This article was written by Bob Rives
He played 850 miles from the nearest big league park in a part of New Mexico best known for alien spacecraft. On the road he drove the team bus. And at home he got up early to work in one of two Texaco service stations he owned.
That was 1954, the year Roger Bannister became the first to run a mile in less than four minutes and when Hank Aaron started his own record-breaking major league career. It was also the year that separated Joe Willis Bauman, first baseman for the Roswell Rockets, from all the thousands of men who played baseball professionally. For in that year Bauman hit 72 home runs, becoming the first in history with more than 70 in a single season.[fn]Joe had 337 career home runs and would have had one more except for an umpire who lost sight of a ball crossing the fence. “I can’t call it a home run because I didn’t see it leave the park,” the official told the incredulous Joe. “But I saw you swing so it’s a strike.”[/fn]
Nor was that all. He set two other all-time records in 1954. His 456 total bases in 498 times at bat produced a slugging percentage of .916. He also became the first to hit 50 or more home runs in three successive seasons. And if that cake needed any icing, he batted .400 that summer.
Still, it was the 72 home runs that stood out. No one ever had hit 70, although Joe Hauser and Bob Crues both had hit 69. A late-season flurry that included 13 in the last 14 games of a 138-game schedule–three in the season-ending doubleheader–gave Bauman what many thought an unbeatable record. So it was, until Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, Bauman’s record having stood for 49 years, far longer than did Bannister’s mile run record.
Born April 16, 1922, in Welch, a tiny Oklahoma community 21 miles from Mickey Mantle’s hometown of Commerce, Bauman grew up in Oklahoma City with his dad, Joe Sr., and mom, Tennessee. There, in a strictly run home that featured spankings and doses of castor oil for misbehavior, he learned discipline, cars and sports. His dad was maintenance supervisor for Railway Express, a kind of ancestor to UPS and Federal Express. Bauman worked there as a kid, scraping billboard-like ads–often for Camel cigarettes–off the sides of green delivery trucks and replacing them with new ones every month.
He also was raised to play ball. His dad helped Joe, a natural right-hander, learn to both hit and field as a lefty. Jack Baer, a teammate of Bauman’s and at times an opponent, was the longtime baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma. He described Bauman’s switch from right to left hand one of the most amazing changes he ever had seen.
At Capitol Hill High School, alma mater of pitching star Allie Reynolds, Joe played football, basketball and baseball. In the summer he worked with later big league outfielder Dale Mitchell delivering bills for Oklahoma Natural Gas Company and played on its baseball team. The Gassers’ manager was Roy Deal whose son, Ellis, became a major league pitcher.
Graduating from high school in 1941, Bauman immediately signed a professional contract after promising his dad he also would attend the University of Oklahoma. Joe’s brother already was there en route to becoming a nuclear engineer.
Bert Niehoff, family friend and longtime player, manager and scout, persuaded the Baumans that Joe’s future would be best with an independent team. Thus for $100 a month and 25% of the selling price if his contract were sold, the 19-year-old reported to Little Rock, Arkansas, of the Southern Association. There he confronted a power hitter’s worst nightmare. It was 500 feet from home to center field and 380 feet to right. But fence distances turned out not to be important. He batted 10 times at Little Rock without any hits before being sent to Newport, Arkansas, of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. He roomed there with future Hall of Famer George Kell but hit just .215, while his 6’5″ body produced only three home runs.
When World War II started, Bauman moved to Wichita to work for Beech Aircraft and play on its baseball team. By late 1942, he was back in Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, but this time at a Naval Air Station. There he taught physical fitness and played baseball, commuting in a Model A Ford from Oklahoma City where he lived with his new wife and high school sweetheart, Dorothy, who was working in an aircraft plant.
While Bauman’s fame would come from home runs, it was a noted singles hitter, Raymond (Rip) Radcliff, who most influenced him during the war. Before Radcliff entered the Navy, he had played in more than 1,000 American League games, compiling a lifetime batting average of .311. But he averaged just four home runs a year. Still, at Norman, he was the star young players listened to, and Bauman soaked up his advice about how and when to swing and how to read pitches and pitchers.
After the Navy, Joe found himself the property of the Boston Braves and reported to spring camp in 1946. So many veterans were spilling out of the service that the Braves ran out of uniforms for the returnees. But Bauman survived and was sent to Amarillo, Texas, of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League. It was a good stop. Fans had hoarded cash during the war and were thrusting it through the wire mesh backstops into the hands of players who homered – maybe $25 for a run of the mill four-bagger to as much as $250 for a game-winner. His first year’s league-leading 48 homers produced so much cash that Joe bought a used Buick. He also batted in 159 runs and hit .301.
But the following spring ended in disappointment. Bauman believed his performance at Amarillo merited promotion. The Braves did not. He was returned to Texas, masking his dismay by hitting .350 and 38 homers. That earned the move up. In 1948 he was assigned first to Milwaukee, where he played in one game–and was given the temporary nickname “Peony”–then to Hartford, Connecticut, in the Class A Eastern League.
Hartford was one of the few places where a discouraging word about Bauman found its way into print. At mid-season, Bill Lee, sports editor of the Hartford Courant, wrote: “Last year in the West Texas-New Mexico League, the big first baseman batted .350 and hit 38 home runs. He knocked in 127 runs. What has Bauman done in the Eastern League? His batting average is .265. He has hit only six home runs and knocked in 32. He may have compiled a half-way mark for the number of runners left stranded.”
When Ray Sanders, who had played five seasons with the Cardinals and Braves, joined Hartford, his first night was perfect–a single, two doubles and a triple. That sent Joe to the bench for much of the rest of the year, although he did manage a total of 10 home runs and a batting average of .275 in 98 games.
Frustrated when the Braves offered too small a salary for 1949, Bauman told them, “I can make more money selling 27-inch shoelaces on the streets of Oklahoma City.” Boston decided to let him test the theory. Joe instead took a $500-a-month job with a semipro team in Elk City, Oklahoma, where he promised manager Rip Collins he would stay at least one full season. He adhered to that, even when the Braves called to offer him a job at Class AA Atlanta.
For three summers Joe led the Elks to the national semipro tournament in Wichita and with teammate Jack Riley opened a highly successful Texaco station on US 66. But when the Elk City oil boom sagged and support for the baseball team dimmed with it, Joe was invited to Artesia, New Mexico, in the Class C Longhorn League. An Artesia team official had recruited Joe in the drive of the service station. Bauman agreed to go if he could buy his contract for $250 after one full season.
In Artesia Bauman led the league with 50 home runs and 157 RBI his first summer, then hit a league-best 53 homers and scored 135 runs the second. He also took over as manager in mid-summer, a job he did not like and rarely discusses.
With 8,000 residents, Artesia was the smallest city in the Longhorn League, and Joe wanted back in the service station business. Unable to find one he liked for sale in Artesia, he looked north. There was Roswell, three times as large, and where his hitting services were in much demand. He paid Artesia the $250 and moved the 40 miles, eventually owning two Texaco stations and a tire distribution business while continuing to play.
Although Joe was a self-professed slow starter, the home runs soon were pouring in 1954. And he wasn’t simply hitting baseballs. He was punishing them. No one ever measured the distance, but folklore soon began describing 500-foot arcs. In September even the Associated Press was moved to report, “Joe Bauman drove in five runs, three on a tremendous home run that sailed into the adjacent rodeo grounds and disrupted proceedings there.”
But no one had ever hit 70 home runs, and with 14 games remaining in the season, he needed 10 simply to tie Hauser and his former Amarillo teammate, Bob Crues. The outlook was cloudy until August 31 when Joe hit four in one game.
“The pressure really mounted then. There were four or five photographers shooting every time I went to the plate. They’d be snapping while I was hitting. It’s bound to affect you and it did me,” Bauman told Bart Ripp of the Albuquerque Journal. Life Magazine, the nation’s top photojournalism outlet, and Sports Illustrated assigned photographers to record every swing along with the local lensmen.
Mounting pressure or not, two games later he hit his 69th to tie the record against Ralph Atkisson, Midland’s pitching ace. “It felt like they lifted a piano off my back,” he said. The game stopped, fans thrust bills through the backstop, and Joe even handed one of the dollars to Midland manager Rudy Briner who had asked for one. The newspaper said fans’ roars could be heard two miles away in downtown Roswell.
With some irony Bauman hit his record-breaking 70th at Artesia, the city he left for Roswell. In the first game of a doubleheader, his manager, Pat Stasey, moved him to the leadoff spot to give him an extra time or two at bat. Then Jose Gallardo, a 19-year-old Cuban rookie, tried an 86 mph fastball with the count 2-2 on Joe’s first trip to the plate. Bauman drove it over the 349-foot mark. Joe said fans gave him $500 through the backstop. Floyd Economindes, the Artesia catcher, remembers it as $800. The 71st and 72nd home runs came off men who were not normally pitchers in the otherwise meaningless second game. Both Artesia and Roswell were saving their mound staffs for the league playoffs, which began the next day.
Tom Jordan, a former major league catcher, veteran minor league manager and scout, had set several of the hitting records broken by Joe. He would serve as Bauman’s manager in 1955 and was among those who predicted Joe’s record would be eternal. He said small ballparks, prevailing winds that blew balls toward the outfields, tired-armed six-man pitching staffs and a shortage of left-handed hurlers gave all Longhorn League hitters an advantage. He believed that if the record ever was broken, “it will be out here in this country.”
Why was Joe so successful? Even Bauman has no clear answer. He always practiced his swing, often in the room while on the road. “That summer the ball looked this big,” he says, circling an area the size of a ripe cantaloupe with his hands. That he had a slight uppercut was a certainty. Economindes, the opposing catcher, knew it, as did Jim Waldrip, a pitcher who both played with Bauman and against him. He also got extra speed on his bat by grasping the end in the palm of his hand, so much so that his hand had an unusual callous, Waldrip recalls. And he was a notorious pull-hitter. Waldrip said any runner on first and the first base coach always were reminded to never turn their backs on Joe at the plate. While opposing teams tried versions of the Ted Williams Shift against him, he simply hit the ball so hard it went over or through the defense. His experience also had to help. He was 32 in 1954, a dozen years older than many opposing pitchers who still were coming to grips with the game’s essentials.
Regardless of why, his record earned no major league calls although San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League did contact him. But Bauman liked Roswell and agreed to the same salary for 1955. He hit 46 home runs and batted .336.
A year later Bauman was ready to retire. The Longhorn and neighboring West Texas-New Mexico League folded. Ten cities from the two formed a new Class B league, the Southwestern. Over the winter, Joe injured his ankle falling in a snowstorm, and didn’t want surgery or to play during the summer. But fans persuaded him to come back and he did–until June 12. Then, he says, pain in the ankle was too much. He had hit 17 home runs in 52 games but was batting just .287. Friend and teammate Waldrip believes Joe also was tired. Bauman had complained to him that he was having trouble seeing the ball.
Bauman often says he was content with his career and earnings. He had made more money than many major leaguers from his contracts, cash pressed on him by fans for home runs, and his businesses. Still, Leo Banks wrote in Sports Illustrated after interviewing him: “Looking back, Bauman says he made several mistakes, especially spending three years of his prime in semipro ball, which might have kept him from ever stepping to the plate in the big leagues . . . He regrets not pushing himself to see if he could play in the majors. ‘I still have that question in my mind: Could I have done it or not?’” Joe said, according to the Banks article.
Regardless of the what-ifs, Bauman impressed everyone around him. Newspaper writers often called him “the gentleman first sacker” because of his reputation for kindness. Waldrip remembers than when a player hit a homer, a local meat-packer gave him a ham. Joe was decimating New Mexico’s hog population in 1954, but he didn’t keep most of the meat. He gave it to other players, often young Cubans whose salaries made it tough to keep food on the table.
After baseball, Joe operated his service station and tire businesses, then joined his father-in-law in a retail liquor store in Hobbs, New Mexico. He later became sales manager for a beer distributor, retiring from that job in 1985, but continuing to live in Roswell.
As Banks concludes in his story, “the memory of the summer of 1954 is sweet. ‘There’s a sense of pride in it,’ says Bauman. “It was just the minor leagues, but 72 home runs was never done before. Hell, it’s a record, it’s something.’”
Interviews with Joe Bauman, Dorothy Bauman, Jim Waldrip, Floyd Economindes, Tom Jordan, and Jack Baer.
Oklahoma City Directory for 1930
Albuquerque Journal, April 1979 and May 1994
Amarillo Daily News, August 1991
Atlanta Journal, September 1954
Artesia Dispatch, August 1954
Hartford Courant, July 1948
Life Magazine, September 1954
Sports Illustrated, August 1991
The Roswell Record, April-September, 1954 and August 1991
The Sporting News, August 1954 and June 1956
The Minor League Register published by Baseball America, Inc.
Joe Willis Bauman
April 16, 1922 at Welch, OK (US)
September 20, 2005 at Roswell, NM (US)
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