All Eyes on Barry

Barry Bonds hit career home run #660 yesterday, blasting a 3-1 pitch from Matt Kinney into McCovey Cove, where it landed with a splash. Bonds’ pursuit of 660 has been a major story all season and, now that he’s tied Willie Mays for third all-time, it is getting a ton of media attention.

Within minutes, the home run was the top story on ESPN.com, with a big picture of Bonds, arms raised high, and a number of accompanying stories (here, here, here, here, here and here). The home run immediately became the sports story of the day nearly everywhere else. Seconds after the ball left Bonds’ bat, it was the lead sports story on Yahoo! News, CNN.com, the New York Times, and any number of other places.

ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer penned a column yesterday (prior to Bonds’ homer) that talked about how he felt Bonds’ pursuit of his 660th career home run has been overrated as an event.

Here’s a little of what Neyer said:

I mean, I’m sorry, but I just can’t get that excited about somebody grabbing the No. 3 spot on any list.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Barry Bonds than me. I follow basically everything Bonds does, watching him as often as possible and reading about him whenever I can. I also think it is pretty cool that Bonds and Willie Mays have such a strong, unique relationship. However, as Neyer said, 660 homers is impressive, tying Willie Mays is neat, and Bonds is amazing…but it’s still not 714 (Ruth) or 755 (Aaron).

When (not if) Bonds gets to around 710 or so, I imagine the hype and media attention will be off the charts, as Babe Ruth is the biggest name/legend/figure in baseball history. And, of course, when he nears Hank Aaron’s all-time mark, the story will get even bigger.

You might be wondering why me agreeing with something Rob Neyer wrote is cause for a column. Actually, it’s not. Something else Neyer wrote in his column yesterday caught my eye.

Was it a big story on Aug. 9, 1960, when Ted Williams hit his 511th home run, tying Mel Ott for third on the all-time list? Was it a big story on June 23, 1966, when Mays hit his 521st home run, tying Williams for third on the all-time list? Was it a big story in 1972 when Aaron tied Mays for second on the all-time list?

Without checking, I would strongly suspect that those were not big national stories. Stories, yes. But not big stories, because the prize has always been first place, either in the majors or (when the leagues were actually separate entities) in the league.

I had a little time on my hands yesterday, so I used my privileges as a SABR member (if you aren’t one too, you should join) to search through the archives of three of the largest newspapers in the country — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. That covers both coasts and the nation’s capital, so it should give a fairly good representation of what the general coverage of the events in question were.

On August 9, 1960, as Ted Williams sat one home run away from Mel Ott‘s career mark of 511, there wasn’t a single story in any of those three papers that mentioned the potential event that would occur later that day. In fact, it wasn’t written about on August 6, 7 or 8 either. Contrast that to the attention Bonds’ chase of Mays’ home run mark got over this past weekend.

On August 10, the day after Williams tied Ott for third all-time with his 511th home run, the only mentions of the event were found in the boxscore/recap of the game, between Williams’ Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians. Amazingly, in the game stories that ran in the New York Times and Washington Post, Williams’ accomplishment didn’t even make the lead paragraph.

Here’s how the Associated Press story, which both papers used, began:

CLEVELAND, Aug. 9 (AP) — Two-run homers by Tito Francona and Vic Power sparked the Cleveland Indians to a 6-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox tonight.

Then, in paragraphs two and three, what Williams did was mentioned:

Ted Williams, Boston’s 41-year-old left fielder, blasted a pitch over the right field fence to tie Mel Ott for third place on the home run list. The homer was the 511th of Williams’ major league career and his nineteenth
this season.

Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx stand one, two on the list with 714 and 534, respectively.

The game story in the Los Angeles Times led with Williams’ home run, but the significance of it was not mentioned until the second paragraph:

CLEVELAND, Aug. 9 (UPI) — Jim Perry yielded the 511th home run of Ted Williams’ brilliant big-league career tonight but gained his 14th victory of the season when he pitched the Cleveland Indians to a 6-3 win over the Boston Red Sox.

Williams’ homer, his 19th, tied him with Mel Ott for the third highest home run total in history.

And that’s it, that’s the sum of the attention Williams got for tying Ott for third all-time in homers. Three game stories accompanying boxscores, two of which didn’t even mention the event until the second paragraph.

Again, compare that to the various coverage immediately after Bonds hit #660 yesterday. I’m pretty sure, regardless of where you live and what newspaper you check today, you’ll see more than a quick mention of his home run in the Giants/Brewers game story.

Moving ahead about six years, to June 23, 1966, the day Willie Mays hit his 521st home run to tie Williams for third all-time. As was the case on the day Williams hit the homer to tie Ott, there were no stories about the impending accomplishment for Mays in any of the three newspapers. There was also nothing about it on June 20, 21 or 22.

The day after Mays hit #521, it got similar attention to Williams’ #511 years earlier. That is to say the news was included in the game story for San Francisco‘s win over the Chicago Cubs.

Here’s the first paragraph from the New York Times story, under the headline “Mays Hits No. 521 As Giants Win”:

CHICAGO, June 23 (AP) — Willie Mays pounded the 521st home run of his career today to tie Ted Williams for third place in the records as the San Francisco Giants scored a 6-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Mays’ homer actually makes up the first four paragraphs of the story, which include details of who he hit it off of (Dick Ellsworth), where it went (right-center) and who was next on the list (Jimmie Foxx, 534).

The Washington Post printed essentially the same AP story, with a few minor differences. Here’s the opening paragraph, under the headline, “Mays Slams No. 521, Third on All-Time List”:

CHICAGO, June 23 (AP) — Wondrous Willie Mays pounded the 521st home run of his career to tie Ted Williams for third place on the all-time homer list today and touched off a 6-4 victory by the San Francisco Giants over
the Chicago Cubs.

And, like with Williams, there were no other mentions beyond what was found accompanying the boxscore from the game.

Fast forward now another six years or so, to May 31, 1972. This is the day Hank Aaron hit his 648th career home run to tie Willie Mays for second all-time. Whereas Williams and Mays were moving into a tie for third place, Aaron was about to move to just one step from Babe Ruth, so you’d expect it to have been a much bigger story. Yet, there wasn’t a single story about the upcoming event in any of the three newspapers that day.

Once Aaron hit the home run, however, it started to get some attention. The next day (June 1, 1972), there were several stories about it.

In a New York Times article entitled “Roundup: Aaron’s 648th Ties Mays on Homer List”, there is a large picture of Aaron crossing home plate. The picture shows Aaron looking extremely calm, and also shows the catcher, the homeplate umpire and one of Aaron’s teammates (presumably the on-deck hitter). The catcher looks somewhat perturbed, the umpire looks indifferent, and Aaron’s teammate is simply holding out his hand for Aaron to shake when he crosses the plate.

Those of you who watched Bonds hit #660 realize just how different that scene in 1972 was from what took place at Pac Bell/SBC/Whatever They’re Calling It Now Ballpark in San Francisco yesterday afternoon.

Here’s the beginning of the aforementioned New York Times story:

It took Hank Aaron 18-plus seasons to catch Willie Mays in home runs. His next target is Babe Ruth’s record.

Aaron hit his 648th home run last night as the Braves defeated the San Diego Padres, 5-4, in Atlanta. The Alabama-born sluggers with widely differing batting styles now trail Ruth by 68 home runs.

What makes Aaron tying Mays in 1972 different from Williams/Ott in 1960, Mays/Williams in 1966, and now Bonds/Mays yesterday, is that Willie Mays was still playing when Hank Aaron tied him. In fact, Mays went on to hit another 12 home runs after Aaron tied him at 648.

The personal relationship between Bonds and Mays has no doubt made Bonds hitting #660 a much larger story, but can you imagine the amount of attention Bonds’ chase of third all-time would have gotten if the guy he was chasing were still playing and still hitting homers?

In addition to that New York Times story, there were quite a few other stories the day following Aaron’s 648th homer. Far more coverage than Williams or Mays got when they moved into a tie for third place all-time.

Whereas those previous events got coverage only in the game stories, Aaron’s homer received some attention away from the boxscore. The Washington Post ran a lengthy piece entitled “648: Aaron Ties Mays.” In addition to the “Roundup” story quoted above, the New York Times also ran a list of the dates and circumstances of Aaron’s previous milestone home runs (#1, #100, #500, etc.).

Still, even with coverage that was superior to what Williams and Mays had received, the media attention for Aaron’s moment doesn’t even come close to the attention Bonds is getting. And really, Aaron tying for second place all-time in homers, one step from Babe Ruth, is a far bigger story than what Bonds did yesterday.

Now, quite obviously, much of that has to do with the fact that all media attention is magnified now. There wasn’t ESPN or ESPN.com back in 1972, there wasn’t Yahoo! News or CNN.com, etc. Still, in good, old-fashioned ink and paper newspapers, Bonds’ home run to tie him for third place all-time will have gotten more attention than the home runs of Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, combined.

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