Baseball’s most exciting play

There are a lot of fun plays in baseball, but few are cooler than seeing a player scamper all the way around the bases before the opposing team can tag or throw him out. The inside-the-park home run: you rarely ever see one, but the rarity just adds to the appeal of seeing one.

I’ve had an especially strong interest in this play because the first ball game I attended featured one. Or rather, I thought it did. Instead it turns out I saw something even rarer: a four-base error. (A lazy fly ball bounced off the skull of White Sox outfielder Ron LeFlore.) No matter, though. The sight of Red Sox catcher Gary Allenson scurry around third base remains with me, giving me a special appreciation for the inside-the-park shot.

So I was very interested to hear the news about two weeks ago that Baseball Reference acquired the online rights to the Home Run Encyclopedia. Whereas previously the site could give you information on all long balls hit during the Retrosheet era, now it went back to 1876.

Not only can the site say where, when and off what pitcher each homer was hit by all batters, but Baseball Reference also notes special sorts of homers. Most importantly from my perspective (and bringing it back to the topic of this column), the site lists inside-the-park home runs.

You can look up all kinds of cool things about that most memorable of plays. For example, I’ve heard that Hank Aaron only hit one inside-the-park homer in his life. Sure enough, it came on May 10, 1967 in the first game in a doubleheader against the Phillies off of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

Also, it turns out that was the only time Bunning ever allowed an inside-the-parker. That factoid can be verified because B-Ref also lists home run logs for all pitchers.

It turns out the man with the most home runs without ever launching one out of the park was Frank Robinson. In fact, until fairly recently, he was the only 500-homer guy without any inside shots. Eddie Murray was the second one to make that claim. Yup, that’s right: Harmon Killebrew, believe it or not, hit an inside-the-park home run. I don’t know much about the play, but I have to assume the outfielder misplayed that ball as badly as humanly possible.

Only five players ever hit more total longballs than Frank Robinson, and that quintet combined for 25 inside the park home runs. Aaron had his one, Sammy Sosa had two, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds both had three, Willie Mays had six, and Babe Ruth, believe it or not, had 10.

People remember Ruth as a fat guy, but he wasn’t as hefty when he started out. More importantly for Ruth, there is an era bias at work. The old parks often had shorter lines and extremely deep center fields. The Polo Grounds was usually around 480 feet, and for a brief while was over 500 feet to the deepest part of center. Other places were around or over 450 feet or deeper. When balls got behind outfielders, the batters had a decent chance to score.

Also, the further back one went, the worse the field conditions and defenses usually were. It can even be worse if you go back to pre-Ruthian times. For instance, the outfield relay play wasn’t developed until the 1890s. The game always evolved, and the further back one goes, the more likely it was to hit an inside-the-parker.

As a result, Ruth’s 10 homers were the most by anyone in the 500-homer club. Only one other member topped Mays’ six insiders: Jimmie Foxx, who hit eight. Not-so-coincidentally, Foxx was the second man to hit 500 long balls.

The question becomes: how far down the list do you have to go before finding someone with more insiders than Ruth? Expand the search to the 400 home run club, which features 43 members (including the 25 who topped 500), and still no one tops Ruth. One man ties him at 10, however: Lou Gehrig. Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx were the first ones to ever hit 400 homers. Like I said, an era bias comes into effect.

Going down the list, Ruth his more inside shots than anyone who ever blasted 350 career homers. He had more than anyone in the top 100 home run leaderboard. You have to go all the way down to 119th place before running into someone with more insiders than Ruth. Rogers Hornsby, with 301 career homers, dwarfed Ruth’s 10 inside-the-parkers with 33 of his own. Please note that Hornsby and Ruth are the only guys in the 300-homer club who began their careers before 1920. Era bias? We’re soaking in it!

The most ever

That was fun, but it just sets up the real question here: who hit the most inside-the-park homers of all time? Now, I’m sure this list has been produced already, but I don’t have a copy of the Home Run Encyclopedia. Whatever digging I do will provide an answer that is new to me, even if it isn’t actually new. Hopefully it’ll be new to you. (If not, well, feel free to head on over to Shysterball and say hi to Craig for me.)

I didn’t check on everyone in baseball history, and thus may have missed some, but I checked on the most likely candidates. Looking at members of the 300-home run club showed that I should prioritize earlier baseball players.

I focused on pre-WWII men. The most important to check on are really before 1920, but by going to 1945, I make sure to find guys like Rogers Hornsby. I checked everyone with at least 50 homers back then and for pre-1920 (Billy Southworth hit 17 insiders, if you’re curious), and then went back to 30 homers for deadballers (Topsy Hartsel had 13 inside shots).

Just to make sure I didn’t miss any modern guys, I also checked everyone with at least 100 triples or those who appear in the top 100 leaderboard for stolen bases. The modern leader, if you’re curious, was Willie Wilson with 13. Otis Nixon has the distinction of most steals without any inside-the-park home runs.

No recent guys hit 20 inside-the-park home runs, but I came across 31 old-timers who did. Hornsby, who retired in 1937, was the most recent of the bunch. Though I likely missed a few, here are—as far as I can tell—the all-time inside-the-park home run kings:

Name	    Insiders
Jesse Burkett	55
Sam Crawford	51
Tommy Leach	48
Ty Cobb	        46
Honus Wagner	46
Tris Speaker	38
Jake Beckley	38
Rogers Hornsby	33
Edd Roush	31
Jake Daubert	30
Willie Keeler	30
Chief Wilson	29
Fred Clarke	28
Ed Konetchy	28
Max Carey	27
Harry Stovey	27
Hobe Ferriss	27
Ginger Beaumont	27
Mike Donlin	27
Buck Freeman	24
Zach Wheat	23
Jimmy Collins	23
Cy Seymour	23
Hal Chase	23
Earle Combs	23
Danny Murphy	22
Sherry Magee	22
Sam Rice	21
Rabit Maranville21
Ed Delahanty	20
George Sisler	20

I’m not claiming I got all who belong, but I like my odds on having the right top 10.

It would’ve been really cool if Sam Crawford finished first. After all, he’s the game’s all-time triple king. But you can’t deny former Cleveland Spider outfielder Jesse Burkett.

All hail the inside-the-park homer king! Burkett hit 75 total homers, but only 17 left the park. (The other three were bounced shots. Nowadays they’d be ground-rule doubles, but at various points in time they were considered homers.) Only two of his last 22 career homers were traditional ones. He hit five inside homers off of one pitcher (Gus Weyhing).

Burkett’s impressive haul brings up another question: who had the greatest percentage of their homers come from inside shots? Well, I’m sure the real answer is some players whose entire career totals came from such blasts. (Off the top of my head, I know that was the case with Tommy Thevenow.)

Let’s limit this to players with at least 20 inside-the-park shots, though. The following 11 batters had at least half their career homer totals come on inside shots:

Name	    Insiders	All	     %
Willie Keeler	30	33	90.91%
Tommy Leach	48	63	76.19%
Rabit Maranville21	28	75.00%
Jesse Burkett	55	75	73.33%
Ginger Beaumont	27	39	69.23%
Hobe Ferriss	27	40	67.50%
Sam Rice	21	34	61.76%
Jake Daubert	30	56	53.57%
Mike Donlin	27	51	52.94%
Sam Crawford	51	97	52.58%
Danny Murphy	22	44	50.00%

Keeler is the perfect guy to end up atop this list. At 140 pounds spread out over five feet and four-and-a-half inches, he was the least physically imposing Hall of Famer of them all. The nicest thing you can say about his physique was that he was capable of kicking James Madison’s ass. He’s famous for his batting philosophy of “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” and I believe was an extreme groundball hitter.

Well, for his sake I certainly hope he was a groundball hitter. At any weight, only three balls over the fence in 9,594 plate appearances is pretty bad. Wait, check that—he only had two normal homers. The third was a bounced shot. One fence-clearer came in 1894 and the other in 1896. He had over 7,500 plate appearances without hitting one out of play. Keeler legged out his final 19 round-trippers.

It’s worth noting that in his first 800 games, Rabbit Maranville only had one routine home run—but it was a walk-off shot.

What about the pitchers?

Let’s flip the question around and see which pitchers allowed the most inside-the-parkers. Making this list tells us three things about the pitcher: when he pitched, the stadium he pitched in, and how durable he was.

For this, I checked every pre-WWII pitcher currently listed among the top 400 all time for career innings pitched. Again, I may have missed someone, but as near as I can tell, the following 34 are the only ones to allow 20 or more insiders:

Name	        HR
Cy Young	54
Jack Powell	40
Rube Marqurd	38
Bill Dinneen	36
Christy Mathewsn33
Long Tom Hughes	33
Wilbur Cooper	29
Jesse Tannehill	28
Frank Killen	27
Guy Weyhing	27
Al Orth	        27
Slim Sallee	26
Frank Kitson	24
Walter Johnson	24
Chick Fraser	24
Jack Chesbro	24
Jack Taylor	24
Nap Rucker	23
Bob Harmon	23
Jesse Barnes	23
Frank Dwyer	23
Tony Mullane	23
Burleigh Grimes	23
Red Ehret	22
Rube Benton	22
Bob Groom	21
Bill Hutchinson	21
Jeff Pfeffer	21
Clark Griffith	21
Joe McGinnity	21
Red Ames	20
Pud Galvin	20
Doc White	20
Earl Moore	20

The Jack Taylor listed is the one who pitched from 1898 to 1907, not the other one.

Burleigh Grimes is the most recent name up there. Either he or Waite Hoyt (17 career insiders allowed) had the most by any liveballer; depends how you date the beginning of the liveball era. If you say it began in 1920, then they’re tied with 17 allowed in the liveball era. However, run scoring didn’t rise in Grimes’ NL until 1921. Grimes allowed a trio of insiders in 1920 itself, so Hoyt edges him 17-14 in the post-deadball era.

Looking at the top of the list, it figures that Cy Young is in first. He is atop pretty much all the other career endurance lists. It’s worth noting that runner-up Jack Powell was his teammate in Cleveland in the 1890s. Both were teammates with Jesse Burkett. That being said, neither Young nor Powell allowed that many insiders until the 20th century, when they had gone to other places.

Cy Young went to the Red Sox where he teamed with Bill Dinneen and Jesse Tannehill, who are both on the list. In fact, those were three of only five men to pitch for the team that year. On the whole, they allowed 31 homers—25 of which were inside-the-park shots.

What really guns up Powell’s total was his brief spell with the New York Yankees in 1904-05. Of the 19 homers he allowed in that span, only three went over the fence. Willie Keeler was playing for the team in those years. Wee Willie was ninth in the league in homers in 1905. Naturally, they were all inside-the-park blasts.

As was the case with hitters, let’s see who had the greatest percentage of homers come from inside-the-park blows. From the 20+ club, the following had a majority come from inside shots:

Name	        HR	All	     %
Jesse Tannehill	28	39	71.79%
Long Tom Hughes	33	52	63.62%
Jack Chesbro	24	39	61.54%
Doc White	20	33	60.61%
Jack Taylor	24	41	58.54%
Nap Rucker	23	41	56.10%
Bob Harmon	23	44	52.27%

Let’s make a circle: Cy Young and Jack Powell were teammates in Cleveland. Young later teamed with Tannehill, while Powell was second banana to Jack Chesbro in New York. Fittingly, Tannehill and Chesbro were partners for a brief while in Pittsburgh. It’s nice when things come together like that.

On June 2, 1899, Nap Lajoie blasted a fence-clearing walk-off blast against Jesse Tannehill. He didn’t allow another ball to leave the yard until Harry Davis tagged him on April 15, 1905. He threw approximately 1,400 innings between those pitches. Of the 11 regular homers he allowed, two came from Honus Wagner in one game, including another walk-off shot.

Personally, I’m more impressed by Long Tom Hughes‘ placement, though. He allowed an inside-the-park home run once every 80 innings, the highest rate in baseball history. Fifteen of the first 16 homers he allowed were inside-the-parkers, including two in the same game by Jimmy Collins. He even allowed that greatest of all plays: a walk-off inside-the-park home run. The batter who hit it? Why, it was Wee Willie Keeler.

Of course! Who else could it be? At the plate is the guy with over 90 percent of his homers staying inside the park, and on the mound the man who allows them once every 80 innings. It had to be an inside-the-park homer or the universe would be thrown off course.

Random note: Greg Maddux threw the most innings without ever allowing a homer.

References & Resources
This was, obviously, based on the new partnership between Baseball-Reference.com and the Home Run Encyclopedia.

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