I was fooling around doing some baseball research on-line the other day and ended up on a site called baseball.com – how do they come up with these imaginative names? It was a decent enough site, and I noticed it had a Top 100 players of All-Time List, so I checked it out. It included major stars from the Negro Leagues, which is nice – a lot of these lists don’t bother. Otherwise, it had mostly the names you’d expect – Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and so on.
So, I’m going down the list, thinking to myself, like Goldilocks: Too high, too low, that’s about right, Eddie Matthews 30th? – interesting, etc. – until I came to number 65, and it listed Roger Connor. Roger Connor? I thought, Who the hell is Roger Connor? There must be some mistake.
I looked him up in my trusty 1976 McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, and, sure enough, there he was. He played first base in the National League from 1880 – 1897, which is a bit far back even for a retro-maniac like me. My knowledge of baseball and players from that long ago is a bit sketchy at best, so no wonder I hadn’t heard of him.
If you’ve never seen the Encyclopedia, it’s the Rosetta Stone, the Holy Grail of baseball books. You can take mine anytime – from out of my cold, dead hands, as baseball sage Bill James once said. Every single player who was ever in the big leagues has an entry, with a few biographical details like place and date of birth/death, nicknames, height and weight, left or right-handed. There’s a statistical record for everybody, with the categories (hits, doubles etc.) across the top, and each individual season below (with teams played for and years listed to the left.) Across the bottom of the box, the player’s career totals in everything are presented.
If a player leads his league in any category in a given year, that number is printed in bold ink. The records of players like Stan Musial and Ted Williams are just covered in bold ink, as you’d expect. Some baseball researchers call this passing the “black ink test” – if a player led his league ten or twelve times in various columns then he was obviously a really good player. Twenty or more, and he’s a Hall-of-Famer. Guys like Aaron and Musial have well upwards of thirty or forty bold numbers.
Anyway, a quick glance at Connor’s stats show that he was one of the best players of his time. He led the league ten times in various important categories like hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, batting average, home run percentage, triples and slugging average (the last two twice.) He hit .318 for his career, with 1620 runs scored, 1078 RBI, 136 home runs. These totals are really impressive when you consider home runs were an extreme rarity back then, and seasons were often less than 100 games. He was also big for his time – 6′ 3″, 220 pounds – people were generally smaller then. Triples were a specialty of his, and of baseball at that time – he hit 233 of them, fifth all-time (at least as of 1976.) He also walked much more than he struck out – a ratio of 1002 walks to 449 strikeouts. I later noticed that he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1976.
Clearly, I should have known of him, but good though he was, I still didn’t see why he would be 65th on anyone’s top 100 list. Not that it matters, because these lists are controversial and aren’t really meant to be taken seriously so much as argued about. But still, I was intrigued, and did some more digging. I looked him up in the Bill James Revised Historical Abstract, and there he was in the player ranking section, 22nd among first baseman, right between Fred McGriff and Mickey Vernon. That’s a bit more like it, I thought. There have been a lot of really good ones.
It turns out the big deal about Roger Connor is that for years he was baseball’s career leader in home runs before Babe Ruth came along.
This is a bit like being the art world’s leading cubist before Picasso, or being the top band of the British Invasion, before the Beatles. Timing really is everything. Still, it’s an accomplishment – I always thought the Dave Clark Five had their moments. Roger Connor is a bit like Pete Best, the drummer who quit the Beatles before they hit it big. DOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
(No, this does not mean that Ringo Starr is the Babe Ruth of rock drumming – c’mon, get serious. That would be Levon Helm. Or maybe B.J. Wilson, of Procul Harum.)
It’s amazing to me that single-seasons statistics were kept and circulated that far back in time. The concept of career stats lagged behind though, and career milestones didn’t become a factor until about 1935 or ’40, when record keeping had developed more. This is why you find players like Sam Crawford or Charlie Gehringer, who both retired just a few hits shy of 3,000 – it wasn’t a big milestone yet. At various points the career home run record before Ruth was thought to be held by Sam Thompson, Dan Brouthers, and Gavvy Cravath, and nobody until 1961 knew that Connor had actually held the record. This, like the Hall of Fame selection, didn’t do Roger a lot of good – he died in 1931. Then again, few people had heard of Pete Best until, say, “The White Album” came out, either.
As usual, all of this is apropos of pretty much nothing. It just goes to show that baseball history is so vast that, even though I’ve flushed hundreds and hundreds of hours down the old bowl reading about it, a player as significant as Roger Connor was not even on my radar. I would never have heard of him if not for the small coincidence of seeing his name on that list. This also feeds my morbid fascination with the phenomenon that somebody who is really, really good at something can remain in a deep freeze of obscurity, while people who are not particularly good at anything – like, say, Lindsay Lohan, or Paris Hilton – you can’t avoid hearing about unless you move to Tibet and join a goddamn monastery or something. I’m seriously considering it.
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