This month, Sammy Sosa becomes the first player to appear twice in this series, having first graced our internet pages for his amazing 20-homer June he had back in 1998. But before we look at the subsequently disgraced slugger on this internet page, we will first revisit two Augusts from new home run heroes.
Willie Mays, one of the greatest players that ever lived, hit 17 homers in August of 1965. That was tied by the aforementioned Sosa in 2001, and those two share the National League record. Our other player of emphasis this month is Rudy York, who hit 18 homers in 1937 to hold the American League record by himself. York held the MLB record for any month until “Slammin’” Sammy came along in ’98.
No one would have predicted York to set any records when the ’37 season started. Of course, it wasn’t because no one thought he was good, as he was the Most Valuable Player for his minor league team the year before. It was just that Detroit already had Hank Greenberg at first base, where York played in the minors. Even at positions like outfield or third base, where York was likely the better hitter, his defensive shortcomings kept him out of a starting job.
The situation was evidently similar to Cincinnati’s current dealings with Yonder Alonso. The Tigers’ manager at the time, Mickey Cochrane, passed over York when his position at catcher was up for grabs. York had played some backstop in the minors, but replacement manager Del Baker turned elsewhere to fill the backstop position.
The third base position opened after an injury to Marv Owen, and York started playing more regularly in mid-June and almost throughout July.
Then the Tigers turned into a M.A.S.H. unit. Birdie Tebbetts, Ray Hayworth, and Cliff Bolton all suffered injuries. Cochrane, who was now back with the squad after recovering from his own issues after gettting beaned months before while he was still a player-manager, put York in at catcher on August 4.
York had sat out for several games since the end of July, so once he got his chance for a regular position in the lineup, he held onto it tighter than he reportedly held his bottles of beer. York had flashed his considerable power by hitting 12 home runs in only about 180 plate appearances up until his start at catcher. He would hit 23 more in 237 PA the rest of 1937.
The first bomb came on the fourth in his first game as starting backstop. Then he homered on three straight days, starting on the sixth. He settled in and played five homerless games, but that would be the extent of any power outage he would suffer the rest of the way.
On the 19th, York homered twice against the White Sox before rain shortened the game. He actually lost another couple of RBI when he doubled in an inning that ended up washed out when the home team failed to get through the bottom half due to the weather.
York seemed to like double headers, as he hit two homers in two games on the 22nd and three during a twin bill on the 24th. The next day, York homered again—this time against the Philadelphia Athletics—for his sixth blast in five games. On the 27th, York hit a three-run round-tripper against Red Sox hurler Jack Wilson in the first. That turned out to be quite an accomplishment that day, as Wilson went on to allow only one other hit (a homer to Gerald Walker) the remainder of the game.
On the last day of the month, York hit two more homers, this time off Pete Appleton of the Senators. Those homers gave him the AL record for August, and at the time it bested Babe Ruth‘s record for most in any month. Not bad for a guy that didn’t have a set position to start the year. Also not bad for a guy who once had a former teammate describe him as “…the silliest bastard I ever met in my life.”
Mays was part of so much history in his career. He was next to bat when Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Mays was so special, the Giants traded away Thomson a few years later to open up the center field position for him.
Mays made one of the most famous catches in baseball, and ended his career among the all-time career home run hitters. And then there was an ugly incident he witnessed firsthand during a month in which he set the NL record for most home runs in August in 1965.
The month started fine, with a homer on the second and two more on the fifth. His San Francisco Giants were getting hot and working their way to the top of the National League standings. On the seventh, Mays hit two homers against the Cardinals. The next day, Mays homered again to hit his fifth in four games. On the 12th, he homered in each game of a doubleheader versus Pittsburgh.
On the 19th, he hit one against the Dodgers in a game that was for first place. Unfortunately for Mays, he was bested that game by the Dodgers and their pitcher Don Drysdale, who hit a home run of his own while pitching deep into a 15-inning game. Drysdale was finally pulled in the 11th for a pinch-runner after he’d hit a single. It was a wild matchup that saw the Dodgers miss several chances to take the lead by getting thrown out at home.
Mays hit another on the 20th. Then another on the 21st, one that Leonard Koppett described as “a wind-assisted fly that just cleared the right-field fence.” Even if it barely made it out, it still stood as his fifth home run in five games. He added to that streak the next day in the final contest of the four-game series versus the Dodgers, helping keep the Giants in the pennant race.
That game was not just memorable for the pennant race implications. It was a famous game in baseball history in which Mays’ teammate Juan Marichal attacked Johnny Roseboro with a bat. Newspaper accounts from the day after the incident credit Mays with serving as peacemaker while both teams struggled to react to the vicious attack on the Dodgers’ catcher. It was only after Mays helped restore order that he turned a Sandy Koufax fastball into a 450-foot homer.
The streak of games with home runs ended against the Pirates as Mays battled a groin injury. But Mays battled through the injury and kept playing, returning to New York, where his career in Major League Baseball had started.
He hit his 16th of the month off Tom Parsons of the Mets in front of a then-record 56,167 at Shea Stadium. He did it while Ralph Kiner, the man that held the record for NL homers during August when Mays came to town, called the game on television. Two days later, on the 29th, Mays broke Kiner’s record for August, and also passed Lou Gehrig for fifth place with his 494th career home run.
Mays hit .363/.446/.841 for the month. His Giants kept charging toward the top of the standings while Mays homered during August. They eventually took the lead and looked like they may win the pennant by mid-September. However, the Dodgers eventually took back the lead and left Mays with the consolation of an individual record.
Sosa, no stranger to individual records combined with team shortcomings, also hit 17 during the month of August, his in 2001. Sosa was part of the 1998 home run race with Mark McGwire that brought many fans, jaded by a labor dispute between players and owners, back to the game. A lot of that was thanks to a big June chronicled here. But, as big, as historic, as amazing, as ’98 was, Sosa’s 2001 was a better year.
Sosa hit .328/.437/.737 in 2001. Yep, that’s .737 slugging! In August, Sosa hit .385/.469/.936. His team went 13-16, and that— maybe even more than the suspicions of steroid use—defines Sosa’s career.
Sosa was an amazing player. He was charismatic. He owned Chicago nearly on the level that Michael Jordan owned Chicago, nearly on the level that Mike Ditka owned Chicago. But Sosa polarized his own town. White Sox fans hated him, screaming “Steroids!” while others were whispering, and pointing out that his teams didn’t win enough.
We don’t have to revisit Sosa’s 2001 game by game; it’s enough to know that he dominated just like he dominated much of the latter half of the ’90s. It’s enough to know that he added another record to his long list of individual records.
What’s not enough is the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Sosa predictably dodges the question, citing his numbers as speaking for him. But he played among those we know used and we know he likely used himself. It’s a question Hall of Fame voters will have to deal with soon.
We can just argue over it. We can either accept his incredible batting in context, or dismiss it because of his era. What we can also do is go back to Mays’ 1965 season and appreciate that it was legitimate (at least, as legitimate as the “Greenie Era” will allow). So, maybe it’s “the silly bastard” Rudy York that we need to go back to. That way we can relish a guy that allegedly drank his way through the ’30s and ’40s.
References & Resources
The New York Times, SABR Research Journals Archive, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Baseball-Reference.com