This article was written by Terrence L. Huge
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
On the theory that everyone has a little bit of the New York Knights in him, the motion picture character of Roy Hobbs, alias Robert Redford, in “The Natural” can be regarded as one of the most pleasant surprises of the 1984 season. His feat of leading a cellar-dwelling team to the pennant brings to mind another fictitious long-ball hitter of the 1950s – Joe Hardy of the Washington Senators in “Damn Yankees.” As Joe Boyd exclaimed before selling out to devilish Mr. Applegate, “If we had just one long-ball hitter-just one . . . . Wham! I’d sell my soul for one long-ball hitter.”
But are such dramatic reversals – from last place to first place – just fantasies? Major league baseball bears not one single example of a twentieth-century team finishing last in a given season and attaining first place the following year. But there do exist a select handful of almost as dramatic reversals from which we shall attempt to uncover the real-life Joe Hardys and Roy Hobbses.
For starters, let’s look at the records of Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox of 1966-67:
Year B.A. HR RBI Pos.
1966 .278 16 80 9
1967 .326 44 121 1
The 1966 season could only be described as frustrating and tumultuous for Yaz and the ninth-place Bosox. Manager Billy Herman pointedly accused Yastrzemski of not putting out and openly expressed the desire to trade Carl. Those trade rumors persisted after season’s end even though Dick Wilhams was named to manage the 1967 team.
Captain Carl worked out vigorously during the off-season under the tutelage of Gene Berde, former coach of the Hungarian Olympic boxing team. In spring training the great Ted Williams worked with Yaz on hitting for power. Carl was ready for the new season – that “Impossible Dream” campaign. However, the early part of the `67 season was inauspicious enough, with Yaz batting a modest .304 and the Red Sox at 24-23 early in June. Then during a midweek series in Chicago, White Sox manager Eddie Stanky publicized his notorious and derogatory description of Yaz as “an all-star from the neck down.” That did it! Carl responded with a 6-for-9 doubleheader, hitting a home run his last at-bat and tipping his cap to Stanky in the dugout while rounding third base. Yaz went on to Triple Crown accomplishments that had a distinct impact on his team’s success – an American League pennant.
A second example involves Harmon Killebrew and the 1968-69 Minnesota Twins. Consider their records:
Year B.A. HR RBI Pos.
1968 .210 17 40 7
1969 .276 49 140 1
The 1968 season became known as “the year of the pitcher” – the same year that Bob Gibson established his remarkable ERA record of 1.12. Hitters were so dominated that the pitching mound was thereafter lowered by five inches and the strike zone was shortened.
Killebrew, perennially a slow starter in the frosty spring climate of Minnesota, had statistics that were modest at best when the `68 All-Star Game dawned. Then disaster struck. He ruptured a hamstring muscle while stretching at first base for a low throw from shortstop Jim Fregosi. The Killer had to be carried from the field.
“It was the worst injury I ever had,” Killebrew recalled. “I wasn’t sure how it would heal. I wasn’t sure I’d play again.”
The Twins were devastated because Harmon was “the franchise.” He managed to see some late-season action, but a lowly seventh-place finish told the story of 1968 for Minnesota.
A bona fide Hall of Famer, Killebrew was not finished. Strengthening his legs by hunting and hiking his native hill country (along with weight and stretching exercises) during the off-season, he prepared for 1969. The results: Both Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year awards for Killebrew – and an American League West title for the Twins.
An earlier Joe Hardy/Roy Hobbs performance was achieved by Babe Ruth during the 1925-26 seasons, when he and the Yankees produced these results:
Year B.A. HR RBI Pos.
1925 .290 25 68 7
1926 .372 47 145 1
The famed “bellyache heard round the world” explains in part the lackluster statistics that George Herman Ruth accumulated during the highly-disappointing 1925 campaign. Excessive and careless eating and drinking habits resulted in an intestinal abscess for which he was operated on in mid-April and hospitalized until late May. Without the Babe the Yankees were floundering in seventh place.
His June 1 return to the starting lineup turned out to be premature. He was neither physically nor psychologically ready. The team remained mired in seventh place. To top things off Ruth was fined $5,000 and suspended for nine days late in the season by manager Miller Huggins as a result of flagrant defiances of curfews.
Eating and drinking were not the only excessive indulgences of the Bambino. But Ruth learned a lesson from Huggins and eventually yielded to the manager’s authority. He reformed and his statistics showed it. During the next three seasons (1926-27-28) the Behemoth of Bash averaged nearly 54 homers, 153 runs scored, 150 RBIs and a .349 average.
And what did the lowly seventh-place Yankees of 1925 do during those succeeding three years? Just lead the American League each season while capturing two world championships – as if anyone ever doubted the Babe’s awesome winning influence on the game.
The fourth and final example to be cited here involves Ted Williams and the 1945-46 Boston Red Sox, whose records were as follows:
Year B.A. HR RBI Pos.
1945 Ted in Navy 7
1946 .342 38 123 1
Williams almost certainly would have established hitting and slugging records forever unparalleled had he not missed substantial playing time while serving his country from 1943 through 1945 and later during the Korean conflict. In `43 the Red Sox were coming off back-to-back years of solid second-place finishes behind the Yankees. Ted’s totals for those seasons were awesome – .406 with 37 homers and 120 RBIs in 1941 and .356 with 36 homers and 137 RBIs for the 1942 Triple Crown.
However, accusations of draft dodging were pervasive and eventually, near the conclusion of the `42 campaign, Ted enlisted in the Navy. He went on to become a skilled flier. Without him the Bosox lost, finishing seventh, fourth and then seventh again during the three seasons he was away.
With World War II over and the The Splendid Splinter and his beautiful, powerful swing intact once more, Boston climbed dramatically to an American League pennant in 1946.
Any list of noteworthy reversals must include the 1969 New York “Miracle” Mets, who climbed to the National League pennant from their ninth-place depths of 1968. But no Roy Hobbs/Joe Hardy was evident in the team. Tommie Agee led the club in homers with a meager 26. Likewise for the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers, who rushed to the N.L. flag from a seventh- place showing the previous year. Gil Hodges paced the Dodgers with 25 home runs. And at least another nine teams have shown a sixth-to-first-place reversal this century, with only Frank Robinson of the 1961 Cincinnati Reds exhibiting a semblance of the Hobbs/ Hardy-type credentials.
Yaz, Killebrew, Ruth, Williams, Hobbs and Hardy – real or imaginary – rank as the great long-ball heroes.