Home Baseball 73! 61! 37?! What’s the REAL home run record, anyway?

73! 61! 37?! What’s the REAL home run record, anyway?

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Webster’s defines record as “best or most rem-“

Hold up. Did I really just try to do the “Webster’s defines” thing? You know what a record is. A record is the most. Seventy-three is the record for home runs in a season. Sixty-one used to be the record, but it isn’t anymore. Twenty-seven used to be. Nine used to be. Once upon a time, very briefly, one was the record for home runs in a season.

When Giancarlo Stanton — on pace after this weekend to hit 60 homers this year — conceded last week that he thinks of 61 as the “legitimate” record, he added a heap of intrigue to the season’s final six weeks. Just as Chris Davis did when he said, in the middle of a 2013 home run barrage, that the record is 61, in his “opinion.”

It might seem weird to consider a home run record to be subject to opinion — Webster’s defines another usage of record as “a body of known or recorded facts” — but Webster’s defines record as “best or most remarkable among other similar things.” What’s “best” if not an opinion? What’s “or” if not the insertion of choice into the matter? What’s “most remarkable” if not an acknowledgement of individual subjectivity? What’s “other similar things” except a vague hand-wave at the notion of precision?

So what’s the best or most remarkable to you? You have more choices than you might think, and your choice probably says whether you agree with Stanton.

Barry Bonds is your home run record holder, with 73

The case for: When Forbes put Pablo Escobar on its list of billionaires in the 1980s and 1990s, there was no asterisk next to his net worth because he was a murderous drug kingpin who built his wealth outside the boundaries of the law. The count was the money, and the money was real. Bonds didn’t build his record fairly, legally, morally. But there were no camera tricks involved. He wasn’t colluding with his opponents. His home runs didn’t cut any corners between home plate and over the wall. He physically dominated a league, doing things that were unprecedented and that haven’t been matched:

Think about it like this: If I say Bonds is the greatest home run hitter of all time, and you say “yeah, but he was shooting himself full of radioactive spiders,” then you’ve conceded the premise: Barry Bonds was the greatest home run hitter of all time.

The case against: You can concede that 73 is the biggest number without conceding that you’re impressed. There’s a point where an athletic accomplishment ceases to be the accomplishment it purports to be. A guy can’t put a motor on his bike and say he won the Tour de France. You don’t know how much Cream & Clear helped Bonds, but the fact that these substances coincided with the greatest home run performance of all time strongly suggests that these substances powered the greatest home run performance of all time. It’s bad enough sometimes to feel like we’re rooting for laundry; rooting for pharmacists is a step too far. So …

Sammy Sosa is your home run record holder, with 66

The case for: Sosa hit 66 in 1998, when only admitted PED user Mark McGwire hit more. Sosa hit 63 in 1999, when again only McGwire hit more. Sosa hit 64 in 2001, when only admitted PED user Barry Bonds hit more. Nobody has ever hit more home runs in a season without the use of PEDs than Sosa hit.

This is a technically true statement.

The case against: That technically true statement elides the question of whether Sosa ever hit that many home runs in a season without the use of PEDs, a question to which almost everybody agrees the answer is “uh, Sosa juiced.” He was on a list of players who tested positive in the “anonymous” survey testing of 2003.

However, “There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives,” current commissioner Rob Manfred said last year. “If, in fact, there were test results like that today on a player and we tried to discipline them, there’d be a grievance over it. It would be vetted, tried, resolved. We didn’t do that. Those issues and ambiguities were never resolved because we knew they didn’t matter.” The results were also never supposed to be public; a judge would admonish you to ignore the testimony you just heard.

There’s something rotten about using this test to convict Sosa, but sometimes life is rotten. In your heart and mind, you think Sosa cheated, too. No matter how you know it, you can’t be any more impressed by his pharmacist than you were by Bonds’ pharmacist. So …

Roger Maris is your home run record holder, with 61

The case for: Take out Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, and you have Maris, the only player in almost 150 years of Major League Baseball who hit 61 home runs without being implicated in a drug conspiracy. Most of us grew up knowing that Maris was the record holder, and the only things that have rebutted that since are distasteful and not something you want to reward.

The case against: Look, the idea of the “asterisk” hasn’t aged well. Commissioner Ford Frick’s invocation of it has come to look cheap and petty, an unwillingness to share any part of Babe Ruth’s legacy with Maris. Frick was conflicted because of his friendship with Ruth, and anyway, we’ve seen enough generations of baseball fans argue that baseball was better in “their” day to see in this a pattern of generational ungenerosity. Maris should have been celebrated without ambivalence from the commissioner’s office.

That said: He totally took more games to do it, and by the “other similar things” clause, we have a real point of dispute. If you made the baseball season 400 games long, Whit Merrifield would hit 62 homers. I imagine that Maris, if he were alive to see that, might raise a fuss. So …

Babe Ruth is your home run record holder, with 60

The case for: It isn’t his fault that the season was only 154 games when he played. Sixty homers in 154 games is, mathematically, pretty obviously more impressive than 61 homers in 162 games.

The case against: If the point is to find the greatest athletic achievement, it’s hard to take anything that happened under segregation seriously. It explicitly protected players such as Ruth from facing the best possible competition. This isn’t just a numbers thing, like pointing out that the population pool that major league pitchers come from is something like 10 times the pool that it was in 1927. This is simpler and more sinister: The best opponents weren’t allowed to face Ruth. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist; they were prohibited because they might have made him look bad. So …

Matt Williams is your home run record holder, with 43

The case for: It isn’t his fault that the 1994 season was only 115 games. Williams hit a home run every 2.60 games. Maris hit one every 2.64.

The case against: “Per game” is the wrong denominator if we want the most remarkable achievement. A batter can bat three times a game, or he can bat six, due to circumstances outside his control. Again, we could get Merrifield to 62 in 162 games if we just made games 34 innings, and it wouldn’t make Merrifield any more impressive. (Note: Merrifield is an elite and successful athlete and is very impressive.) We could also get Merrifield to 62 if we, say, brought all the fences in to 260 feet and juiced the ball and replaced wooden bats with aluminum. That also wouldn’t make Merrifield any more impressive. For impressiveness, the context should matter, too. Williams hit a ton of home runs in a season in which everybody hit a ton of home runs. It was impressive, but it would have been far more impressive if he had done it in 1968. So …

Dave Kingman is your home run record holder, with 37

The case for: Kingman hit a home run in 7.3 percent of his plate appearances in a season, in 1976, when the average hitter homered in just over 1.5 percent of his plate appearances. At 4.8 times the league’s rate, Kingman out-homered his league at a higher ratio than any post-integration player who batted enough to qualify for the batting title. Stanton is hitting home runs a little bit more frequently than Kingman did, but he is playing in an era in which every hitter — even Merrifield — is hitting home runs far more frequently because the ball is probably juiced! (Or the seams are flatter.)

So there you go: Kingman’s 37 home runs, against integrated competition, with (to the best of our knowledge) no chemical enhancement, in close to a full season, are your home run record. You’re very weird. But I’m glad you have something that makes you go “wow!”


When things aren’t clear — like here, where integration, length of season, steroids, different ballparks, juiced balls and any number of other factors might affect how difficult it is to hit home runs — we sometimes say, “It’s not a black-and-white issue. It’s gray.” But I don’t think that’s quite right. I suspect that one of these achievements really is your home run record; you’re not unclear. You just have a different belief than I might have. This isn’t a gray area. It’s more like a zebra, where lots of black and white lines coexist.

This is good, and it’s good for Stanton’s chase, and it’s good for those of us who want a little intrigue in the final six weeks of the season. There is room in baseball for a lot of records. There is room for a lot of amazing achievements that are worth celebrating, remembering, writing about 41 years later. I don’t expect to convince anybody who isn’t already convinced that Stanton will be the “true” home run record holder if he hits 62 bombs this year or to convince anybody that he won’t be. If he does it, a lot of people will remember it as something incredible, something unprecedented in its own way. To remember things is why we bother keeping records at all.

“The record is the record,” Stanton said of 73. He was right.

“But personally, I do [think 61 is the record],” he added. He was right.



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