; and there is a discrepancy of one homer apiece on several of Williamson's teammates.



Lake Front Park's dimensions had been the same, or nearly so, in previous years, but the cheap shot over the fence had always been ruled a ground-rule double. Even that situation produced wild statistical anomalies in which the Chicago team led the league in doubles by a very wide margin. They cracked 277 two-baggers in 1883, compared to 209 for the next highest team. The following chart shows their records in 1883 (180-foot doubles), 1884 (180-foot homers) and 1885, when they moved, kicking and screaming I might add, to a (somewhat) more sensible stadium. (They were evicted from Lake Front.)


1b
2b
3b
HR
Avg
G
1883
649
277
61
13
.273
98
1884
822
162
50
142
.281
113
1885
766
184
75
54
.264
113


In fairness to their sluggers, it should be noted that the 1883 rule probably deflated their home run totals that year, just as the 1884 rule inflated them, since balls over the fence were doubles in 1883, no matter how far over the fence, so home runs were difficult to come by. The contrast between their home run totals in 1883 and 1885, as shown above, seems to support that theory.

Here are the totals for doubles and home runs hit by the eight starters in those three years:

Home Runs
1883
1884
1885
Flint
0
9
1
Anson
0
21
7
Pfeffer
1
25
5
Burns
2
7
7
Williamson
2
27
3
Dalrymple
2
22
11
Gore
2
5
5
Kelly
3
13
9


Doubles
1883
1884
1885
Flint
23
5
8
Anson
36
30
35
Pfeffer
22
10
12
Burns
37
14
23
Williamson
49
18
16
Dalrymple
24
18
27
Gore
30
18
21
Kelly
28
28
24


Those individual breakdowns show that Williamson was the master at lofting balls over that fence. He used this ability to hit a league-leading 49 doubles in 1883, and then to lead the league with 27 homers in 1884 when the ground rule was changed. When relocated in 1885 to a field where high fly balls were no longer advantageous, the former champ in doubles and homers proved to lack any special talent for either. Although he more or less secretly held the major league home run record for decades, Williamson was not a home run hitter. He had hit only two four-baggers in the year before he set the record, and only three the following year, which was seventh-best on his own club. People considered him an excellent fielder with a cannon for a right arm (the team later switched him to shortstop when Burns faltered), but just an ordinary hitter, or maybe a bit better. His lifetime average was .255 and he usually batted sixth, even in the year when he set the tainted home run record. He died young, in 1894, and was probably not aware he ever led the league in homers at all. The 1915 Spalding Official Baseball Record says that the all-time record holder is John (Buck) Freeman with 25 in 1899. The very first baseball encyclopedia ("Balldom: The Britannica of Baseball") was published in 1914, and did not list Williamson's total among the best home run seasons. In fact, it did not even list his three-homer game in the supposed complete list of such achievements, although it erroneously credits Mike Muldoon of Cleveland with having hit four in an 1882 game in which he actually hit two homers and two singles. The relevant pages follow:



As expected, that encyclopedia again listed Buck Freeman as the record holder for a major league season. Williamson was finally listed as the record holder in the 1916 update of the Spalding Official Baseball Record, 32 years after the fact, and 22 years after his death. Even that source claimed that the achievement had allegedly taken place in 1883, not 1884. The record was not properly nailed down until Ernest Lanigan and his researchers assembled all the details in 1917, as shown in the Pittsburgh paper pictured earlier. If Ned Williamson could come back to life today, he would probably be as surprised as anyone to find that he had ever been considered the record-holder for home runs in a single season. In fact he would probably be more surprised than anyone else, since he would know full well he was only the seventh best home run hitter on his own team!



By the way, the center card above notwithstanding, Ned played only seven games at second base in his entire career, which spanned thirteen seasons and 1225 games. He played about 700 games at third base and more than 400 at short. Enough about Ned for a while. Let's consider how Lake Front Park got that way. It's a long story, but I like long stories, so here we go.

If you have really been paying attention to this article and are at all familiar with the geography of Chicago, you may have wondered when reading the preceding paragraphs, "Why did they call it Lake Front Park if a homer went out on Michigan Avenue? That's gotta be, like, a mile from the lake." Yes, you are right. It's because Michigan is a very tricky lake. Sort of. Ever since the Civil War era the city of Chicago has been reclaiming more and more land to expand the shore.

If you could time-travel back to the early 1850s, you would see that Michigan Avenue was so-called because it was on Lake Michigan. In the period after 1856, Michigan Avenue was still on the shore, but now abutted what I am going to call a lagoon, following the example of the newspapers of that day. That area had been separated from the main body of the lake by a breakwater created in the 1850s for the Illinois Central Railroad. The illustration below, made in the Civil War era, shows the railroad trestle, the breakwater, and the Michigan Avenue shore, with pleasure boats still sailing on the lagoon.



And here's how that area was portrayed on an 1867 map.



At that point the site of Lake Front Park was not on the lake, but in it, if I can fairly call that area part of the lake. It is the very northernmost section of the lagoon, running just east of Michigan Avenue from Washington Street on the south to Randolph Street on the north. You can already see from the map that it could not be turned into a very large tract of land, because it was boxed in by Michigan Avenue and the train tracks. The photograph below, taken in 1858 when the area was still mostly underwater, illustrates just how cramped the space would be.



Here is the same view, looking northward toward the old railroad depot (the distinctive building with the three arches) just a bit later, when the lagoon was in the early stages of reclamation.



The area where the baseball field would be located was the very first part of the lagoon to be reclaimed. The 1871 map of Chicago below shows what the city looked like just before the great fire, portraying the first White Stocking ballpark built on the site, back when the team was in the old National Association.



1871 was the first year of organized professional "major" leagues in the United States, but the National League was still five years in the future. The ball field indicated in the drawing above is not the notorious Lake Front Park of the 180-foot fences, but a rickety old wooden stadium called the Union Grounds, which was somehow cobbled into the space in such a way that all the fences were a uniform 375 feet from home. This seems to have been possible because the Union Grounds extended south of Washington Street, while the later, smaller field at Lake Front Park did not. The location was, however, that very same southeast corner of Randolph and Michigan later occupied by Lake Front Park. Unfortunately for the city, the first year of professional baseball was also the year of the Chicago Fire, and the stadium, along with much around it, was destroyed, so the team did not play the following two seasons, and when it finally did return, played elsewhere in the city from 1874 until 1877. Baseball did not return to the lakefront for seven years.

The catastrophic Chicago Fire did bring some ancillary benefits to the city. It provided an incentive to build and modernize the destroyed neighborhoods, of course, and it also provided debris that was helpful in filling in the rest of the lagoon. By 1880, through a massive project of co-operation between the city and the railroads, the lagoon was completely gone, as seen below, with part of the new land eventually going for additional train tracks on solid ground, replacing the old trestle, and the rest of the area dedicated toward creating green space and architectural marvels like the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building, where the famous 1880 Republican Convention thwarted General Grant's bid for a third term. Today the area is generally known as Grant Park, rather ironically since it marks the only place where Grant ever failed at anything important. The picture below was again taken from the south facing north along Michigan Avenue, a very similar perspective to the one above, but this time around 1880, by which time the White Stockings had already moved back to the site of the old Union Grounds, which would be at the very far northern end of the new landfill park pictured here, although the baseball field it is not really visible (or at least not recognizable). By this time, baseball was being played at the infamous Lake Front Park, which in 1878-1882 was not as fancy as the 1883-1884 version, but comprised essentially the same playing area, with similar dimensions and the familiar pre-1884 ground rule stipulating that a ball over the fence was a double.



A promotional business map of Chicago (below) gives the exact 1884 location of home run heaven ("Base Ball Grounds"), and the inserted plot map gives a more accurate definition of the available space (the blacked-out area).



To my knowledge there is no known photograph of Lake Front Park, either in its 1878-1882 avatar, or in the upgraded version, which was then considered the state of the art in baseball facilities. (It even had luxurious sky boxes where the city's plutocrats could avoid mingling with the hoi polloi.) The drawing below is rich in detail, however, and the exterior fence, whitewashed to match the wide white promenade beside Michigan Avenue, is pictured exactly as it is described in the articles of the day. This rendering must picture the upgraded 1883-84 version of the park, because the pennant on the top left takes note of the 1881 and 1882 World Championships. Barely visible beyond the stadium to the south is the famous Interstate Industrial Exposition Hall. The pitcher seems to be tossing the ball almost due south in this representation.





But in the rendering to the right, the pitcher seems to be facing a more southwesterly direction. At this time I can't say which, if either, is correct, and I don't know whether the drawing to the right is from their era or ours. We do know that the famous white fence ran exactly parallel to Michigan Avenue, which is laid out due north and south.



I want to talk a bit about that White Stocking team, but before I do, let me briefly finish the tale of the lakefront, even though the portion of the story germane to baseball has been completed. The city continued to reclaim more and more of the Lake Michigan shore through the 1920s, and even a bit later. In the two images below, you can see today's coastline, and a representation of where it was in 1884, when the 180-foot homers flew out into Michigan Avenue. (Click to enlarge.) And remember that just 20 years earlier, even that green strip, beginning at the baseball grounds and going due south, consisted of water, with the railroad trestles and a breakwater between that lagoon and the lake proper.



The payoff of the story is that the new, upgraded Lake Front Park was a disaster for the team's performance, and they made it worse by changing the ground rule to create all those home runs. First the background:

The White Stockings were a great team, the very first dynasty of the National League. Yes, I know their name makes it sound like they should be predecessors of today's White Sox, but in fact they are the Chicago Cubs, an unbroken line and an unrelocated franchise from the very birth of the National League to the present day. Today they are in a championship drought that has lasted more than a century, but in those days they expected to win all the time. From 1880 until 1886, a seven-season stretch, they were the world champs in five of those seven years, and they did it with almost the same team from start to finish. Here are their main players from the first and last years of their dynasty.


1880 White Stockings
1886 White Stockings
C
Silver Flint
Silver Flint
1B
Cap Anson
Cap Anson
2B
Joe Quest
Fred Pfeffer
3B
Ned Williamson
Tom Burns
SS
Tom Burns
Ned Williamson
OF
Abner Dalrymple
Abner Dalrymple
OF
George Gore
George Gore
OF
King Kelly
King Kelly


As you can see, the only meaningful change is that Joe Quest, whose grandson Jonny would go on to become a cartoon character, was replaced in 1883 by Fred Pfeffer, who would go on to a solid career in the majors that lasted sixteen years, and who was almost the retroactive home run king himself, having hit 25 homers the year Williamson hit his 27. Ned Williamson and Tom Burns traded positions toward the end of the run, which doesn't surprise me because I read a bunch of 1884 newspapers, and they were filled with sentiments like "Our gallant lads are sure to emerge triumphant in the next season's gladitorials, for our only weakness this year was the inconsistent shortstopping of Burns." That's not really a quote, but they did write like that. Click on this thumbnail of a team portrait to see a nice artist's rendering of the World Championship 1881 team, when Quest had not yet been replaced.

As good as they were for so many years with the same personnel, there were two years when they did not win the NL pennant. I'll bet you can guess which two years they were.



Yup, it was the two years at their refurbished Lake Front Park. The first year there, 1883, they dropped to second place after three straight pennants. The next year, 1884, was the year when they changed the ground rule to allow a cheap homer, and they sank all the way to fifth (actually, I think it was a tie for fourth). As soon as they left that park, they zoomed right back into first place for two more years, during which they improved from .550 ball to approximately .750 ball without changing personnel.

To be fair, there are at least two more possible explanations for their poor showing in 1884. The first was offered by Anson in a late October interview in the Trib (below), in which he blamed the fact that the players had no discipline that year because they knew they could jump to the Union Association if the management gave them any grief over drinking and carousing. (Note also that he, too, took a shot at Burns's poor play at shortstop.)



Another, perhaps more cogent, explanation for the White Stockings' failure to win the pennant that year is that nobody was going to challenge the Providence Grays in 1884. They were the team of destiny. Old Hoss Radbourn turned in his epic 59-win season and his mound mate in the season's early going, Charlie Sweeney, was matching the Old Hoss win-for-win, even including an unheard-of 19 strikeouts in one game. Radbourn finished the season with a 1.38 ERA, Sweeney with a 1.55. The Grays allowed only 185 earned runs all year, and played better than .800 ball at home. They won the pennant by more than 10 games in a 112-game season. I just don't see where a slicker shortstop was going to be enough for the White Stockings to overcome the kind of pitching exhibition put on by Old Hoss and company.

And, let's face it, the 180-foot homers were just a bad idea.



No comments:

Post a Comment