This article was written by Ray Gonzalez
This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal
Records of home runs hit by batters have been a part of baseball information and statistics essentially from the beginning of the National League in 1876. It is true that this information was not of overwhelming interest to the public until the advent of Babe Ruth and the launching of the lively ball era in 1920. But even then records were not kept regarding the hurlers who gave up those crowd-pleasing and stimulating four-base wallops. Not until 1950 in the American League and 1951 in the National League were statistics on home runs allowed by hurlers published in the annual baseball guides.
Consequently, information is available and has been published on Robin Roberts, the hurler who has given up the most fourbaggers in a season (46 in 1956) and in a career (502). Mention also was made a few years ago that Jim “Catfish” Hunter had passed Early Wynn on his way to a new AL record for home runs given up (374).
But what about all those years before 1950 when pitchers were serving up roundtrippers to Home Run Baker, Cactus Cravath, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott? Data are now available, based on individual research, on all hurlers giving up home runs since 1900. The individual leaders have been established for each season and each league. This includes those giving up the most and those giving up the fewest based on innings pitched.
Because home run “pitching” has changed so remarkably over the past 80 years, we are going to discuss this topic in three eras: 1900 to 1919; 1920 to 1949;and 1950 through 1980. For individual sluggers there may not have been much difference in the last two eras (Babe Ruth vs. Henry Aaron), but there is quite a difference in home runs given up by pitchers (Lefty Grove vs. Warren Spahn). That will become more apparent as we move along. First the deadball era of 1900-19.
Although there had been some fairly heaving hitting in the majors in the 1890s, particularly after the pitching distance was increased from 50 feet to 60½ feet in 1893, this was not the case after the turn of the century. While Frank Dwyer of the Reds gave up 26 homers in 1894 and Kid Nichols gave up 23 that same year, these lofty figures were never approached in the 1900-19 period. The highest season totals in this era were the 18 released by Al Orth of Washington in 1902 and the 16 by Christy Mathewson of the Giants in 1914. The high figure each season was frequently under 10, particularly in the AL. The lowest figure was regularly zero, even with hurlers working a long season. Here, for example, are the hurlers who worked 300 or more innings in a season and still did not give up a home run.
- 1916: Walter Johnson, Senators, 0-371
- 1910: Jack Coombs, Athletics, 0-353
- 1904: Ed Killian, Tigers, 0-332
- 1916: Babe Ruth, Red Sox, 0-324
- 1906: Vic Willis, Pirates, 0-322
- 1905: Ed Killian, Tigers, 0-313
- 1908: Rube Vickers, Athletics, 0-300
The reader can note from the above list that Ruth’s fine record in the American League in 1916 was only second best, and that Killian did not give up any home runs in two consecutive years.
Actually it was three years. Pitching for Cleveland in 1903, he gave up his first home run on September 19 to Fred Parent of the Red Sox. He then hurled 1001 innings before giving up another roundtripper — this one to Socks Seybold of the A’s on August 7, 1907. Killian lost both of these games because of those two knocks so it is understandable that he was reluctant to give up the four-base wallop. He gave up only nine homers in his short career of 1598 innings pitched. Of course, not many fourbaggers were hit in the American League in those days. In 1907 the entire league hit only 103 and the next year the “hitless wonders,” the White Sox of Chicago, hit only three as a team.
The fewest home runs given up by a pitching staff in one season was the four relinquished by the marvelous mound corps of the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates over a 140-game schedule. This was quite a contrast to the 76 given up by Boston Brave hurlers in 1911 in a much more productive home run year.
Which hurlers gave up the most home runs in this period? Cy Young, whose tremendously long and active career dated back to 1890, gave up 138 fourbaggers in 7356 innings. Restricting the list to those hurlers who spent the major part of their careers after 1900, there is Jack Powell, with 108 in 4388 innings. This is a frequency of one homer in about 40 innings, slightly behind the pace of Bill Dinneen, who was touched once every 39 innings. Rube Marquard, whose career stretched to 1925, several years into the lively ball era, had a greater frequency, based on 107 homers in 3307 innings. Similarly, Walter Johnson saw his excellent record dissipate somewhat in the last seven years of his long career.
Who gave up the fewest homers on a frequency basis? Putting aside the short careers of Ed Killian and Smokey Joe Wood, the awards go to Ed Walsh, who gave up only 24 roundtrippers in 2964 innings (one/124) and Addie Joss with 19 in 2336 (one/123). However, mention also should be made of Eddie Plank for his stinginess over a long career, and Ed Cicotte, whose career ended at the opening of the lively ball era in 1920.
Here are career totals of some of the better known hurlers of the 1900-19 period. Federal League records for Bender, Brown, and Plank are included.
There were many well known pitchers who started their careers in the deadball era of the teens who hurled well into the lively ball era. They included Grover Alexander, Eppa Rixey, Burleigh Grimes, Dolf Luque, Herb Pennock, Red Faber, Sam Jones, Carl Mays, Stan Coveleski, and Waite Hoyt. Rixey, who pitched until 1933, had the best mark in this period, giving up only 93 homers in 4494 innings (one/48). Stan Coveleski and Carl Mays were next. If the list is restricted to those who spent all of their careers after 1920, Pete Donohue of the Reds would have the best mark with 67 homers in 2112 innings (one/31).
Rixey, the big southpaw who spent his career with the Phils and Reds between 1912 and 1933, probably made the best effort to restrict home run hitting of any pitcher in the full period of 1900-80. He was the season leader three years and was a close challenger several other years. Even though he broke in during the teens, he was pitching his home games in Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, which swallowed up more home run balls than any other NL park in the 19 12-20 period when Rixey was with the Phils. Rixey also got through the heavy bombardment years of 1929 and 1930 relatively unscathed.
Grover Alexander, Rixey’s mound mate with the Phils, fared less well when it came to giving up roundtrippers. He was the first major league hurler to give up 150 homers in a career and when he hung up his toe-plate in 1930 he had 164. But that total did not top the list for very long because the top season totals were increasing every few years, as follows:
- 1921: Eddie Rommel, Athletics, 22
- 1925: Clarence Mitchell, Phils, 23
- 1929: Les Sweetland, Phils, 25
- 1930: Ray Kremer, Pirates, 29
- 1937: Lon Warneke, Cardinals, 32
- 1948: Murry Dickson, Cardinals, 39
This resulted in the doubling of career totals compared to the previous generation. Red Ruffing was the first hurler to give up 200 home runs, a milestone he reached in 1940 with the assistance of Jimmie Foxx, who was responsible for 18 of those blasts. Ted Lyons was next to reach the 200 mark in 1941 and Carl Hubbell followed in 1942. None of these players had the highest frequency for the period, however. That role was played by right-hander George Blaeholder, who worked much of his career for the lowly St. Louis Browns between 1925 and 1936. Blaeholder is credited with originating the slider, but he apparently did not have it perfected in his time because he gave up 176 home runs in 1914 innings (one/11). Jimmie Foxx reportedly had real trouble hitting Blaeholder, but Lou Gehrig solved him for 13 career homers.
Blaeholder’s frequency was the greatest for any seasoned pitcher until Preacher Roe came along a decade later. Roe was known to use the spitball on occasion and that was probably done to cut down on his frequent gopher pitches. He worked the same number of innings as Blaeholder but gave up 25 additional home runs. The only 17-year-old player to hit a home run in the majors achieved that teenage delight off Preacher Roe on August 20, 1945, at Ebbets Field. Tommy Brown was the hitter.
Were there any surprises in the home run survey of the hurlers in this era? We were a little surprised that Carl Hubbell gave up as many roundtrippers as he did in comparison with fellow southpaws such as Lefty Grove and Hal Newhouser. The only immediate theory that comes to mind is that Hubbell had very good control and batters could dig in at the plate. On the other hand, Grove and Newhouser were very hard throwers with erratic control. The same might hold true for righthander Bob Feller, who scared some bat- ters with his speed and lack of control. He wasn’t as stingy with home runs as his close contemporary, Newhouser, but he didn’t do badly for the heavy hitting period in which he pitched.
Here are the frequency records of the better known hurlers of the 1920-49 period.
Moving into the final phase of the study we find that home runs were hit with ever increasing fury in the 1950s. The chief victims were Robin Roberts in the NL and Pedro Ramos in the Junior Circuit. Roberts, the hard-throwing control pitcher for the Phils was rocked for 46 homers in 1956 while giving up only 40 bases on balls. In 1957 Ramos gave up an American League high of 43 fourbaggers in only 231 innings. Over his career he allowed 315 homers in 2355 innings. This breaks down to one every 7.5 innings, the highest career frequency of all time. Denny McLain threatened this mark with 242 in only 1886 innings (one/7.8). Don Newcombe and Jim “Mudcat” Grant were other hurlers with high frequency rates.
Roberts, the first hurler to give up 300 career homers (in 1958), and 400 career homers (in 1961), closed out his long career with 502 in 4689 innings (one/9.3). The only other pitchers to reach the 400 plateau were Warren Spahn with 434 and Ferguson Jenkins, who started the 1981 campaign with 432. Jenkins is another of the hard-throwing hurlers with very good control, which seems to be an important element in home runs allowed.
With all this proliferation in home runs, were there any hurlers in this most recent era to hold the sluggers in check? Bob Veale did a remarkable job in a fairly short career, allowing only 91 homers in 1926 innings (one/21). J. R. Richard was doing very well before his illness with 73 homers in 1606 innings. Among longer service pitchers still active, Nolan Ryan tops the list with 159 home runs in 2926 innings (one/18.4). Tommy John, a sinker-ball pitcher who has had the best record in the AL the last two seasons, is also building a good career record. Mike Garcia and Dean Chance were two hurlers in the earlier parts of this period who compiled good records.
Here is an alphabetical listing of the leading hurlers of the 1950-80 period. Because of the escalation of home runs allowed in the last 30 years, this list includes the 1 5 hurlers who have given up the most home runs in major league history.