This annotated week in baseball history: July 22-July 28, 1890

Someday soon, Barry Bonds will become the first man to hit 757 home runs. But on July 23, 1890, Harry Stovey became the first to hit 100. Richard looks back at his life and career.

I know very little about baseball prior to what I consider the “modern era” of the game, starting with the first World Series in 1903. I have tried to fill in the gaps in my ignorance, but the truth is that those tend to be gaps in everyone’s ignorance. There just isn’t a lot of reliable material from that period.

I therefore avoid writing about players and events from that era, if only to save myself from looking the fool. But given that Barry Bonds will apparently break Hank Aaron’s home run record within a week, it only seems fair to look back on baseball’s first career home run champion with a total greater than 100, Harry Stovey.

Stovey was born in Philadelphia in 1856. To give a sense of how long ago we’re talking about, in 1856 Abraham Lincoln was a practicing lawyer and failed one-term congressman. Abner Doubleday, the “creator” of baseball, was an obscure artillery lieutenant fighting Indians in Florida. And Rollie Stiles, who recently died at 100, vacating the title of oldest living ballplayer, was some 50 years from being born.

At the time, Stovey was known as Harry Stow (or Stowe); he would later change his name in an attempt to keep his family from discovering he was making his career at baseball, which was seen (to a large extent rightly) as not much of a respectable profession. He debuted in the professional ranks in 1880 for the Worcester Ruby Legs—great name, incidentally—and led the team in nearly every offensive category. In the department of my-how-things-have-changed, Stovey led the league with six home runs, a total barely 10 percent of what the league leaders reached last year.

Stovey never hit a huge number of home runs by modern measures—it took him 10 years to reach 100. Nevertheless, he was one of the great home run hitters of his time. From 1880 to 1891 he appeared in the top 10 in homers every year save 1887 and led the league five times. The most Stovey hit in that period was 19 in 1889, a figure more than double that of the fifth place finisher.

There was no such thing as an MVP award in those days, but Stovey’s power numbers alone likely would have made him a viable candidate. That being said, he brought far more to the table than mere homers. Stovey also led the league in triples five times and doubles once. In 1883, he led the league in all three categories, as part of one of his more remarkable seasons.

Not surprisingly, given his high totals of triples and homers (remembering that many home runs were of the inside-the-park variety in those days), Stovey was also a hellacious base stealer. Bill James lists him as one of the most aggressive baserunners of the era. Perhaps the greatest testament to that is that Stovey is often credited as one of the first players to slide feet-first. I’m slightly cynical about this kind of fact since it would seem that Stovey at best popularized the slide, but it at least deserves a mention.

Innovative sliding style or not, Stovey could run the bases. In 1890 he stole 97 bases as a member of the Boston Reds in the ill-fated Players League. Even in 1891, at age 34 and playing in the National League, Stovey stole 57, good for fifth overall.

Oddly, given the wide-ranging nature of Stovey’s talents and accomplishments, he was not a well-known player even in his own time. It is tempting to look at Stovey’s fielding totals—he made near 475 career errors—and attribute it to that, but of course the high error totals are as much a part of that era as his home run numbers.

These days, Stovey is virtually unknown. He lost his title of all-time home run king to Roger Connor in 1895 and when Connor lost it to Babe Ruth in 1921, Stovey was no longer even a trivia question answer. (Connor, incidentally, seems to have achieved trivia immortality as the all-time home run king before Ruth, which is kind of a neat trick.)

This seems a shame, since Stovey has a lot to be remembered for. He was the preeminent power and speed combination of the time he played and being the first man to hit 100 home runs would seem to grant one a better fate.

Part of the problem may be that it is difficult to imagine a current player to compare to Stovey. The most recent player on his list of similar batters is Johnny Damon, but that’s not really the right comparison. Damon has good speed and (at least some years) decent power, but he was never the kind of home run threat Stovey was, and Stovey was not a center fielder.

Bill James suggests Edgar Martinez, and while it is true that Stovey’s natural position might have ultimately been DH, he had far better foot speed than the Seattle great. The best comparison I can think of is Carlos Beltran, if Beltran played an average (or worse) defensive outfield, rather than a very good center field.

In any case, Stovey played in fewer than 1,500 games for his career, another element that can be largely attributed to the time he played. Despite that, it may be that such a short career cost Stovey his shot at the Hall of Fame. His seemingly pedestrian career Triple Crown numbers (.289, 122, 908 RBI) belie the quality player Stovey was, and his domination of the leader board of his leagues.

Given that Stovey has now been retired for more than 100 years—he was a policeman following his big league career—and dead for 70, it seems unlikely he will ever get the recognition he deserves. Nonetheless, Stovey merits some attention, and to be remembered as more than just the first man with 100 home runs.

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