On August 27, Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton hit his 50th home run of the 2017 season. Following this home run, in his team’s 129th game, the slugger stood on pace for 63 home runs on the season.
Three players have hit 63 or more home runs a combined six times—Mark McGwire cleared the mark twice in 1998 and 1999 for the St. Louis Cardinals, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs did it three times in 1998, 1999, and 2001, and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants set the single-season record for the San Francisco Giants in 2001. But in the eyes of many, Giancarlo Stanton has a chance to become the “true” single-season home run king.
McGwire, the first player to clear 62 home runs in a season, admitted in 2010 that he had used steroids for about a decade during his playing career, notably during his home-run spike of the late 1990s. Sosa reportedly tested positive for steroids in 2003. Bonds reportedly admitted to steroid use in 2011. For many baseball fans, the true single-season home run record remains Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961.
Defining what constitutes a “real” record may seem like a futile exercise, but so is almost all discussion of baseball which exists on the internet. None of this actually matters, and few things could better convey the state of the internet in 2017 than arguing about if events which actually, literally happened are “real”. Of course Barry Bonds is the single-season home run leader—73 times in 2001, Barry Bonds swung the bat and the result was a home run and that is the most times that has ever happened in an individual season of Major League Baseball. It is truly absurd to argue this is not the record, but it sure is fun.
The Cardinals are not particularly relevant to this discussion—very few people willing to dismiss Barry Bonds for his connections to performance-enhancing drugs are not also dismissing Mark McGwire for the same reasons. But following this same logic, we can define a list of candidates for the single-season home run leader for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The most obvious candidate for single-season home run leader for the Cardinals is Mark McGwire, who actually hit seventy home runs in 1998, which is more home runs than any other player has ever hit in a season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Surely he belongs in the discussion. But who are the others?
2006 Albert Pujols
In some ways, 2006 was the best version of Albert Pujols. He was far and away the most valuable player for the eventual World Series champion Cardinals and, say what you will about the usefulness of Triple Crown statistics, but he had a career-best mark in two of them: runs batted in (which isn’t particularly relevant in baseball analysis and certainly isn’t relevant in this discussion) and home runs (relevant in each).
With 49 home runs, Albert Pujols did not even lead the National League in dingers (the eventual NL MVP, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, had 58), but he is the Cardinals franchise leader in home runs in a season among people not named Mark McGwire. By 2006, MLB did have drug testing, and the season before, Rafael Palmeiro had become the highest-profile player to have been suspended for PED usage. Links between Albert Pujols and steroids have been mostly unsubstantiated hearsay. If you are to believe that a steroid user is disqualified from the record, and you also believe that a player is innocent until proven guilty, Pujols is your guy.
1940 Johnny Mize
There have been seven seasons in Cardinals history in which a player hit 43 or more home runs. Two belonged to Mark McGwire. Four belonged to Albert Pujols. One belonged to Johnny Mize. Mize held the Cardinals single-season home run record for a staggering 58 years, a fact made all the more impressive by the fact that when Mark McGwire eventually broke it, it was relatively effortless—McGwire tied Mize on July 20.
And Mize did this in an era much less defined by home runs than McGwire or Pujols. In 1998, 2.69% of MLB plate appearances resulted in a home run. In 2006, that rate was even higher, at 2.86%. In 1940, Johnny Mize wasn’t quite playing in the Dead Ball era, but with home runs in 1.64% of plate appearances (for reference, the rate in 2017 is over three percent), it was certainly less of a home run-conducive environment than existed when the other highest-end home run seasons in franchise history were occurring.
1948 Stan Musial
When Roger Maris broke the single-season home run record in 1961, some baseball fans (not the least of which included commissioner Ford Frick) criticized what were perceived as artificial advantages for Maris over previous record-holder Babe Ruth: Maris was playing in a now-expanded American League with a more widespread player pool, as well as playing a 162-game schedule (Ruth had played during an era of a 154-game schedule).
On the other hand, however, Ruth had the benefit of playing before baseball was integrated. Sure, there were only 16 teams, but it was a 16-team league in which virtually every player was a white American. If one were to adopt all of these as parameters which diminish candidates, a home run king should have played between 1947 (when Jackie Robinson debuted) and 1960 (the final season of a 16-team league). And hence the Cardinals record holder is Stan Musial, who hit 39 home runs in 1948.
1922 Rogers Hornsby
Last week, a particular tweet from Sky Kalkman drew my attention.
1968 Frank Howard is the True HR King.— Sky Kalkman (@Sky_Kalkman) August 29, 2017
This tweet seemed ironic, but after reading into the successive ones, I found his point very interesting. 1968 is known today as “The Year of the Pitcher” because of how poor of an offensive environment it was. With 44 home runs, Frank Howard hit, by Kalkman’s calculations, the equivalent of 86.2 home runs in 2017’s home run environment.
In the spirit of this exercise, I ran a similar experiment for Cardinals hitters. Rather than adjusting to 2017 rates, I adjusted to 1998 rates, in honor of the record-holding season at least partially aided by the crazy home run rates of baseball at large (the leaderboard would be the exact same regardless of what season’s rate is getting the adjustment—this is more just for my own, and hopefully for your own, amusement).
The greatest home run season in St. Louis Cardinals history, adjusting for home run climate, came courtesy of second baseman Rogers Hornsby in 1922. Hornsby hit 42 home runs in a season in which MLB players hit a home run in 1.1% of plate appearances. Again, the rate in 1998 was 2.69%. Adjusted for 1998 rates, Hornsby, who led Major League Baseball in home runs, hit 103 home runs.
This seems implausible to a point that one might assume a typo, but pre-World War II baseball is generally accepted to have been a particularly lopsided era of the sport. There were a few superstars who could probably play in the modern era, but the leagues were less deep than today. It makes perfect sense that the cream of the crop would be even more dominant.
Here are the top ten by this measure, with his actual home run total listed, followed by his 1998-adjusted home run total.
- 1922 Rogers Hornsby (42; 103)
- 1925 Rogers Hornsby (39; 86)
- 1928 Jim Bottomley (31; 73)
- 1924 Rogers Hornsby (25; 72)
- 1940 Johnny Mize (43; 71)
- 1998 Mark McGwire (70; 70)
- 1907 Red Murray (7; 69)
- 1934 Ripper Collins (35; 67)
- 1948 Stan Musial (39; 65)
- 1899 Bobby Wallace (12; 64)
So who is the real Cardinals single-season home run king?
The guy who hit the most home runs is, of course. And if Giancarlo Stanton winds up hitting somewhere between 62 and 73 home runs, it will be an amazing accomplishment worthy of heavy praise which will ultimately result in him having something less than the single-season home run record.
Records are devoid of context. I’m not even a PED moralist, but I understand that had Mark McGwire been born a century earlier, he might make it to double-digit home run totals. Had he been born a century before that, he never would have played baseball. As a wise man once said, “Life is an arbitrary assortment of happenings.” All of these players merit some attention for what they did and for what they might have been able to do under different circumstances.