Roger and the Babeby Frank Jackson
May 25, 2012
Right now, more than a half century after the 1961 season, you’re probably wondering what more can possibly be said about Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. Well, I have nothing to say about Roger Maris, but I would like to pay homage to Roger Connor.
So who is Roger Connor and why should we be mindful of him? Rest assured no asterisk is needed to elaborate on his accomplishments.
Among other things, Roger Connor is the answer to a trivia question that really separates the major league trivia buffs from the Little Leaguers.
Doubtless everyone reading these words knows that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record of 714 in 1973, and that Barry Bonds passed Aaron’s total of 755 in 2006.
But the Bambino didn’t get started till 1914 and players had been hitting home runs for decades before that, so whose record did he break?
The answer, as you have probably guessed by now, is Roger Connor. He was the career home run king from 1895 to 1921, but he never came close to attaining the iconic status of Babe Ruth.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Babe was global, but he was certainly international. During World War II, Japanese soldiers allegedly heckled their American counterparts by hollering “To hell with Babe Ruth!” There is no record of German soldiers taunting doughboys with shouts of “To hell with Roger Connor!” during the previous global conflict.
As is the case with many a 19th century ballplayer, Connor’s exploits are largely forgotten. The beginning of the 20th century is also the beginning of the modern era in baseball, and this 20th century bias was evident right from the start of the Hall of Fame, as the first group of inductees (Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner) in 1936 were 20th century figures (Wagner first arrived on the scene in 1897, but his lengthy career didn’t end till 1917), even though there was no shortage of candidates whose careers began and ended in the 19th century.
So what happened to those gilded age troglodytes? When they retired, did they just drag their war clubs back to their man-caves and slowly fossilize, awaiting re-discovery by baseball paleontologists?
Well, Connor, who was born on July 1, 1857, retired after the 1897 season (when the Babe was only two years old), yet Cooperstown didn’t deem him worthy of admission till 1976, 45 years after his death. Since he died in 1931, five years before the establishment of the Hall of Fame, he never knew what he was missing.
In his prime, however, he attracted plenty of attention. Unlike Ruth, he wasn’t bigger than life, but he was bigger than Ruth! Of course, Ruth’s weight increased as his career progressed, but baseball-reference.com lists him at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, presumably reflecting his prime years. Looking at pictures of the Babe during the 1930s, we can safely conclude that any weight beyond 215 pounds was fat, not muscle.
Whatever his weight, the Babe was an imposing figure but he had nothing on Connor, who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 230 pounds. Given the average American male vital statistics of the late 19th century, he was a giant among men. Beyond that, he was a giant among Giants!
As the story goes, James Mutrie, owner of the New York Gothams of the National League, was so enthused by the performance of his team in 1885 that he blurted, “Look at them, they’re... they’re giants! My big fellows! My Giants!” You have to wonder if Mutrie was looking at Connor when he uttered those words. At any rate, after Mutrie’s outburst, the Gothams were known as the Giants.
There’s no question that Connor was the BMOC (big man in the clubhouse) of the team. Aside from Connor, the 1885 Giants ranged in height from 5-foot-3 to 6-1½, and in weight from 127 to 188 pounds. The pipsqueak in both height and weight was pitcher Larry Corcoran. After Connor, outfielder Pete Gillespie was the tallest and catcher Buck Ewing was the heaviest. Given Connor’s brawn, there would be no mistaking him in a team photo. More importantly, he was one of the most durable players of the 1880s; he missed only 17 games during that decade.
Connor debuted with the Troy Trojans in 1880 at age 23 and hit a robust .332 in 340 at-bats. His home run total was a modest three. And so it went for the next several years (the Troy franchise was dissolved and the players were shuttled to a new franchise in New York after the 1882 season), with Connor hitting for average (notably .357 in 1883) but not power.
Then in 1886, there was a “breakthrough” season of seven home runs to go along with a .355 average. He had never hit more than four in a season, and the season before he had hit but one home run. Then his four-baggers went into double digits. In 1887, he clouted 17, good for second in the National League. From 1888 through 1893 he was in double digits every year save for 1891, when he had a bit of an off year (seven home runs and a .292 batting average). He rebounded in 1892 with 12 home runs (plus 116 walks to go with his .294 batting average) and in 1893 he was at .305 with 11 home runs and 105 RBIs.
He managed to hold his own with the Giants and the Browns in 1894 and 1895 but his age began to show in 1896. He finished that season with 11 home runs but his lowest batting average (.284) to that point in his career. The next year, his last, featured just one home run and a .229 average in a mere 83 at-bats.
He was finished at age 40, but he’d had a good run. When his career totals are considered, the shorter baseball seasons of his era must be considered. In 1880, for example, he played but 83 games for the Troy Trojans, yet that was a complete schedule! Only in 1892, when he played in 155 games for the Phillies, did he have a season that approximated the length of a 20th century season.
If you doubt that Connor is Cooperstown-worthy, consider these statistics:
His .397 OBP puts him ahead of Richie Ashburn, Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, Earl Averill and Hack Wilson.
His OPS was .883, no great shakes today, but outstanding for the dead ball era. Even so, his OPS is greater than such 20th century stalwarts as Roy Campanella, Ducky Medwick, and Larry Doby.
He accumulated 1,322 RBIs, more than Pete Rose, Paul Waner, Paul Molitor, Roberto Clemente, Enos Slaughter and Eddie Collins
He scored 1,620 runs, more than Lou Brock, George Brett, Rogers Hornsby, Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, Carew, Billy Williams and Tony Gwynn
He had 17 seasons of more than 100 hits, better than Boggs, Jackson, Carew, Mel Ott or Andre Dawson.
He drew 1,002 bases on balls, more than Duke Snider, Robin Yount, Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, and several other Hall members.
Connor not only hit a lot of home runs (for his time). He also had an historic first. On Sept. 10, 1881, he hit a grand slam off Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs (yes, you read that right). This was the first grand slam in major league history. This historic event occurred at Albany’s Riverside Park (one of several parks the Troy Trojans called home). It was also the first walk-off grand slam in history, as the Trojans won, 8-7.
The most curious aspect of Connor’s slugging career is that he managed to become an all-time home run leader with only one league home run title to his credit. That occurred in 1890, when he went deep 14 times (and led the league in slugging at .548) for the New York franchise of the one-year wonder Players League. One might be tempted to characterize this title as tainted, but a number of National Leaguers (Connor’s Giants in particular) had made the shift to the Players League, so the pitching he faced was still largely major league caliber.
Of course, with three major leagues (the American Association was still in business at the time) in 1890, talent dilution was inevitable. Even so, other hitters in other leagues were subject to the same dilution of pitching staffs, so Connor’s total of 14, the best in organized baseball, is no more tainted than the totals of the National League’s three leaders (Walt Wilmot of the Chicago Colts, Oyster Burns of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, and Mike Tiernan of the Giants) who had 13 each, or the American Association leader, Charles Campau, who hit 10 for the St. Louis Browns.
Connor’s 1890 season could be a source of confusion, as the Players League New York franchise was also nicknamed the Giants and their home field, Brotherhood Park, was literally next door to Manhattan Field, the National League Giants’ home. Admittedly, such a set-up seems worthy of a preface by Rod Serling. To add to the confusion, Brotherhood Park was later taken over by the National League Giants and served as their home till they moved to San Francisco. It was, of course, better known as the Polo Grounds, the last of several parks in Manhattan with that appellation.
That was arguably Connor’s glory year, but given his career totals, we must wonder why there were not more. Of course, there is no reason why a career leader must also be a season leader. A recent example is Eddie Murray, who somehow managed to amass 504 home runs without ever leading his league, and never hitting more than 33 in a season. He still made it to Cooperstown. Brilliance attracts attention, but over time, so does consistency.
My theory to account for Connor’s paucity of home run titles is that he was likely slow of foot due to his size. Yeah, I know Josh Hamilton plays center field and steals bases, and he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds. But he is an exceptional player in more ways than one.
In Connor’s era of the dead ball and distant (or non-existent) fences, inside-the-park home runs and triples were far more frequent than they are today. In today’s ballparks of more modest dimensions, the triple has become the province of the speedster and the inside-the-park home run is a rarity. In Connor’s time, the speedster could stretch a triple into an inside-the-park job, but it is also true that the slower runner might halt at third base and not attempt to circle the bases, or he might be thrown out at home and still be credited with a triple.
In days of old, a player’s hitting stats would likely show a preponderance of singles, followed by doubles, triples and homers. Today, of course, it would more likely be singles, doubles, homers, and triples.
When we look at Connor’s record for triples, we find that he has a lifetime total of 233, fifth all-time, and 95 more than his home run total! In his best year, 1894, he had 25 three-baggers. Today we would assume that a man with that many triples would be a speed demon. Not so given the ballparks of the late 19th century. Had Connor been more fleet of foot, a lot of those 233 triples might have been inside-the-park four-baggers and the Babe would have had to wait another year or two to break his record.
When we look at the career totals for inside-the-park home runs, it is not surprising to note that deadball era players dominate the list. Jesse Burkett, for example, had 55 lifetime. In 1901 alone, Sam Crawford had 12. During that same season, 35 percent of the home runs struck were inside the park. I don’t know how many Connor had, but he does not show up on the all-time top 20 list. The lowest men on the list are Buck Freeman and Cy Seymour with 24, so we can conclude that Connor had fewer than that.
By way of contrast, Harry Stovey, the man Connor surpassed as career home run leader, had 27 insiders out of a grand total of 122. That’s a tad more than 22 percent. But he stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 175 pounds, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by asserting that he was likely faster than Connor. In 1890 Stovey stole 97 bases for the Boston Reds to lead the Players League. By contrast, Connor’s career year for stolen bases was 1887 when he stole 43, but even in his prime his totals were mostly in the '20s. (The career stolen base totals for both men—244 for Connor, 509 for Stovey—exclude the 1880-1885 seasons, as stolen bases were not tracked before 1886.
Not surprisingly, Connor played the traditional “donkey” position, namely first base. When he played other positions (he played 111 games at third base, 62 in the outfield, and, incredibly, 67 games at second base), the results were often alarming, with fielding averages between .820 and .850, definitely sub-par, even with 19th century leather goods. Small wonder that Connor’s renown is based on offense.
Roger Connor was 64 years old when the Babe broke his record in 1921. One can’t help but wonder how he felt about it, but I doubt that any reporters were on hand to ask him. The Babe, of course, was no longer available for comment when Henry Aaron broke his record. When Aaron was on the verge of passing the Babe, he said not to worry, statistics be damned, the Babe would not be forgotten. He was right. After almost four decades, the number 714 still resonates with baseball fans. And now that Barry Bonds has surpassed Henry Aaron, he too is still fondly remembered. Of course, the same cannot be said for Bonds and few will be sorry to see him dethroned, whenever that may be.
Today Roger Connor is not a familiar name, much less a despised or admired one. That’s understandable, given the relative lack of home runs in the 19th century, and the relative lack of interest in 19th century baseball, but it is unfortunate. As a pioneer of the circuit clout, Connor occupies a place of historic importance. If nothing else, he was one of the first players in baseball history who could answer that perennial question:
Do chicks really dig the long ball?
References and Resources
The Baseball Timeline, edited by Burt Solomon, DK Publishing (New York, 2001)
The Giants: Memories and Memorabilia From a Century of Baseball by Bruce Chadwick and David M. Spindel, Abbeville Press (New Y ork, 1993)
The New York Giants: an Informal History of a Great Baseball Club by Frank Graham, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL, 1952)
Professional Sports Team Histories: Baseball, ed. by Michael L. LaBlanc, Gale Research (Detroit, 1994)
The SABR Baseball List and Record Book, ed. by Lyle Spatz, Scribner (New York, 2007)
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.