Four Home Runs: A Post For Baseball Nerds

May 9, 2012

Last night, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamiliton hit four home runs in a single game, tying a Major League record and becoming only the 16th player in the history of the game to accomplish the feat.  This actually marked the second accomplishment of such magnitude of this young baseball season.  Only two and half weeks ago, on April 21, Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched the twenty-first perfect game in Major League Baseball history.

Baseball has three in-game individual achievements that rank as the rarest feats in the game — in all of sports, really — one for hitting, one for pitching, and one for fielding:  The four-homer game, the perfect game, and the unassisted triple play (where a single fielder manages to record all three outs for an inning in a single play).  This last, like the four homer game, has happened sixteen times in MLB history.  Think about that for a moment:  There have been a couple of hundred thousand games played in the history of baseball — regular season and postseason — with eighteen batters in the combined line-ups, and eighteen half-innings needing to be completed.  And from that we get a TOTAL of sixteen four-homer games and sixteen unassisted triple plays.  By that reckoning, pitching a perfect game is a relatively common occurrence.  Not only have there been more of them (twenty-one) but there are fewer opportunities per game.  As I say, with the homers and fielding play, there are eighteen opportunities in each regulation game.  Only two guys — the two starting pitchers — have an opportunity to pitch a perfect game.  And still, perfect games are incredibly rare.

You might think that feats so rare would only be achieved by superstars.  But no:  The history of the game is littered with unheralded players catching lightning in a bottle for a moment or a few glorious hours.  The list of pitchers who have thrown perfect games includes Hall of Fame inductees Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Hunter, as well as future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Roy Halliday.  On the other hand, it also includes pitchers like Charlie Robertson, whose 1922 perfect game for the Chicago White Sox was one of the few bright spots in a career that ended with a won-lost record of 49 and 80, and Len Barker, who did manage a couple of decent seasons, including 1981, the year he pitched his gem for the Cleveland Indians, but who also ended his career with a losing record.  Don Larson, whose perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in game 5 of the 1956 World Series remains the single most heralded individual game achievement in baseball history, was for the rest of his career a pitcher of middling achievements.  He never won more than eleven games in a single season (though one year he did lose twenty-one), nor did he ever lead the league in any positive statistical category (his 21 losses led the league in 1954).

The history of four-home-run games is much the same.  Yes, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Chuck Klein, and Ed Delahanty all hit four homers in a game during the course of Hall of Fame careers.  And several others who had four-homer games went on to have excellent careers. Gil Hodges, Rocky Colavito, Shawn Green, and Carlos Delgado were quality players, perennial all-stars.  And Hamilton himself is certainly an excellent player who may someday find his way to Cooperstown. But what about Mark Whiten, whose four home runs on September 7, 1993 represent nearly four percent of his career total?  Or Pat Seerey, a part-time outfielder for the Cleveland Indians and (at the time of his big game) the Chicago White Sox, who hit a total of 86 career home runs and never managed to hit over .237 in his brief and undistinguished career?  How do we explain his presence on the four-homer list?  Babe Ruth never did it.  Neither did Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams.  During all those years when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were filling themselves with Human Growth Hormone and hitting home runs at historic (with an asterisk) rates, none of them ever did it.  But Pat Seerey did?  Really?

Unassisted triple plays are certainly the most democratic of the three major achievements.  Of the sixteen players who have turned the trick, none — NONE — is in the Hall of Fame (although current Major Leaguer Troy Tulowitzki — April 29th, 2007, seventh inning, against the Atlanta Braves — might well be on his way).  Thus, the list of players who have recorded unassisted triple plays includes such giants of the game as Bill Wambsganss, Ernie Padgett, Glenn Wright, Jimmy Cooney, Mickey Morandini, and Randy Velarde.  I’m a devoted baseball fan, a student of the game, and I had to look up four of those six guys in the Baseball Encyclopedia. The triple play is the ultimate instance of being in the right place at the right time.  Unassisted triple plays happen in the blink of an eye, always with at least two men on base and (historically speaking) always on a line drive hit directly at a middle infielder (thirteen of the sixteen have been turned by shortstops or second basemen).  The infielder must catch the ball, tag a base and then tag a runner (or tag a runner and then tag a base).  It is an act reflex, of instinct, and, yes, of good fortune.

Why have I spent so much time on these baseball accomplishments?  Because to me they point out one of the great things about baseball.  In most major American team sports — football and basketball come to mind immediately — the big individual accomplishments belong almost entirely to the biggest stars.  The running backs who rush for more than two hundred yards in a game, the quarterbacks who throw for six touchdowns, the forwards or guards who score fifty or sixty points — these are the guys who start every game, who have the ball in their hands most often and who are expected to do big things.  Baseball is different.  Every starting player on a team gets his turn at-bat, every pitcher in the rotation has his turn to take a shot at glory, every fielder on the team might be in position to make the big play.  Even in the playoffs and World Series, any player can emerge as a hero.  This is why in the annals of baseball history, names like Mays and Mantle, Ruth and Koufax, can be found alongside names like Larson and Dent and Lemke.  Yes, today’s game is filled with overpaid, spoiled athletes (not to mention overpaid, spoiled owners).  But every afternoon, every night, players take the field to play a game that might carry any one of them to baseball immortality.  Every player is just four at-bats away from being the next Pat Seerey, every pitcher is just nine innings away from being the next Charley Robertson, every fielder is only one line drive away from being the next Mickey Morandini.

And if that’s not worth playing for, I don’t know what is.



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