On June 4, 1986, Barry Bonds hit the first home run of his career. He would have 761 more. This week, Richard looks back on other notable home run hitters’ first time rounding the bases in the major leagues.
As I write this, Ken Griffey Jr. is closing in on his 600th home run. When he hits it, Griffey will become just the sixth player to reach that total. To paraphrase the cliché, a journey of 600 (and more) home runs begins with a single dinger.
Being that he is the all-time home run leader, it only seems appropriate to begin with Barry Bonds. Being the son of Bobby Bonds, Barry arrived in the majors with some obvious hype. Through his first six games, though, Bonds was hitting just .238, with only two extra-base hits, both doubles.
On June 4, he exploded with a 4-for-5 day. Facing the Braves at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, Bonds was 2-for-3 with a pair of singles entering the fifth. Righty Craig McMurty had retired the eighth and ninth place hitters, bringing the leadoff hitting Bonds to the plate. He drove a long fly ball to left field, over the head of Gerald Perry for his first career home run.
Bonds would add an eighth-inning double to complete his day, and raise his OPS more than 300 points. All told, Bonds would hit only 15 more home runs in ’86, his lowest total in one year until the injury-shortened 2005 season.
Griffey also was struggling in his first season in the major leagues, 1989, a debut that also came with the high expectations of being the son of a former player. Griffey was hitting just .105 entering his first game in front of his team’s hometown fans at Seattle’s Kingdome. Like Bonds, Griffey was still hitting high in the order at this point in his career, and came up with just one out in the first.
Against White Sox right hander Eric King, Griffey—like Bonds—launched a long fly ball to the opposite field. Ron Kittle could only watch the ball soar over his head and out for Griffey’s first home run. Griffey would hit another the next day off Shawn Hillegas. Like Bonds, Griffey would finish his rookie year with 16 homers. For Griffey, this would be the lowest total of his career until injuries began to derail him in 2002.
As we continue through the 600 home run club, we come to Sammy Sosa. Continuing the theme, Sosa was struggling entering the game that featured his first home run, hitting just .200 with only one extra base hit. Unlike Bonds and Griffey who hit their home runs off a pair of pitchers with a collective 80 wins, Sosa was at bat against Roger Clemens at Fenway Park in 1989.
Facing the Rocket, Sosa swung at the second pitch he saw—young Sammy wasn’t big on taking pitches—and drove it over the Green Monster. That was the only home run Sosa would hit with the Rangers; less than six weeks after hitting his homer off Clemens, Sosa was dispensed to the White Sox. He’d hit three the rest of the season with the Sox. Sosa would not hit 30 in a season for another three years, but not go below 25 again until 2005.
Although most would now agree the memory carries at least some stigma, in 1998 Sosa and Mark McGwire had the better part of American sporting attention as they chased Roger Maris’ home run record. Defining memories of McGwire come from that season, of the hulking first baseman who hit third in the lineup every game in which he appeared.
However, on Aug. 25, 1986, McGwire was a recent Oakland call-up from the minor leagues. Manager Tony LaRussa was playing McGwire at third base, and batting him eighth. In the fifth inning, with the A’s just having taken a 5-3 lead, McGwire came up with a man on base. Against Tigers righty Walt Terrell, McGwire crushed a home run, the first of 23 he would hit at Tiger Stadium. Those 23 homers are more than McGwire hit at any other opposing park.
“Big Mac” finished the season with just three home runs, but would hit 49 the next year, no doubt raising the possibility that he might someday be the man to pass Roger Maris. As for Maris himself, unlike many other notable sluggers, he was having no trouble at the time of his first round-tripper. In the first game of his career, Maris was 3-for-5. In the second, he managed quite the dramatic first trip around the bases.
Maris’ Indians and the Tigers were tied at three after six innings. It would remain tied until the top of the 11th, when the Indians pushed a run across on a one-out sac fly. After two walks loaded the bases, Maris came up. Facing right-hander Jack Crimian, Maris crushed a pitch for a grand slam, securing the Indians’ win. For Maris, it was the first home run of his 14 that year. That might be not be much of a total, but only a few years later it would be distinctly bettered.
Finally we come to the man perhaps most inexorably linked to the home run: Babe Ruth. As a pitcher, Ruth obviously had fewer chances to hit his first homer, and his statistics heading into the game in which it came are largely meaningless. Nonetheless, it took Ruth fewer than 25 plate appearances to get his first one.
On May 6, 1915, Ruth was still with the Red Sox and still a pitcher. He started the game that day—appropriately enough against the Yankees—at the Polo Grounds. Facing pitcher Jack Warhop, who featured what we’d now call a submarine delivery, Ruth crushed a home run that was witnessed, depending on what account you believe, by somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people.
It seems safe to believe that none in attendance imagined Ruth’s blast would be the start of a Hall of Fame career as a hitter. While that might be the case for players like Maris, McGwire and Sosa, it is probably every bit the opposite for players like Griffey and Bonds.
The lesson to learn here—besides that there are too many notable home run hitters to cover in one piece—is that no matter the status of the next player you see hit his first major league home run, it is worth remembering, because someday it might be worthy of an article.