Murderer’s Row

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Meat.  Cold Beer.  Home Runs.   Prime Man Cave fare.  Fans like to see people HIT things.  If we wanted hours of static posing on pristine fields of grass, we’d watch soccer.

The 1927 Yankees boasted a lineup so daunting that their first six hitters (Earl Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri) made up a “Murderer’s Row”, six batters no pitcher could face without peril.  Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig still live in baseball legend; Ruth hit 60 home runs that year, and Gehrig drove in 173 runs, besting Ruth’s record of 168 in 1921.  Combs’ batting average was .356 that year, Meusel’s .337, Lazzeri drove in 102 runs, and Koenig picked up 150 hits and scored 99 runs, including one from third base as Ruth pounded his 60th homer.  The Yankees won 110 games that year and 101 the next, when a schedule included 154 games.

This comes to mind as the Yankees welcome Giancarlo Stanton to a lineup that already presented considerable slugging power.  This year’s version of a murderer’s row will include DH Brett Gardner (21 home runs, .350 OBP) as leadoff, followed by Aaron Judge (52 home runs), .420 OBP), Giancarlo Stanton (59 home runs, .376 OBP), Gary Sanchez (33 home runs, .345 OBP), Aaron Hicks (15 home runs, .372 OBP), Didi Gregorius (25 home runs, .318 OBP).  The strategy allows Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez maximum opportunities to hit and allows fans to dream of 111 or more home runs again between Judge and Stanton alone.

And that’s exciting.  And about time, as baseball comes under intense scrutiny from those who find it hard to market the game.

Is this an era of great pitching?  Yup, and only baseball purists tune in to watch a 1-1 pitcher’s duel.  Are fielders more impressively acrobatic?  Yup, and we’ll catch those web gems on ESPN at eleven.

Meat.  Cold Beer.  Home Runs.   Prime Man Cave fare.  Fans like to see people HIT things.

If we wanted hours of static posing on pristine fields of grass, we’d watch soccer.   So, yes, booming bats is a good thing for baseball right now.

There have been some impressively stacked lineups that have tallied some large numbers over the decades, and not they have not always been the Yankees. A few curiosities have emerged, teams with power that did not establish dynasties, but which captured the imagination of their era.

The Tigers in the 1930’s, for example,  had Hank Greenberg, known as Hammerin’ Hank, also as  “The Hammering Hebrew”, a sobriquet unlikely to be found today.  Greenberg had refused to play on Rosh Hashanah at the end of the 1934 season, causing beleaguered Tiger fans to moan, “Rosh Hashanah comes every year, but the Tigers haven’t won the pennant since 1909.”   Greenberg was a gentle monster whose 58 home runs in 1938 stood as second only to Ruth until Roger Maris set the new mark of 61 in 1961.  The Tigers lineup was impressive, not quite a row of murderers, but not bad.  Greenberg batted second behind Rudy York, a .275 career hitter who played catcher that year and first base for most of his career.  York was one eighth Cherokee, a fact which allowed one insensitive newsman to describe him as, “part Indian and part first baseman.”  Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, the Tiger’s exceptional second baseman, batted third,  Known as “The Mechanical Man,” Gehringer put together seven seasons with more than 200 hits, ending up with a career batting average of .320.  After Gehringer, the lineup trailed off considerably.  Dixie Walker, passing through Detroit on his way to the Dodgers that year hit for average but not for power.

Similarly, The Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox saw Jimmy Foxx sock 534 home runs in his career, 58 of which came in 1932 with the Athletics.  Foxx was the youngest to reach the 500 home run mark until Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, swept past him in 2007.  Foxx was a physical specimen of some reputation; “He has muscles in his hair,” quoth Lefty Gomez.  The A’s lineup included leadoff second baseman Max Bishop, a .270 hitter, George William “Mule” Haas, an outfielder batting close to .300, Mickey Cochran, catcher after whom Mickey Mantle was named, a .320 Hall of Fame hitter, and Al Simmons, “Bucketfoot Al”, whose performance in 1931 won him a second successive batting title, .390 with 25 home runs.  The A’s led the league for three years, winning two World Series Championships, but the Athletics sold Simmons to the White Sox on 1932, and retreated back to the ranks of ordinary, very good teams.

The oft-discounted Chicago Cubs trotted out one of the most dynamic duos from 1929 to 1932 when slugger Hack Wilson was joined by Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the most successful pure hitter of all time.  Hornsby finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .358, second only to Ty Cobb who was far from elegant, a slap hitter who bullied pitchers into giving him a ball he could hit.  In 1924 with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hornsby batted .424, still the highest seasonal batting average in the modern era.  He was the only player ever to hit 40 home runs and bat over .400.  Cubs fans know that Hornsby still holds the record for the Cubs’ highest batting average (.390) and for runs scored (156).  Hack Wilson was a wild man, frequently arrested for what were called his “festivities”.  He alleged that he never played drunk, but he did scramble into the box seats to fight a spectator who had been heckling him.  Despite his personal foibles, and despite his curious physique (5’6, 195 pounds with an 18 inch neck), Wilson could hit the ball a mile.  In 1930 he hit 56 home runs, batted .356, and drove in a record setting  191 runs.  The only players who approach Wilson inhis day were Lou Gehrig (184) and Hank Greenberg (183).  Joe DiMaggio hit 167 for the Yankees in 1937 and Manny Ramirez punched out 165  for the Cleveland Indians in 1999.  Wilson’s record, like DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hit games, has been considered untouchable.

It’s not easy to find contemporary lineups with comparable power.  Individuals, yes.  Teams, not so much.

Hank Aaron was baseball’s all-time home run king (755 home runs) until Barry Bonds crept past him with 762.  Unlike Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001, the current single-season record, Aaron never had a 50 home run season.  Neither Aaron or Bonds were surrounded by power.  In that 2001 season, the Giants next best hitters were Jeff Kent (.298/ 22 home runs) and Rich Aurelia (.324/37 home runs).  In Aaron’s MVP season, 1957, the Braves lineup included Eddie Mathews, a hard hitting third baseman who would end up with a total of 522 home runs but who hit 32 that year.  Wes Covington was the third most potent batter, driving in 65 runs.  The Braves pitching was spectacular, but this was no murderer’s row.

Willie Mays, 5th on the all time home run tally with 666, won the MVP with the Giants in 1955, hitting 51 home runs.  Mays is among the most complete players in the history of the game, but his Giants were a relatively underpowered team; next on the roster in 1955 was Hank Thompson with 17 dingers. In later years, the SF GIants added Willie McCovey to the lineup, but by that time Mays was hitting fewer than 20 homers a year.  In 1998 when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs by knocking 70 into outer space, the next most threatening Cardinal batter was Ray Lankford, who hit 37 home runs and drive in 105 runs.

So, murderers not lining up in rows in recent years?  Actually, two modest candidates emerged in the 1990’s:  The Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians.

The 1998 Mariners had considerable pop as Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 56 home runs and Alex Rodriguez knocked out 42.  Griffey had 146 rbis and Rodriguez 124.  DH Edgar Martinez hit .322 that season and popped 29 home runs.  Griffey and A-Rod would leave the Mariners, but the 2001 Mariners won 116 games, 59 of which were won by more than four runs.  2001 was Ichiro Suzuki’s first year in MLB, obviously NOT a year of adjustment as he hit.350 that season.   Other batters hitting over .300 included John Olerud, Brett Boone, and Edgar Martinez.  The home run count was down that season, but Boone, Mike Cameron, and Martinez each drove in more than a 100 runs.

The 1995 Indians lead the majors in virtually every offensive statistic – runs scored, hits, home runs, slugging percentage, batting average, runs batted in, fewest strikeouts.  The entire lineup may not seem that formidable, but the consistent strength in the middle of the order sets this team apart:  Jim Thome, .314/ 25 home runs, Omar Vizquel, .266/ 56 rbis, Albert Belle, .317/ 50 home runs / 126 rbis, Kenny Lofton, .310 / 53 rbis, Manny Ramirez, .308/ 31 home runs / 107 rbis, Eddie Murray, .323 / 21 home runs.  That Indian team won its division by 30 games over the Kansas City Royals, swept the Red Sox in three games, and defeated the Mariners in the American League Championship.  The Indians lost to the Braves in the World Series, but few in the American League forgot that Indians lineup.

I write this piece in early April.  Hicks is out for more than a month, Judge has one home run and Stanton three.  Not murder yet.  On the other hand, out on the west coast, Mike Trout has hit two for the Angels, and pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani also has two home runs as well and is 1-0 from the mound.  The Nat’s Bryce Harper has already hit four home runs and the Astros’ Jose Altuve is hitting .414.

Should be a great year in the man cave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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