Is Mark McGwire the Next Babe Ruth or Josh Gibson?

George B. Yancey


When the smoke cleared at the end of the 1998 season, after the most explosive home run race in the history of major league baseball, Mark McGwire emerged as the all-time single season leader with 70 home runs. The previous record of 61, held for 37 years by Roger Maris, was also surpassed by Sammy Sosa who finished the 1998 season with 66 home runs. Was Mark McGwire's 70 home runs the greatest home run season of all time? For the record books, the answer is yes. But in terms of dominating his peers, the answer would be an emphatic no.

In 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, the average starter hit about six home runs. In 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, followed by Mickey Mantle with 54 home runs, the average starter hit about 14 home runs. During 1998, the average starter hit about 17 home runs.

By comparing a player's statistics to the statistics of his contemporaries, it is possible to get a much better idea of the extent to which a player dominated a statistical category during a given year. A strong argument can be made that the greatest home run season in the history of major league baseball was Babe Ruth's 54 home runs in 1920. The year before, Ruth had set a new home run record with 29 home runs, surpassing Ned Williamson's 1884 total of 27. In 1920, millions of fans showed up to watch him dominate the home run race as no player had before as has since. At the end of the 1920 season, George Sisler was second to Ruth with 19 home runs. That same year, Gavvy Cravath won his sixth National League home run crown with 12 home runs. Ruth's dominance over the other power hitters of his day was mind boggling.

Additional support for Ruth's 1920 season being the greatest of all time can be found in the table below which provides a z-score analysis of the greatest home run seasons in major league history. To get a z-score, the average number of home runs for a given year (e.g., 6.01 in 1927) is subtracted from a player's home run total for a given year (e.g., 60 for Ruth in 1927). The remainder (e.g., 60 - 6.01 = 53.99) is then divided by the standard deviation for home runs for a given year (e.g., 8.49 in 1927). This produces a z-score of 6.36 for Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927. While Ruth's 60 home run season was a great season, the following table indicates that 1920 was the greatest season of all time.

Player               Z-Score     Home Runs       Year     

  1. Babe Ruth         8.30          54          1920     

  2. Babe Ruth         7.48          29          1919     

  3. Babe Ruth         7.20          59          1921     

  4. Ned Williamson    6.80          27          1884     

  5. Babe Ruth         6.77          47          1926     

  6. Gavvy Cravath     6.67          24          1915     

  7. Buck Freeman      6.63          25          1899     

  8. Babe Ruth         6.36          60          1927     

  9. Fred Pfeffer      6.25          25          1884     

 10. Babe Ruth         6.00          54          1928     

Ruth's home run feats certainly stick out when a z-score analysis is performed. In comparison to the z-scores listed in the table above, Mark McGwire's 1998 z-score was 4.36 [(70-16.69)/12.23]. While this is a great accomplishment, it is nowhere near the dominating performances listed in the above table. To obtain a z-score of 8.30 in 1998, a player would have had to hit 118 home runs, almost doubling the previous record of 61. That is basically what Ruth did in 1920. If one player hit 118 home runs, while the next best player remained in the 50 or 60 home run range, he would become a mythical figure. That was the impact that Ruth had on the game of baseball with his dominating home run performances which began in 1919.

The table below provides a list of the greatest home run seasons of all time. The fact that seven of the top thirteen occurred during the past three seasons demonstrates that we are currently in an unprecedented home run era. Some of the possible causes for the proliferation of home runs that have been entertained are a dilution of pitching talent due to league expansion and a declining minor league; and stronger players due to nutrition, weight training and performance enhancing drugs. Whatever the reason for the home runs, Mark McGwire is not alone in conquering old home run records. Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and many other players have also been having Ruthian years lately.

Player                    Home Runs       Year     

  1. Mark McGwire             70          1998     

  2. Sammy Sosa               66          1998     

  3. Mark McGwire             65          1999     

  4. Sammy Sosa               63          1999     

  5. Roger Maris              61          1961     

  6. Babe Ruth                60          1927     

  7. Babe Ruth                59          1921     

  8. Jimmie Foxx              58          1932     

  8. Hank Greenberg           58          1938     

  8. Mark McGwire             58          1997     

  11. Ken Griffey Jr.         56          1997     

  11. Ken Griffey Jr.         56          1998     

  11. Hank Wilson             56          1930     

The purpose of this article is not to diminish the great performances of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey, Jr. over the past three years, but to put them in perspective. One of the great things about the 1998 season was that it sparked an interest in baseball history. Fans were reminded of the many insults Roger Maris had to endure during the 1961 season as he threatened Babe Ruth's record. They also remembered the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick, placing an asterisk next to Maris' record because he took 162 games to get the record, while Babe had done it in 154 games. The asterisk was eventually removed, but only a few years after Maris' death in 1985.

While Maris was made to endure an asterisk next to his record (sic), Josh Gibson never had a chance to be in the record books because of the color of his skin. In 1936, he hit 84 home runs in 170 games. Some of those home runs came in Negro National League games where the pitching was of major league quality, but some of the home runs came against semi-pro teams, so comparisons are difficult. Nonetheless, those who saw both players perform claim that Gibson was equal to Ruth as a home run hitter. McGwire and Sosa's 1998 competition help remind us of the great players of the past.

In James A. Riley's article, "Don't Forget Gibson's Power," he recalls the night McGwire hit his 62nd home run against the Chicago Cubs, breaking Maris' 37 year old record. After breaking the record, "he (McGwire) graciously embraced Sammy Sosa, including him in the spotlight as America celebrated." Then Riley asks, "Wouldn't it have been great if Ruth and Gibson could have been afforded the same opportunity to chase the home run record together?" Let us celebrate McGwire's new record and the enjoyable 1998 season, but before we begin the next century, let us also remember Maris' great season, and the dominance of Gibson and Ruth in their respective leagues during the first half of this century.

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