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Punch and Judy: many major league hitters are successful without possessing home run power

Punch and Judy: many major league hitters are successful without possessing home run power

George Vass

THE WIT AND WISDOM OF YOGI Berra and Casey Stengel are justly celebrated and incessantly recited, but no baseball quote is more succinct and to the point than five little words strung together by a master hitter not otherwise eminent for eloquence.

Legend has it that Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler summed up his successful technique by advising, “Hit ’em where they ain’t.”

Admittedly, there’s a wordier version of what Keeler allegedly told Abe Yager, baseball writer for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper: “The way to hit is to keep your eyes clear and hit ’em where they ain’t.”

Take your pick, but brevity being the soul of wit the five-word rendition is the memorable one. What’s incontestable is that Keeler said a mouthful, a precept that’s as valid as when it left his lips more than a century ago.

In our time, it might be wrongly imagined that Keeler’s sage counsel applied to sluggers such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. After all, they’ve succeeded in hitting ’em where they ain’t–that is, over the fence–with previously unmatched abandon during the last few seasons.

What Keeler actually advised was the use of bat control to guide the ball into gaps between fielders, something he did with superlative skill. He hit few home runs, and possibly none by design. You can hardly say the same of today’s “boppers” who let it all hang out, hit or miss.

Just when it became an article of faith that McGwire’s 70 home run total of 1998 would resist being surpassed for decades, as had Roger Marls’ 61 in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927, along came Bonds with 73 in 2001 to again revise the major league record.

Meanwhile, Sosa posted three 60-plus home run seasons between 1998 and 2001 to become the sole player to accomplish that feat while averaging a once unimaginable 60.75 per campaign over a four year stretch.

McGwire, Sosa and Bonds have led the parade, but “sluggers” with 30 or more home runs in a season have become as plentiful as howls of financial distress by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Any player who doesn’t produce at least 20, risks being derided in old-fashioned terminology as a “Punch and Judy” hitter and kept in the daily lineup only if he’s an exceptional fielder.

The home run is the towering colossus of modern baseball, no doubt about it. TV sports “highlight” programs ignore more modest hits or “inside baseball” to focus on showing clips of home runs, one looking pretty much like any other, just as they do on hockey brawls which are mostly jersey-tugging by designated thugs.

Larger and stronger players, smaller and more accommodating ballparks, firmer and “juiced up” baseballs have contributed to rendering commonplace what sportscasters have taken to calling “going yard,” the latest rage in cliches.

Less fastidious, discerning or knowledgeable fans may even believe a “hit and run” is something that takes place in auto traffic or that bunting skill involves shaping a piece of cloth into a triangular banner.

The current fascination with home runs and the idolizing of those who hit them in almost embarrassing quantities tend to overshadow the capabilities and achievements of players who seldom hit one. Not invariably, however, as “puny” hitters occasionally get their due.

Ozzie Smith, who’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown this July all by his lonesome, did produce 28 home runs during a 19-year career (1978-96). But he completed six of his 16 seasons as a lineup regular with “0” in the statistical column labeled HR. In four other seasons, the figure soared to “l” before receding to the familiar goose egg the next year.

What won Smith election to the Hall last January was his status as one of the great fielding shortstops. Yet, it’s interesting to note not only that he out-polled a clutch of formidable sluggers on the ballot, among them Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Dale Murphy and Jim Rice, but that for the second consecutive year a player renowned for defensive skill rather than home run prowess won enshrinement at Cooperstown.

In 2001, Bill Mazeroski–a double-play wizard at second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 17 years (1956-72)–was elected by the Veteran’s Committee to join Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield for enshrinement. Mazeroski’s chances were undoubtedly enhanced by the home run he hit to win the 1960 World Series, but his glove rather than batting ability earned him a bronze plaque, as was the case with Smith.

“The guys who get into the Hall of Fame are the guys who hit the ball out of the park,” Smith acknowledged. “I think my going in is going to reinforce the defensive aspects of the game.”

It should do so, not that fielding has ever been totally ignored in evaluating a player’s career. Or that home run hitting is inexorably influential to the exclusion of all other facets of a player’s performance. For example, Dave Kingman’s 442 home runs are eclipsed in any consideration for the Hall of Fame by his shortcomings as an outfielder and a pallid career (1971-86) batting average of .236.

At a time when home run records are as fragile as vows of eternal amity between players and teams, it’s easy to forget that four-base hits were scarce before Ruth popularized the big bang in the 1920s. He’s credited with ending the “dead ball” era in which Keeler flourished from 1892 to 1910, and during which other celebrated hitters such as Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb were at their peaks.

Until after World War I, which ended in 1918, no shame attached to a player who hit only two or three home runs per season after baseball’s so-called modern era began in 1901. Sam Crawford led the American League with seven in 1907 as did Braggo Roth in 1915. Six were enough for Tommy Leach to pace the National League in 1902.

Not surprisingly, as great a batter as Keeler was (.345 for 19 seasons, tied with Tris Speaker for seventh on the all-time list), he never hit more than five home runs in a campaign. Some seasons he failed to hit any and his career total was only 34. (Six more than Ozzie Smith in the same number of years.)

This paucity of home runs reflects the dead ball era in which Keeler played. The only one ever to link eight consecutive 200-hit seasons, Keeler also holds the all-time record of the highest average by a left-handed hitter with .432 in 1897. Keeler was a small man, at 5-4, but undoubtedly would have wreaked greater long-range havoc with a livelier baseball.

Ed Walsh, star pitcher of the Chicago White Sox “Hitless Wonders” near the end of Keeler’s career, explained the rarity of home runs in his day.

“There was one season, 1908, the year I won 40 games, when our whole club hit exactly three homers in the entire year,” Walsh said. “(Fielder) Jones, the manager, hit one, (Frank) Isbell hit another, and I got the third.”

This puts matters into perspective when comparing achievements in different periods. It even triggers another notion, a sort of modern era “powder-puff” team. It is unlikely to match the popular attraction of a “power pantheon” including Ruth, McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Maris, Hank Greenberg and Mantle, but may have its charms.

After all, fair is fair. If great home run hitters deserve recognition and admiration, so do players who avoid “going yard” with astonishing regularity. It’s not easy with today’s combination of lively ball, whip-like bat and shrunken outfield dimensions. It takes exceptional talent to qualify for consideration to the “powder-puff” team.

In view of the dearth of power production before the Ruthian era, justice and impartiality require exclusion of all potential candidates for such a squad whose careers ended by 1919. The dead ball hampered all players before that.

With that exclusion specified, eligibility to the “powder-puff” squad should include those players who failed to hit any home runs whatsoever or remarkably few despite plenty of at-bats in which to commit some, even by accident.

It’s unnecessary to dip into the distant past to unearth worthy candidates. Some are active even today. And a strong case can be made for second baseman Duane Kuiper, who retired less than two decades ago. During a 12-year major league career (1974-1985) Kuiper hit a single home run in 3,379 official at-bats.

Kuiper’s lone “dinger” came in 610 opportunities in 1977. It was hit off Steve Stone, a 15-game winner that year for the White Sox who earned the A.L. Cy Young in 1980 when he went 25-7 for the Baltimore Orioles. Stone was no run-of-the-mill pitcher, which may or may not enhance Kuiper’s achievement.

“He’s never let me forget it,” Stone laughed on recalling the fatal blow several years ago. “He brings it up every time we happen to meet. The only home run of his career, and it had to come off me.”

Even if Kuiper had gone all 610 at-bats in 1977 without a home run it would not have set a record.

Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville holds the mark with 672 homerless at-bats for the 1922 Pittsburgh Pirates. Like Ozzie Smith, glove-work got Maranville to Cooperstown. Coincidentally, he hit the same number of career home runs as did Smith with 28, though it took him 23 seasons (1912-1935) rather than 19.

Kuiper at least did hit a home run, which puts him ahead of a number of players who failed to produce even one in more than 1,000 major league at-bats.

The homerless “powder-puff” infielders: Irv Hall, second baseman for the Philadelphia A’s (1943-1946), with 1,904 at-bats: Mick Kelleher, utility man for five teams (between 1972-1982), with 1,081 at-bats; Gil Torres, Washington Senators shortstop (between 1940-46), with 1,271 at-bats; and Red Shannon who played for five teams (between 1915-26), with 1,070 at-bats.

Among outfielders, Tom Oliver of the Boston Red Sox (1930-33) stands out, as he holds the overall record for most official at-bats in the majors without a home run at 1,913. Rounding out the outfield are a couple of utility men who were more often in the infield but nevertheless deserve being mentioned. They’re Luis Gomez who played for three teams (between 1974-1981), with 1,251 at-bats, and Tim Johnson, with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays (between 1973-1979), with 1,269 at-bats.

Catcher Roxy Walters distinguished himself on three teams (between 1915-1925) with 1,426 wasted opportunities for hitting a home run.

As for a pitcher to round out this powder-puff team, there’s no shortage of solid candidates since countless starters and relievers failed to hit a single home run during long careers.

Yet, a career oddity might make Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm an amusing choice, even though he did hit one home run. Strangely, it came in his first major league at-bat for the New York Giants in 1952. Wilhelm never hit another in 1,070 games pitched and 431 more at-hats through the end of his career in 1972.

Like most baseball inquiries, this one has unearthed several peculiarities. In addition to the Wilhelm oddity, there’s a career home run quirk involving Tommy Thevenow, a shortstop with five teams (between 1924-1938).

Thevenow didn’t hit a home run until 1926, his third major league season, when he contrived two for the St. Louis Cardinals. Both were the inside-the-park variety. He never hit another during the 12 remaining regular seasons of his 15-year career, thus establishing the still intact major league record of 3,347 consecutive official at-bats without a home run.

Yet, he did hit one more home run, though without affecting regular season records. Thevenow hit a third inside-the-park home run in the 1926 World Series to help win Game 2 over the Yankees in New York. In addition, Thevenow’s tie-breaking single helped decide Game 7, the one in which Grover Cleveland Alexander shut the door on Tony Lazzeri at a crucial juncture. Thevenow was the hitting star of the Series, with 10 hits in 24 at-bats for an .417 average.

So Thevenow, though a decent hitter who batted .286 in 156 games one season, never cleared the fences between the foul lines during his long career of 1,229 games spread over a decade and a half. No one has approached his total of 4,164 major league at-bats without hitting one out of the park.

Strangely, even unfairly, Thevenow’s supreme homerless achievement has been universally ignored. It has never appeared on the numerous lists of allegedly “unbreakable” records despite having a far better chance of surviving than most.

Thevenow deserves better than to be virtually forgotten, and recognition of his homerless achievement might retrieve his name from the dustbin of baseball history. He was an exceptional shortstop, according to Frankie Frisch, the Hall of Fame second baseman who was his double-play partner at one time.

“I had played with some fine shortstops in New York (Giants)–Art Fletcher and the great Dave Bancroft–but I believe Tommy Thevenow might have developed into the greatest of them all if it hadn’t been for the injury (broken leg) he suffered in the summer of 1927,” Frisch is quoted as having said in Peter Golenbock’s book, Spirit of St. Louis.

For the moment, Thevenow’s fragile claim to recollection rests on his non-homer achievement.

As noted earlier, that seems safe from challenge but you can never be sure. Even at present, in the midst of a home run frenzy, a few good men resist the pull of nearby fences despite the proliferation of “bandboxes” such as Houston’s Enron Field, Baltimore’s Oriole Park and Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, etc.

Not that the current situation differs from those of a previous era. There’ve always been players who couldn’t hit home runs or wouldn’t try to as the informal “powder-puff” lineup proves, with selections from almost every decade.

Even this season, judging by what happened in 2001, should produce a fair number of players who keep home runs to a minimum despite more than 400 at-bats.

Almost inconceivably for someone playing in the sluggers’ paradise of Colorado’s Coors Field, Rockies center fielder Juan Pierre restricted himself to two home runs in 617 at-bats last season. He accomplished that despite batting .327, with 202 hits. It’s almost as if he were a throwback to Keeler.

A sportswriter wrote of Pierre: “Like Ichiro (Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners) he relies on getting slap hits and charging down the line.”

Clearly, home runs are not an objective for Pierre. He probably has never heard of Keeler, but uses Wee Willie’s principles with similar if more modest results.

Another in the same category appears to be versatile Placido Polanco, who filled in all over for the Cardinals in 2001. He included only three home runs among his 175 base hits in 564 at-bats as he finished with a respectable .307.

Then there’s a little band of light-hitting, tight-fielding shortstops, along the lines of Ozzie Smith, Rabbit Maranville, Omar Vizquel, Mark Belanger and Luis Aparicio. They buck the current trend toward sluggers at this position such as Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra and the just-retired great Cal Ripken.

Rey Sanchez split last season between the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Royals and in 544 at-bats achieved a home run total of 0. The Mets’ Rey Ordonez hit three in 461 at-bats. Anaheim Angels rookie David Eckstein pounded four in 582 chances.

Among second basemen, the Florida Marlins’ Luis Castillo stood out, with two home runs in 537 at-bats, matching his total in 2000 after a perfect 0 for 487 at-bats in 1999. (An even more noteworthy achievement by Castillo in 2000 was his minuscule total of 17 runs batted in while hitting a robust .334 in 136 games. Previously, the fewest RBI by a second baseman with more than 400 at-bats was Don Blasingame’s 18 for the Senators in 1965.)

Bonds, McGwire and Sosa have led a ferocious assault on what were cherished records and established new ones. Bully for them! As the cliche goes, records are made to be broken and usually are.

Yet, given the current emphasis on hitting the long ball, Thevenow’s homerless streak mark seems almost impregnable, certainly more so than Bonds’ total of 73 home runs. Yet there are no guarantees.

After all, like the poor, the homerless are always with us.

Most At-Bats With

No Homers, Season

Year Player, Team AB

1922 Rabbit Maranville, Pirates 672

1938 Doc Cramer, Red Sox 658

1978 Frank Taveras, Pirates 654

1984 Marvell Wynne, Pirates 653

1965 Maury Wills, Dodgers 650

1971 Larry Bowa, Phillies 650

1977 Dave Cash, Expos 650

1952 Nellie Fox, White Sox 648

1927 Sparky Adams, Cubs 647

1930 Tom Oliver, Red Sox 646

1936 Doc Cramer, Red Sox 643

1920 Milt Stock, Cardinals 639

1936 Roy Hughes, Indians 638

1947 Johnny Pesky, Red Sox 638

1924 Bill Wambsganss, Red Sox 636

1982 Jerry Remy, Red Sox 636

1942 Doc Cramer, Tigers 630

1968 Maury Wills, Pirates 627

1957 Richie Ashburn, Phillies 626

1898 Jesse Burkett, Cleveland 624

1904 Jimmy Barrett, Tigers 624

1926 Sparky Adams, Cubs 624

1976 Larry Bowa, Phillies 624

1958 Nellie Fox, White Sox 623

1892 Arlie Latham, Reds 622

1915 Eddie Foster, Senators 618

1899 Joe Quinn, Cleveland 615

1920 Dave Bancroft, Phils/Giants 613

1989 Harold Reynolds, Mariners 613

1984 Jack Perconte, Mariners 612

1898 Patsy Donovan, Pirates 610

1907 Jiggs Donahue, White Sox 609

1980 Ozzie Smith, Padres 609

1920 Joe Gedeon, Cardinals 606

1946 Red Schoendienst, Cardinals 606

1934 Dick Bartell, Phillies 604

1907 Charlie Hemphill, Browns 603

1922 Ernie Johnson, White Sox 603

1905 Freddy Parent, Red Sox 602

1906 Nap Lajoie, Indians 602

1975 Don Kessinger, Cubs 601

1986 Vince Coleman, Cardinals 600

1987 Ozzie Smith, Cardinals 600

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