This article was written by Steve Treder
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)
Nobody saw it coming. Nobody could have, because nothing quite like it had ever happened before.
It is true that they had led the league in home runs the previous season, 1946. In fact, they had done so by a huge margin: they had hit 40 more homers than any other team in the league. But their league-leading total that year had been just 121, which was an unremarkable figure for a league leader in that era. The fact that no other team in the league hit more than 81 was a more unusual fact than their hitting 121.
They had hit more than 121 home runs five times in the past; their franchise record for team homers was 143, set 17 years earlier. The league record for team homers was 171, so obviously a team hitting 121, while achieving a mark that might lead the league, wasn’t remotely threatening league history. And the major league record was 182, a full 50 percent ahead of 121.
Moreover, the roster that had fashioned the 121 gave no indication of having much capacity to exceed it, and the team had made no significant acquisitions in the off-season. They began the new campaign with just three players on the roster who had ever hit more than 13 home runs in a big league season, and two of those three figured to ride the bench, given that one (Ernie Lombardi) was a 39-year-old backup catcher, and another (31-year-old Babe Young) was blocked on the depth chart at his first base position by the third guy who had hit that many.
That third guy, the lone accomplished power hitter who did figure to play regularly, was, to be sure, one of the very best sluggers of the period: The Big Cat, Johnny Mize. He had once hit as many as 43 homers in a season. But that had been seven years earlier. Mize was now 34, and was coming off a season in which a broken hand had limited him to 101 games and 22 home runs. At this point in his career, there was no reason to anticipate him ever hitting as many as 43 again; 30 to 35 was a realistic upside, and a decline could hardly be considered unlikely.
Little of the rest of the lineup looked to be imposing. Despite leading the league in homers the preceding season, they hadn’t done much else well, ranking fifth in runs scored. This, in combination with a lackluster pitching staff, had resulted in a last-place finish. In addition to Mize, there were three regulars who figured to keep their starting roles: 32-year old catcher Walker Cooper, 26-year-old right fielder Willard Marshall, and 24-year-old shortstop Buddy Kerr. Cooper and Marshall were established as good line-drive hitters, but neither had demonstrated out standing home run capability. Kerr was a slick fielder with a meager bat.
One other veteran, Sid Gordon, figured to compete for a starting job, but at 29, he had never been a true regular, instead performing more as a “super sub,” roving between the outfield and infield. He had demonstrated value, but his career high in home runs was nine, and he was coming off a season in which he had produced just five in 450 at-bats.
Various other journeymen, and several rookies, would compete for playing time at second base, third base, center field, and left field. While giving significant opportunities to new talent introduces an obvious element of unpredictability into forecasting a team’s performance, in looking at this roster and envisioning all possible scenarios, no one could rea sonably anticipate this ball club hitting significantly more than 121 home runs.
Nobody saw it coming. Nobody could have, because nothing quite like it had ever happened before.
The 1947 New York Giants hit 221 home runs. This has been a fact for more than half a century now, and generally if we’re aware of it at all, it’s just an obscure notation buried deep in a long list: today that total is tied for 37th on the all-time list of major league team home run totals. Since 1996 alone, 33 different teams have hit more than 221 homers in a season, and the current record is 264, by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Hitting as many as 221 homers has become a routine occurrence under modern-day baseball conditions.
Through 1946, only 14 ball clubs in history had managed to hit as many as 150, just six of them within the past 10 years, and none in the past five. The idea that a team could possibly hit 221 home runs in a season was entirely ludicrous. At any time prior to 1947 — most certainly including 1946 — the very phrase, “the 1947 New York Giants hit 221 home runs” would have reasonably been perceived as nonsense, complete gibberish.
It was a silly number, fantasy land. Two-twenty one was the batting average of your utility infielder. It was nothing resembling how many home runs your team would hit, or even could hit.
In the entire National League of 1947, a total of 886 home runs were hit — thus the Giants contributed almost exactly one-quarter of the league’s output. The other seven NL teams averaged 95 homers apiece, making the Giants’ 221 mark 2.3 times that of their typical opponent; in the 58 years since, no other league has demonstrated anything close to such single-team home run dominance.
One ball club in history did dominate its league in homers at greater proportional rates than the ’47 Giants, and that was the New York Yankees of the 1920s, with Babe Ruth in particular playing a very different game than just about anyone else. But in terms of absolute magnitude, rather than percentage, the Giants outdid even those Yankee teams. The Yankees’ greatest numerical margin over their competitors occurred in 1927, when, with Lou Gehrig bursting on the scene to join Ruth, the Yanks hit a new-record 158 homers while their average opposing team managed 40, for a differential of 118. The 1947 Giants produced 126 more home runs than the average of their competitors.
The Giants’ home park was, of course, Harlem’s Polo Grounds, with a long, narrow horseshoe configuration, yielding the most oddly shaped playing field in modern major league history. The foul lines were comically short-279 feet to left field, and 257 to right-and then the walls angled very sharply out to a cavernously deep center field, measured at 484 feet from home plate in 1947. It added up to an extremely good environment for home runs (though interestingly, the enormous expanse of foul territory meant it was a very poor ballpark for batting average, and on balance it played as a neutral to slightly above-average scoring environment).
So there’s no question that the 1947 Giants’ home run total was enhanced by playing half their games in the Polo Grounds. That year the ballpark yielded home runs (for the Giants and their opponents combined) at a rate 46% above the league-average yard, highest in the NL, and a mark typical of how the Polo Grounds played through out the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But to think that their achievement was little more than a park-effect illusion would be to commit a serious miscalculation. The 1947 Giants hit 131 home runs at home, far and away the most in the league — but they also hit 90 away from the Polo Grounds, also far and away the most in the league. The total of 90 road home runs was easily a new league record (the previous mark was 78, by the 1930 Cubs). If the Giants had produced no more home runs at home than they did on the road, they still would have set a new league record for total homers. Their power production was completely genuine.
Despite the constant stream of long balls, the 1947 Giants weren’t an especially good ball club overall. They were briefly in first place in early and mid-June, but then fell back and never really challenged again, finishing at 81-73, in fourth place, 13 games behind Jackie Robinson’s champion Dodgers. Their great hitting (best in the league with 142.1 batting Win Shares) wasn’t matched by either their pitching (69.8 pitching Win Shares, sixth in the league) or fielding (31.1 fielding Win Shares, seventh in the league).
Their batting average was third best in the league. They were tied for fourth in triples, fifth in OBP, and sixth in walks, doubles, and stolen bases. It was pretty much an all-or-nothing attack.
Nonetheless, the home run barrage was dramatic and exciting, undoubtedly all the more so because it was so completely unexpected. Through 77 games, the season’s halfway point, the Giants had blasted 118 homers, and it was obvious they were going to shatter every standard. On August 2, they broke their franchise record; on August 24 the league mark went down, and on the first of September — with a full month to go — they became the major league record holders.
The fans loved it, and along with home-run bench marks, the 1947 Giants surpassed their franchise attendance record by a mile, drawing 1.6 million, 25 percent over their previous best. Longtime club secretary Eddie Brannick, as he merrily toted up gate receipts, affectionately nicknamed the long-balling crew “The Windowbreakers,” and the apt and colorful moniker stuck.
Essentially the same roster was retained for 1948, and the Giants remained the NL’s premier slugging ball club, leading the league in runs and homers (yet, with their other weaknesses still intact, finished fifth at 78-76). But their major league-best home run total in 1948 was 164, falling short of the ’47 output by 57. None of their big four boppers of 1947 was able to sustain his production, as Mize went from 51 homers to 40, Marshall from 36 to 14, Cooper from 35 to 16, and ’47 rookie sensation Bobby Thomson from 29 to 16. Following 1948, the New York Giants would lead the league in home runs only one more time, and that season (1954), they tied for the most, with 186. The Windowbreakers’ moment was as brief as it was intense.
Playing in a National League that produced 38% more homers than the 1947 version, the 1956 Cincinnati Redlegs would match the record of 221. The mark was then broken by the storied 1961 Maris Mantle Yankees, who thumped 240. No National League team would hit more than 221 homers in a season until 1997, fully half a century after the Giants set the standard.
STEVE ‘TREDER writes a weekly column on baseball history for The Hardball Times, where a version of this article first appeared. A lifelong Giants fan, he has had numerous articles published in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.
A delightful, informative read about the Giants of this era is Fred Stein’s Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollections of the New York Giants Under Terry and Ott (Alexandria, VA: Automated Graphic Systems, 1979). The chapter “The Windowbreakers” is on pp. 123-130.