Generally, the ballplayers who hold single-season records in various hitting categories are famous, and rightly so.
Take for example home runs, maybe the most glamorous of these categories. For a long time the single-season record was the 60 home runs hit in 1927 by Babe Ruth, still the most famous ballplayer who ever lived. Just for good measure, The Bambino also holds the all-time seasonal records for total bases, slugging average and extra-base hits. Then along came Roger Maris in 1961, breaking Babe’s record with 61 dingers, earning himself great fame, an asterisk, largely unsympathetic press, clumps of hair falling out and a near nervous breakdown for his trouble. That record stood till the needle-jumpers came along in the late 1990s. Mark McGwire broke the Maris record with 70 homers in 1998, only to be eclipsed three years later when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Their PED use has tarnished these records somewhat, but those two (and Sammy Sosa) are still famous and infamous at the same time.
With RBIs, it’s Hack Wilson with 191 in 1930 with the Cubs, a record that hasn’t been nearly approached and Wilson is famous for this alone. Miguel Cabrera has an outside chance of challenging this with 85 so far, but he’ll have to get awfully hot in the second half to do it, it’s not likely. He may have a shot at breaking Lou Gehrig’s American League record of 184, set in 1931. There aren’t many players more famous than Gehrig and he was maybe the greatest RBI guy of all time, whereas Hack Wilson was kind of a one-off. Gehrig had four seasons with 165 RBI or more.
In hits, the record was held for a long time by first baseman George Sisler, with 257 in 1920; he’s in the Hall of Fame partly because of this. Ichiro Suzuki broke this record with 262 in 2004 and he’s about as famous as any player of the last 20 years, he’s almost certainly headed for Cooperstown.
With batting average it’s a little different, because most of the single-season records are held by guys who played in the 19th-century, when batting averages were generally much higher. The highest seasonal average ever is .438, by Hugh Duffy in 1884. The next two are .435 (Tip O’Neill – not the senator – in 1887) and .429 (Ross Barnes in 1876.) None of these guys is exactly a household name because they played so long ago, although Duffy’s in the HOF. The players who hit for really high averages in the 20th century are all famous though. Nap Lajoie (.426 in 1901), Rogers Hornsby (.424 in 1924), Sisler (.420 in 1920) and Ty Cobb (.410 in 1911.) Ted Williams is certainly famous for being the last man to hit .400 (.406 in 1941.)
This immortality does not extend to the record-holders in triples or doubles, for some reason these guys are like Rodney Dangerfield, they “get no respect.”
It’s somewhat understandable with triples; although they’re the rarest and most exciting type of hit, there’s something kind of flukey and random about them. Generally, a lot of things have to go right for a triple to happen. It helps if the batter is fast, though every once in a while a lumberer like Jose Molina or David Ortiz will belt one and we fall out of our seats. Beyond this, the ball has to be hit hard to some distant corner or nook, the baserunner generally decides to take a gamble and often there’s a small misjudgement by an outfielder involved.
At any rate, the record for triples in one season is held by Owen Wilson, who hit 36 in 1912 with the Pirates. Not many really remember or know of him anymore, although this record has stood for over 100 years and it’s not really close – the next highest total is 31. It’s fitting that the record would be set in the dead-ball era; triples were more or less the home runs of that time. This is mainly because the outfields back then were so deep, it was harder to hit a home run, but easier to bash a triple. Almost all the seasonal leaders played between 1890 and 1915, it’s rare for anyone to hit more than 20 in a season now. In part, Wilson is not remembered much because he had a relatively short career as an outfielder, just nine years from 1908-16, mostly with the Pirates. His 36 triples in 1912 were an extreme anomaly for him, he never hit more than 14 in any other year. Oddly enough he led the league for the only time in RBI with 107 in 1911, when he hit just 12 triples.
Doubles though, they’re different, less flukey, more central to the game. They’re mostly a product of pure line-drive power, more common and important. A guy leads off with a double and he’s put himself in scoring position all on his own, the chances of his team scoring go way up. And if a double is hit with men on base, chances are that most, if not all of them, will score.
The all-time leader in doubles during a season is Earl Webb, who hit 67 in 1931. Naturally, he was with the Red Sox that year, Fenway Park is really just a double waiting to happen. Nobody’s ever heard of him, even his name is faintly prosaic and I only know about him because I’m a stats-geek and like doubles-hitters. This record is being seriously challenged this year by Manny Machado, the great young third baseman with the Baltimore Orioles. I’ve heard this mentioned several times on telecasts and read it in newspapers, as you probably have, but not once has anybody as much as mentioned the name Earl Webb. It’s as if he’s invisible or been banished, expunged from history for some reason.
This doesn’t sit right with me, it’s a long-held record in an important field and usually when somebody challenges one of these, the incumbent record-holder is at least known. You knew Maris was chasing Ruth in 1961, just as you knew Aaron was (in a different way) in 1974. Of course, home runs get a lot more attention than doubles and Babe Ruth is a legend, whereas Earl Webb was just a good, regular ballplayer. Still, he’s held the record for 82 years and is one of only six players to ever hit more than 60 doubles in a season, four of the others being Hall of Famers Joe Medwick, Hank Greenberg, Paul Waner and Charlie Gehringer. That’s pretty good company, and even though Webb’s record was something of a one-off, you’d think the guy would at least rate having his name mentioned.
Part of Webb’s obscurity has to do with when he set the record, at the very height of a spike in offense that began around 1925 and culminated in 1930-31. So many guys were setting records bashing the ball around that Webb was lost in the shuffle, kind of like Hank Mobley was among all the tenor sax heavyweights of the ’50s. Also, Webb was a good, but not great, player, he never led his league in anything else or even approached 67 doubles again, his previous high being 30 in 1930. He had a short, peripatetic career as an outfielder, bouncing between the Giants, Cubs, Red Sox, Tigers and White Sox from 1925-33. He was pretty good though, hit .306 lifetime and drove in 100 runs in 1931. He only played full-time from 1930-32, making his record even more of a long-shot, just another of those instances proving that in baseball, you just never know.
Manny Machado has a really good chance of breaking Webb’s record, he’s actually a bit ahead of schedule. With 38 doubles so far at just past the midway point, he projects to hit around 75 this season, if he can stay healthy and keep up the pace. I’m pulling for him and like his chances. Apart from his own terrific ability, the Orioles are a strong-hitting team and play in a good hitter’s park. Machado bats second in their line-up, behind a very good lead-off hitter reaching base a lot in Nate McLouth and ahead of two dangerous hitters in Adam Jones and Chris Davis, this year’s all-world basher. Manny’s not going to be pitched around much, that’s for sure.
His dominance in hitting doubles is such that the next closest competitor has hit 25, but there’s much more to his game than this. He’s hitting about .320, is second in the league in hits behind only Miguel Cabrera (and easily on a pace for 200), he can run. He also plays great defense at third, is a very smart player who doesn’t seem prone to mistakes or injuries. He seems to have his head screwed on straight, unlike a certain other young third baseman who comes to mind. He turns just 21 this coming Saturday and has made huge strides after getting his feet wet in 51 solid games with Baltimore last year. He’s clearly one of the best young talents in the game, maybe one of the best to come along in some time. I’m certainly excited by him, I like his calmness, maturity and consistency, I’ve always been a sucker for well-rounded players who can run, hit .320 with line-drive power, play defense and keep their mouths shut. And as I said earlier, I love players who hit lots of doubles.
Given how long Webb’s record has stood and how rarely it’s been approached, it will be interesting to see how much coverage and hoopla there will be if Machado gets close. I would think quite a bit, especially with such an old record being challenged by a player in basically his rookie season, it would be quite phenomenal. Machado is really young, but this is in his favour; if he keeps this up he may one day break Tris Speaker’s career record of 793 two-baggers. It’s good to have long-term things to root for, it keeps me from watching reality TV, becoming too disgruntled or pessimistic.
And remember, it’s Earl Webb. Not Speed Webb, Spud Webb, Clifton Webb or Chick Webb, but Earl Webb.
© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.