This annotated week in baseball history: April 27-May 3, 1961

On April 30, 1961 Willie Mays became just the ninth player to hit four home runs in a game. Richard looks back on Mays’ feat, and the other men who have clubbed four round-trippers in a single day.

So it turns out that while I might think that the cycle is underappreciated, judging by the mail I received, I’m the only one. Consensus is that while numerically cycles are as infrequent an event as no-hitters, they are nonetheless properly over-rated.

Despite this, I shall continue in my efforts to draw out comparisons between pitching and its little-thought-of offensive equivalents. This week’s comparison is between the perfect game and the four-homer game.

For the moment, Major League Baseball acknowledges 17 perfect games in history. This cuts out a handful of “sort-of” perfect games, like those pitched by Harvey Haddix (12 perfect innings; lost it in the 13th) and Ernie Shore (retired 27 straight after replacing an ejected pitcher, Babe Ruth, in the top of the first inning).

Four-homer games are even rarer. Only 15 players are credited with a four-homer game and, unlike perfect games, there are no disputed situations. You either hit four home runs or you don’t.

The first player to hit four in a game was Bobby Lowe in 1894. Lowe was playing for the Boston—today we’d call them the Atlanta—Braves and accomplished his feat in May of that year. Lowe’s four homers were nearly a quarter of his 1894 total of 17, which was second in the league behind teammate Hugh Duffy’s 18.

Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty would match Lowe’s feat two years later while playing for the Phillies, but it would not be until 1932 that another four-homer game took place. The man who accomplished it was a legendary Yankee slugger, but it was Lou Gehrig rather than the Babe.

Gehrig’s four homers came on a day when the Yankees scored 20 runs against the Philadelphia A’s, thanks both to Gehrig’s home runs and a cycle by Tony Lazzeri. (Lazzeri’s cycle was especially impressive as the home run part of it was a grand slam.) Chuck Klein had the next four-homer outburst in 1936, but thereafter four-homer games again went into long-term hibernation.

At this point it is worth observing that if one takes the founding of the National League in 1876 as the beginning of major league baseball, then it can be said that for nearly 70 years (1876-1947) only four players hit four homers in a single game. From 1948 through this season—almost as long a time—11 players have managed it.

Indeed, the period from 1948 through 1959 would see as many players hit four home runs as had previously done it in the preceding 70-plus years: Pat Seerey, Gil Hodges, Joe Adcock and Rocky Colavito.

In 1961, Mays hit the homer that provides the inspiration for this week’s column. At the time, it was the earliest in the season a player had ever hit four home runs in a game. Mays’ homers gave him six for the month of April, a total eventual home run champion Roger Maris would not match until May 20 that year.

Four-homer games would take their largest post-Klein gap after Mays’, with another not coming until Mike Schmidt did it on April 17, 1976. Schmidt’s performance came in the highest-scoring four-homer game, an 18-16 slugfest won by the Phils in 10 innings. In addition to his four homers, Schmidt had a single and drove in eight runs.

Former Rookie of the Year Bob Horner hit his four home runs during a 1986 game. In 1993, Mark Whiten became the next man to hit four homers in a game. Whiten did it in the second game of a double-header, and he is co-holder of the records for most home runs in a single game, most RBI in a single game, and most RBI in a single day.

In was not until 2002 that a player would again manage four homers in a game, but it was a notable year for that feat. To begin, 2002 was the first season that two players pulled the trick in the same year, and in fact, they came in the same month: Mike Cameron on May 2 and Shawn Green on May 23.

They were noteworthy for different reasons. Cameron hit two of his home runs in the first inning, thus becoming the second American League player to do that. Incredibly, the first was his teammate Bret Boone, who earned the number one spot by virtue of batting ahead of Cameron in the line-up.

Cameron did not come up in the second inning, but in the third he hit his third home run, thus becoming only the second player with three home runs in three innings. In the fifth, Cameron hit his fourth homer. He was now the fifth player to hit four consecutive home runs, and still had two at-bats left in the game.

In the seventh, Cameron was hit by a pitch (the hometown Chicago crowd booed) but in the ninth he hit a ball out to the warning track. It was caught by Jeff Liefer, thus making Cameron miss becoming the first player with five homers in a game.

Green’s game was not quite as dramatic for home runs, but in addition to his four homers Green singled and doubled. (He was therefore just a triple shy of being the only player to hit four home runs while also hitting for the cycle.) Green’s six hits combined to give him 19 total bases, a record that still stands.

For the moment, the last man to belt four homers in one day is Carlos Delgado. The then-Blue Jay did it in September 2003. The fourth home run was doubly sweet for Delgado, as it marked his 300th career round-tripper.

While some would surely argue that the end of the steroid era means four-homer games are much less likely, it can only be a matter of time before another slugger adds his name to the record books.

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