Hitting leadoff homers

This article was written by John C. Tattersall

This article was published in the 1973 Baseball Research Journal


A look at the phenomenon of home runs to lead off a game.

Editor’s note: The statistics below were believed to be correct and up-to-date at the time.

 

When Pete Rose opened the fifth game of the 1972 World Series at Oakland with a home run, it marked the 11th time that a leadoff batter in the World Series has slugged a homer as the first hitter in the game for his club.

Oddly enough, the first time the trick was performed in Series play was in the second game of the modern championship games at Boston’s old Huntington Avenue Grounds in 1903. Leading off for the Boston Pilgrims on October 2 of that year, Pat Dougherty tagged a pitch by Pittsburgh’s Sam Leever for a fourbagger as the first Boston player to appear in the game.

Pete Rose is an old hand at this not too frequent display of power by a leadoff man, having blasted a four-bagger as an opening shot in regular season play no less than 11 times for the Redlegs. He is one of eight major leaguers past and present, who batted a leadoff home run and the run proved to be the only score in a 1-0 victory for his club. Pete turned the trick in the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader at New York’s old Polo Grounds on September 2, 1963, leading off against Jay Hook of the Mets.

Since the National League began operating in 1876, a leadoff man has batted a home run as the first batter up in the game for his club a total of 1519 times in the majors through 1972, according to best available research.

The feat was performed twice in the first season of the NL and 772 more times in the senior circuit as indicated by the following league tables:

League Leadoff Hrs
National (1876-1972) 774
American (1901-1972) 695
Am. Assn.(1882-1891) 33
Federal (1914-1915) 10
Players (1890) 7
Union Assn. (1884) 0

 

As might be expected, most of the leadoff home runs were hit in the1l950s and 1960s. Eddie Yost, the all-time leader with 28 opening roundtrippers, came from this period, playing with the Senators, Tigers, and Dodgers. On April 26, 1950, at Shibe Park, Philadelphia, Eddie hit his initial leadoff homer off Bobby Shantz.   Ten years later, on September 25, 1960, at Detroit, now playing in a Tiger uniform, Eddie batted his 28th and what would be his final leadoff home run. This time it was against an Athletic pitcher of a different locality, Johnny Kucks of the then Kansas City A’s.

The Yost record is in no immediate danger. Lou Brock, the talented Cardinal outfielder and leadoff man, has slugged 21 leadoff homers `to lead the active players in this department. Second to Yost in the all-time listing is a player long since forgotten, who batted 22 lead-off fourbaggers in the period from 1888 through 1902 with the old Chicago White Stockings (known as the Orphans through most of the 1890s) and Washington’s American League Senators. In case you don’t recall the name of the famous oldtime. 19th century outfielder, it was James E. Ryan, familiarly known to the fans of his day as Jimmy.

Jimmy Ryan batted 118 home runs during his major league career which actually covered the period from 1886 through 1903, but it was not until April 20, 1888, at Indianapolis, then a National League city, that he opened a game with a leadoff homer.   He batted 3 more leadoff home runs in 1888 and the following year Ryan batted 6 leadoff homers to set a National League record that has not been broken to this- day. So, for the record of “Most Leadoff Home Runs, Season, National League”, you have to go way back to dig up Jimmy Ryan’s long-resistant record of 6. As a matter of further fact, his-mark of 10 leadoff home runs in two seasons was not equaled in the majors until Felipe Alou playing in a Brave uniform at Milwaukee in 1965 and Atlanta in 1966 batted 10 leadoff homers, 5 in each season, to tie the Ryan two-season mark. Alou, incidentally, holds the three-year mark, 15– with 5 each in l965-66-67.

Postwar followers of the Philadelphia Athletics will happily remember their agile and colorful shortstop, Eddie Joost, who also enjoyed a knack of batting leadoff homers. He batted 19 such blows fro the A’s between 1948 and 53, and in 1948, Eddie finally tied the Ryan mark by leading off with home runs in 6 games. This American League record has since been equaled three times, most recently in 1970 by both Tommy Harper, then of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Bert Campaneris with Oakland. Yost himself batted 6 leadoff homers in 1959 to share in this most unusual seasonal home run record.

One more point about Jimmy Ryan’s record of yesteryear — he batted a leadoff homer most times on his home grounds, 13, a record subsequently tied by Rank Bauer of the Yankees in the 1952-58 period. Yost’s 16 leadoff homers on the road are far and away the record for road homers. Ryan holds another record all by himself – most leadoff home runs for one club — Chicago NL 20. Yost batted 19 with the Senators (plus 9 with Detroit), Dick McAuliffe has hit 19 for the Tigers and Eddie Joost batted 19 with the Athletics.

Oh yes, how was 1972 for our leadoff homer specialists?  Well, it was an extremely sparse year, the weakest since 1949. In the American circuit, only 11 leadoff homers were recorded, with 4 being struck by Red Socker Tommy Harper to bring his lifetime total to 16. The National leadoff hitters slugged only 6 homers to open their games, the lowest mark for the senior circuit swatters since 1956. The total of 17 for the two majors was a tremendous decline from the 46 batted in 1971, when the American artists scored their most impressive all-time record total of 36. National leadoff batters scored their greatest home run year in 1965 when they scored 28 leadoff homers. The National’s 1972 total of 6 included 2 by Bobby Bonds, League leader, upping his lifetime mark to 17.

Getting back to that great year of 1889 when Jimmy Ryan scored his record-making 6 for the Chicago Nationals, a total of 24 leadoff homers were hit, 14 by National and 10 by American Association leadoff hitters. That vintage year was the best recorded until 1929 when a total of 25 were hit, 14 in the National and 11 in the American. This gives you a good idea of just how weak the leadoff home run hitters were in 1972 with only 17.

A couple of more interesting sidelights on leadoff home run hitting. There have been 13 instances where leadoff batters have displayed their amazing specialty in two successive games. The first time such an event is recorded was 70 years ago in 1892 when a 25-year old St. Louis National outfielder by name of John Charles Crooks, who batted a total of 7 home runs that season, combined two of them on May- 10 and 11 to give his team a quick 1-0 lead in both games. The game of May 10th was the second game of a twinbill at Philadelphia and the next day, Crooks repeated the performance at Baltimore, so his record also covers batting successive leadoff homers in two different parks.

Felipe Alou is the only major leaguer ever to hit leadoff home runs in two successive games twice — he did it on July 26-27, 1965 at Houston for the Milwaukee Braves, and duplicated on August 9-10, 1966, this time as an Atlanta Brave, when he opened successive games off Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers with homers at Atlanta Stadium. That probably has to be one of the greatest individual efforts in the history of the leadoff homers, hitting successive first-up fourbaggers against two of the outstanding pitchers of the day.

Another heroic feat was performed by Harry Hooper of the Red Sox who celebrated Memorial Day 1913 by hitting leadoff homers in both morning and afternoon games of the holiday twinbill.   The PM home run came off Walter Johnson and stood up for a 1-0 win for the BoSox.

Then, of course, there is always the possibility of the first two or three batters in a game hitting home runs.

Well, the first three batters in a game have never hit successive home runs. But there have, been 16 instances where the first two batters have banged back-to-back game-opening fourbaggers.

The first time two hitters battered an opposing pitcher at game’s opening for a double-homer production was in an American Association game at Boston’s long-gone Congress St. Grounds way, way back on June 25, 1891. Tom Brown a 31-year-old Englishman, born in Liverpool, batted a home run off a Baltimore pitcher who went by the quaint nickname of “Sadie” McMahon.  After this dubious greeting, up came one of the period’s more colorful players, Scrappy Bill Joyce, then in his sophomore major league season, who slugged another fourbagger. For the first time in history the first two batters to come to the plate in a game had hit home runs.

The feat would be duplicated 12 more times between then and 1969. Then the real pros entered the act. The 14th, 15th, and 16th times this back-to-back opening gambit was performed were all by the same combination – one Pete Rose, of whom we have previously heard, followed immediately by Bobby Tolan, on behalf of Cincinnati. This combo came through on April 7, 1969 in the opening game of the season, with the pitcher being none other than Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Four months later, on August 17, 1969, again at Cincinnati, the pair gave a rough greeting to Steve Blass of the Pirates. Finally, on June 29, 1970, the pair took the show on the road to Houston’s Astrodome and there blasted Don Wilson of the Astros to a quick 2-0 deficit. The Rose-Tolan pair is the only duo ever to repeat this remarkable leadoff effort.

So this little study of leadoff home run hitting ends pretty much where it started — with Peter Edward Rose, the Cincinnati Red who is famed not only for his steady display of hustle, vim, and vigor, but also for his powerful leadoff bat.

But don’t forget Edward Frederick Yost, the premier leadoff home run hitter of all time, followed by a 19th century great, James B. Ryan, with our own period’s Louis Clark Brock and Felipe Rojas Alou.

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