When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing down Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1998, I remember thinking that the story was a little over-hyped. Part of this was that I was far more interested in the Yankees’ pursuit of records that season, but another part of it was my distance from Maris.
I knew, of course, that it had been since 1961 that anyone had hit 61 homers, and that more than 35 years is a long time for a record to stand. But of course, it wasn’t really 35 years, at least not for me. I was 14 when the record was broken, and I had probably been aware of it for maybe half those years.
Of course as (sometimes juiced) sluggers continue to obliterate home run records left and right, it made McGwire and Sosa’s efforts seem even less impressive with the passage of time.
Meanwhile, it has been just over 40 years since the last Triple Crown winner. In real terms, that’s not much more than the distance from Maris’ homers to McGwire’s. But I’ve been aware of the lack of Triple Crown winners for almost three times longer than the home run record, so it has always seemed a vaguely distant and untouchable record.
Moreover, while one can have an out-of-character season and win a batting title or lead the league in homers or RBIs (Freddy Sanchez, Dante Bichette and Preston Wilson, respectively, to name three recent examples) doing all three requires true talent. All 11 20th Century Triple Crown winners are in the Hall of Fame, and several—Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb—have a strong case for being the best ever at their position.
The first Triple Crown of the 20th Century was achieved by Nap Lajoie in the 1901 American League, the first season the league was extant as a major league. Lajoie had one of the great offensive seasons of all-time, not only winning the batting title with a .426 average (more than 86 points ahead of second), and leading in home runs (14, two ahead of second) and RBIs (125, nine ahead) but also doubles, runs, hits and OPS for good measure. No Triple Crown winner has topped Lajoie’s average since.
Just a few years later in 1909 Ty Cobb hit for a Triple Crown of his own, batting .377 with nine home runs and 107 RBIs. Cobb’s nine homers was a product of the time, of course, even if they seem absurdly low for a Triple Crown total—it would not be enough to lead any league since the NL in 1918. In fact, the home runs combine with Cobb’s 107 RBI to be the fewest for any Triple Crown.
(Being technical about it, Paul Hines won the National League Triple Crown with four home runs and 50 RBIs in 1878, but he played in just 60 games.)
In 1922 and 1925 Rogers Hornsby fired back for the National League. Having missed the title by just two home runs in 1921, Hornsby simply destroyed the field in ’22, hitting 42 home runs, easily topping Cy Williams’ 16. The 1925 Crown made him the first player to win two Triple Crowns, and marked the final batting title of Hornsby six year streak. (He would win one more in 1928 and finished with a career .359 average.)
The only other player with two Triple Crowns is Ted Williams, who won his in 1942 and 1947, which provide neat (if not exact) bookends around his service in the Second World War. Like Hornsby, Williams had some near misses at a third Crown: In 1941 he fell five RBIs short while in 1949 George Kell beat Williams for the batting title in a race where a single additional hit on Williams’ part (or one fewer by Kell) would have given the Splendid Splinter his third Triple Crown.
Williams’ were the only Triple Crowns of the 1940s. That was a change from the previous decade, which might be called the Golden Age of the Triple Crown. There were four different players who managed a Triple Crown those years, including two in 1933, still the only time that both leagues have simultaneously had a Triple Crown winner.
In the American League, first baseman Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig went back-to-back in ’33 and ’34, both driving in more than 160 runs, the only times that has been done in Triple Crown seasons. Foxx also set a new Triple Crown home run mark with 48, only to see Gehrig better it by one the next season.
Meanwhile in the National League Chuck Klein won his Crown in ’33. In 1937, Joe Medwick (.374/31/154) became the NL’s fourth Triple Crown winner. Incredibly, that remains the last Senior Circuit Triple Crown, nearly 75 years on.
Of course, the American League has not exactly been racking up the Triple Crowns either. Mickey Mantle managed the feat in 1956—he remains the last man to lead the entire Major Leagues in the three categories—and his 52 home runs has still never been bettered by a Triple Crown winner.
The Triple Crown enjoyed a brief resurgence in the late 60s, as Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski won back-to-back titles in 1966 and ’67. But Yaz’ triumph would be the last, and the Triple Crown has remained unworn since then.
Since 1967 players have sometimes approached the Triple Crown but serious threats have been few-and-far between. Alex Rodriguez led the league in homers and RBIs in 2007, but fell well short of the batting title. Larry Walker came within 10 RBIs and six points of average in 1997, the nearest in recent memory.
Even Yastrzemski believes someone will eventually knock him from his most recent post, while Joe Medwick died in 1975, so I don’t know how he feels about it. Until someone claims the title, Yaz will continue to reign as the last champion, and the Triple Crown will continue to grow in statue among baseball fans.