The fun thing about baseball is the history of it all. The statistics are a big part of that and allows a fan like me to compare today’s players to the greats of yesterday like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and that big fat guy. What’s his name? Oh, yeah. Babe Ruth.
The one thing we cannot do with any conviction is compare players of different eras who played in different leagues. Everyone calls Babe Ruth, for example, the “Home Run King.” Not even close. Even within the Major Leagues Ruth is far-outpaced by Henry “The Hammer” Aaron. Yes, I am leaving out Barry Bonds. If you follow baseball (or the news), you know why. Cheater.
But even the Hammer doesn’t have the absolute best number in home runs with a huge 755 HRs in 21 seasons played. Ahead of him is Sadaharu Oh of the Japanese Leagues with an incredible 868 homers in 22 seasons. Unofficially, however, because of the lack of records and only anecdotal evidence for estimates, Josh Gibson is the unofficial record holder with perhaps near 1000 homers.
But, detractors say, Gibson never played against the great pitchers of the Major Leagues. How can he compare? He may not have played against Dizzy Dean but he did play against Satchel Paige…and Ray Brown…and Bullet Rogan.
What would a Home Run Derby have been like with Aaron, Mays, Oh, Gibson and Ruth have been like?
They were such different hitters. Aaron believed in hitting a pitcher’s best pitch. He didn’t wait for a bad pitch, he punished a pitcher’s best pitch. He had the eyesight to see that pitches movement as it came toward him.
Tony Gwynn, the great Padres hitter, talked about seeing the seams of the baseball and “picking up the rotation.” Reggie Jackson (Oakland A’s and NY Yankees) said, “I just wait until something white gets close to me and I swing.”
Sadaharu Oh was all about consistency. He had a phenomenal swing in his days with the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants. It wasn’t the bone-crushing power of a Gibson or Aaron, it was dead-on contact with the exact spot on the bat.
The great Ted Williams (Boston Red Sox) said, “The hardest thing in all of sports is hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely.” Sadaharu Oh did that time after time after time.
But then there was Josh Gibson. Raw, unmitigated power combined with an incredible technique. If the technique failed, the power made up for it. In one game, he was fooled by an outside change-up. Gibson finished the swing with a one-handed backhand swing and drove the ball out of the park. He was also the only player to hit a fair ball out of the “House that Ruth Built.”
Now Cal Ripken, Jr. is one of my favorite ballplayers of all time. He never had the power of a Gibson or the technique of Oh but, in the 1991 All-Star Home Run Derby, he could have stood proudly beside them all.
The 1991 season was probably Ripken’s best individual season ever. By the All-Star break, he was hitting .348 with 21 doubles, two triples, 18 homers and a .405 on-base percentage. That night in Toronto, 24 years ago, Ripken won the Derby in pulse-pounding fashion. He crushed 12 homers on 22 swings.
The player in 2nd place was the New York Yankee’s Paul O’Neill with only…five. Take that, Yankees.
"I just remembered telling myself to slow everything down, to take a nice easy swing," Ripken told a reporter. "And the first one went out of the park."
As the contest got started, it was clear that Cal was “in the zone” and he brought all of us along with him. With each swing and the sound of the crack of the bat, everyone was on their feet. I was sitting in my living room, watching Cal drive out seven in a row. Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter was waving a white towel at him, as if to cool Cal down.
"I didn't want to take time out to analyze anything,” Ripken said. “You just want to go with the flow. I hit a couple of balls off the upper deck, and I'd never been up there before. It was very cool seeing the reaction of my teammates. There was genuine excitement."
The next night, in the ninth of Ripken’s 19 All-Star Games, Ripken stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the third inning after Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs, both future Hall-of-Famers, had singled.
The guy that Ripken faced was his old friend and former Oriole teammate, Dennis Martinez. Ripken was expecting Martinez’ fastball. Martinez knew that Ripken knew that a fastball was in order with a 2-1 count.
Instead, Martinez let fly with a breaking ball. Ripken was fooled but adjusted and—maybe not one-handed—drove the ball to centerfield over Tony Gwynn’s head for a 3-run homer.
He had won the Home Run Derby on Monday night and, on Tuesday night, was named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game. Only one other guy did that. That year, Ripken won his second American League MVP.
I love this game.